How to make firing people suck less for them and suck more for you

They’re only this smooth at firing people in the movies

Maybe if you fire a hundred people, you’ll eventually get used to it. But I doubt it. Firing people is horrible. Nothing has stressed me out more in the past twelve years of running Basecamp.

Of course, however hard it is to be the one to fire someone, it’s endlessly worse to be the one fired. I’ve only really been fired once in my life, but the experience scarred me just the same.

Twenty years later, I remember almost everything — the number of steps up to the entry, the messy desk, the half-empty coffee mug. Stronger still, I remember running the full range of emotions: Shocked, angry, disappointed, sad. The utter humiliation of having to go back into the office because I forgot my goddamn bus card, as I couldn’t get home without it.

It’s not a stretch to say that experience helped shape the desire to run my own business. To have partners, but not bosses. All this, solely from being fired from a manual labour job at a relatively young age, which had basically zero practical consequences for my life (beyond the emotional anguish!)

Yet while I can extrapolate from that dreadful day, and imagine what it might feel like to lose my job if it was my career, if I had real bills to pay and maybe a family to feed, it really is just that: A mental image.

But it’s exactly that mental image that makes contemplating firing someone so haunting. Telling an employee that their time at your company is up is the ultimate power of the boss. It’s not to be taken lightly. It won’t be felt lightly.

And still, sometimes firing an employee is just what needs to be done. There are all sorts of good reasons this person in that job at our company just isn’t working out.

That’s no verdict on what that very same person might do at a different company or in a different job. Excellence is highly situational. You can completely suck in one environment and be an ace in another. It’s incredibly important for both parties to remember that.

Because while it’s possible that someone is blissfully and utterly unaware that things aren’t going well, that’s usually not the case. Most of the time, there’s at the very least some sense that things aren’t great. It may still be a shock that “things aren’t great” turns into a person getting fired, but at least the seed is there.

The best case scenario is when the employee and the boss are in total sync about where the relationship is going, and, despite best efforts on both sides, it just isn’t. So termination becomes the natural conclusion with no drama.

That scenario is probably as likely as the blissfully unaware one is. Yes, it does happen, and when it does, that’s great. But don’t plan on it. Expect that this is going to be traumatic and be positively surprised if it isn’t.

Here are some of the key considerations we’ve been taking the few times we’ve had to fire someone:

Minimize the time for fake smiles

There’s never a great time to fire someone, but delaying the execution only makes it worse. Every interaction between when the final decision has been made and until its carried out is a painful charade. Humans leak emotions like sieves, so the longer you have to carry on the fake pleasantries, the worse the sense of humiliation or even betrayal will be.

The best timing is the uncomfortable right now. Don’t drag and dread it out.

Come prepared

Since this is generally a really stressful situation, come prepared. It might not seem as natural to read an opening statement that clearly spells out a) you’re fired, b) these are the terms we’re offering, and c) this is why, but it’ll ensure you considered and covered all the important bits.

Give the person a separation agreement that includes all the details, as it’s not unlikely that the shock will deafen their memory. Tell them to read it thoroughly, to consider a lawyer’s assistance (they are usually giving up certain rights to take the severance payments and should understand all the terms), and to return it signed only after they’ve considered everything.

Be so generous it stings

If you’re firing someone because the company is in poor repair, you might not have a choice but to send someone packing with the bare minimum. But if you’re firing someone because you’ve decided that things aren’t working out, you should be so generous that it stings.

It doesn’t matter what you think this person could or should have done while there was still time. Unless they’re going out on gross negligence or malice, it’s mostly on you. It’s on you for not vetting better, for not following up better, for not directing better. The buck stops with the boss. Every personnel failure is ultimately your fault. Just own that.

Then consider severance consummate with that responsibility. At Basecamp, our general rule has been one month of pay for every year of hire. So if someone has been with the company for three years, that’s three months’ worth of pay, with a minimal number of strings attached in the separation agreement.

Don’t leave the door open

It’s a natural reaction for someone getting fired to see if there’s a way to prevent it from actually happening. Don’t invite hope where there is none. If you’re not sure whether someone should be fired, then don’t fire them! Find another way to give a second or third or fourth chance.

Only call that meeting to fire someone if the decision has been made and it is final. Then make that astoundingly clear right away. When someone is getting fired, it’s not a place for casual conversation. Treat the moment with clarity and dignity. Don’t set a false sense of security by opening up with small talk or a smile.

Decency of trust

Just because you fired someone doesn’t mean they’re instantly untrustworthy. They clearly earned your trust enough to be hired and they were working under that trust until minutes before they were fired. So the corporate trope of having their desk cleared out, access to all systems immediately revoked, and someone escort them out of the building is not only unnecessary, but antagonistic.

Again, yes, sometimes people are fired for cause where precautions should be taken. But most of the time that isn’t the case. Treating someone with instant mistrust because they no longer work for you is just needless salt in the wound.

Be amicable, be decent.

Inform everyone else

When people just disappear from the company with no warning and no explanation, everyone else is just going to assume the worst. Am I next? Are we going out of business? Was this because of that one time where that person said or did this?

If you leave a void by keeping the reason private, it’ll quickly be filled with uninformed stories. How is that going to help anyone? It’s better to be reasonably honest without any needless dwelling on the personal. But the rest of the company should know, and quickly, that their colleague is out.

That’ll surely be an uncomfortable thing to write, but firing people isn’t supposed to be easy! It’s supposed to be hard and dreadful, lest you lose the respect for how traumatic it often is on the other side. Which is why you shouldn’t try to excessively euphemize it either. Don’t tell others that someone just fucking graduated when they really got fired.

Learn from it

You did someone wrong for it to come to this. The company did something wrong. Something could surely have gone and should have gone better, and if it had, maybe you wouldn’t be in this situation. It’s critical that you and the company learn from every, hopefully rare, instance where someone gets fired.

It’s hard to collectively learn something if you don’t diligently try. So please try. Have a proper retrospective. Accept the blame, or at least the bulk of it. It’s so fucking easy to just lay it on the employee, and it’s almost always the easy, wrong way out of a hard look at yourself, your policies, and your company.

Again, it’s okay to feel like a failure to some extent because of this. Firing people should be expensive, stressful, and at least a bit personally embarrassing, if not outright humiliating. You want the scars to remind yourself of how to hire and be better the next time.


Enjoy this post? Get SvN updates delivered straight to your inbox.

No spam, no fluff — just one email every week with the latest posts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *