I don’t think a “best way” to fire someone exists — but here’s a stab at trying to do it with dignity, grace, and respect.
I fired someone last year.
Ugh. It was gut-wrenching. I’ve fired people before — but it doesn’t matter how many times you do it, it always feels downright terrible.
To prepare for the difficult conversation, I asked a few mentors for advice. I also posed the question to The Watercooler in Know Your Team, our community of leaders from all over the world, to learn how others handle letting someone go.
From almost 1,000 CEOs, managers, and executives, I compiled six recommendations on how to handle firing someone with dignity, grace and respect that I thought I’d share with you here:
Choose a conference room that’s away from the team, ideally that’s close to the exits. Or, if you’re a remote team, make sure you’re in a place that’s private when you make your Skype or Google Hangout call. Make sure your phone is turned off and door is closed so you’re not interrupted. And never ever do it in a public place, like a coffee shop.
The “optimal” time doesn’t exist.
Everyone has different opinions about whether you should let someone go on Friday end-of-day, or earlier in the week — but really, it’s moot. Once the decision has been made, it’s best to let the person go as fast as possible. There never is an “optimal” time to fire someone. Don’t let time or day or day of week become an excuse to delay. The longer you wait, the more your interactions with that person become disingenuous and uncomfortable in the days and hours leading up to you telling them they’re being let go.
Cut to the chase.
Don’t dawdle or make small talk. Your opening sentence should be delivered in 5 seconds or less. For example, one Watercooler member suggested you say, “Claire, I’m letting you go effective immediately.” Be clear, succinct, and direct. Nothing you can say will soften the blow so don’t try to sugar coat your message or ask about how a project is going, etc.
It’s a decision, not a conversation.
Don’t get drawn into an extensive conversation or argument — it’s a decision that’s been made, not something that’s up for debate. Make that clear. One Watercooler member suggested that after stating that you’re letting this person go, your second sentence should articulate terms (severance, impact to equity, etc), and your third sentence should indicate this is non-negotiable. Listen to their reaction, answer questions as you see fit, but try not to get pulled into defending your decision for hours on end.
This sucks for you, but sucks way worse for them.
Another Watercooler member cautioned that you may be tempted to offer comfort by saying something like, “This is a difficult decision” or “I really don’t want to do this.” But the last thing you want to do is indulge and pontificate on how you’re personally feeling. To be frank, the other person doesn’t care how difficult the decision was for you — you made it, regardless. And, if you really didn’t want to do it, you wouldn’t have. Of course it sucks for you, but that’s not for you to impose on the person you’re firing. Find someone else to confide your pain in, and keep in mind that the decision you’re making is on behalf of the team, the company, and their best interest.
Communicate the decision to your team with grace.
Ask how the person being let go prefers to break the news to the team. Their preference might be to send a farewell note themselves, or personally tell the team members they are closest with. Other times, they’ll ask you to simply relay the news for them. If it’s the latter, share the news with respect and mindfulness. Even if the person was fired for performance reasons that were 100% their own fault, thoughtfully consider what is appropriate to disclose. Imagine if the person fired were to overhear you sharing the news with the team: Would they feel it was fair? Use this as a benchmark for how to communicate the decision to your team.
No matter how you do it, letting someone go is one of the hardest things to do as a leader. There truly is no “best way” — but hopefully these tips will be helpful should you face this situation in the future.
I know it’s helped me.
Claire is the CEO of Know Your Team – software that helps you become a better manager. Her company was spun-out of Basecamp back in 2014. If you were interested, you can read more of Claire’s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog.