How To Fire Someone: The 5 Dos and Don’ts of dismissing an employee in the modern workplace

At some point in your managerial career, you will be faced with some very emotionally and mentally difficult situations. One of the hardest is firing an employee. Obviously, there would be fairly extreme circumstances in the lead up to this and potential processes and procedures that are required. This article deals with some of the soft skill aspects and planning you should consider when going into this type of discussion.

If you have been a manager long enough you would likely have had to let an employee go. The reasons could be related to misconduct, performance, inappropriate behaviour, illegal activity… the list goes on and there are plenty of reasons.

The few I have dealt with personally revolved around very poor performance, bad company fit leading to a lack of performance through poor comprehension to follow direction and on a couple of occasions aggressive and inappropriate office behaviour.

None of the interactions during the process of letting someone go were easy or pleasant, but all of them were necessary. They were necessary for the productivity of the teams and the company, they were necessary to set examples of boundaries and conduct for everyone and they were necessary for my own ability to manage the remaining team with confidence and knowing I could invest my energy and time where it was best utilised.

Also, this isn’t like the movies from the 80s where irate managers would barge in yelling at the top of their lungs, “You’re fired!”. The modern workplace has brought a level of education around emotional intelligence, mental health and employee rights which are very important and morally correct in today’s work environment.

I remember in each and every case the absolute fear and nerves I faced before going into each discussion. I had already made the decision but as I keep mentioning that doesn’t make the process easy to handle. This isn’t about how you decide to let someone go. This is about what you need to consider once that decision is made.
Here are some of the things that I can share with you that I believe are definite do’s and don’ts when it comes to the final countdown.

The Dos and Don’ts of Firing Someone

  • DO plan the meeting time strategically – Plan when you want to have the meeting. Set it at a time of day that makes complete sense. Consider when other people will be in the office when that person usually arrives. What the best option would be to minimise any disruption to others should it occur. Also, plan it for a time of day that gives you enough time to be ready and enough time to decompress. If that means a time of day when you can leave without too much visibility after yourself, a time when you can go home potentially and decompress then plan for that. If it means giving yourself the weekend so this is towards the end of the week then do that. Put some thought behind this process instead of winging it.
  • DO plan what you want to say and how – Be prepared on what you want to say and how you want to say it. Things may be very easy and civil in terms of responses or it could get very uncomfortable very fast. Rather than try to think of every hypothetical conversation, steer your conversation back to the goal of what you want to say and how you want to deliver it.
  • DO be respectful throughout the meeting – put your emotional reactions aside. Bar any physical or aggressive physical behaviour towards you it is vital to remain calm and respectful in your communication. If you can remain cool, calm and collected it will help you focus on delivering the message you need to and sticking to the script to keep things under control. Empathise with their situation as much as you can and keep it about what is best for both parties in the long run, which is why it’s likely ended up in this situation you both face now. If your workplace is mature enough to have access to Employee Assistance Programs or support services ensure you provide this information to the former employee as well. Letting someone go doesn’t mean you don’t care.
  • DO make sure all other parties are clear of their roles and the meeting outcomes – it is so important that if anyone else is in the meeting that you have prepped them clearly what the meeting will be about and what the outcomes are likely to be. If the party is supporting the employer during the meeting then arrange this conversation well in advance. If the party is a support person for the employee ask for 5 minutes before the meeting start to discuss what is about to be discussed and make sure their role of support is clearly defined within the boundaries of what would be acceptable during the meeting. Consistency and clarity are very important in such tense and stressful situations to ensure that the right communication and fair treatment is delivered throughout the process.
  • DO take some time for yourself – unless you are fairly unemotional, heartless or Ryan Bingham (George Clooney’s character from the movie Up in the Air) you will more likely than not be emotionally affected by going through such a process as a manager. People often think about the employee who was just let go, which is right, but by the same token, it isn’t easy for the firing manager. Just as you should care for the former employee’s well being you should care for your own. Take some time off for the day at least, seek out Employee Assistance or support if you need it. Do this so you can move on with your job, the business and your life.
  • DON’T palm it off or avoid dealing with it – do not palm off the act of dismissal. This should be a decision as a manager you own and you should be comfortable to deliver it. Bar any HR related, legal or safety reasons you should be the one to deliver the message out of mutual respect for the person being let go. Don’t avoid dealing with it. The longer you let the situation drag on the harder it will get and the more anxiety will build for both the manager and the employee. Sure go in prepared, but the key is to go in.
  • DON’T go in alone – you should always have someone else, a neutral party such as HR or another more senior manager (or equal level) present during the meeting.
    These days the person being dismissed is sometimes encouraged to bring a support person of their own into the meeting. I’ll be honest, this to me isn’t always ideal as depending on who this is it can add tension and awkwardness to an already heightened situation. I’m not sure if it is now in some places a legal requirement but as a manager, I have been through a dismissal with a support person for the party being dismissed and it did not help the situation at all. If anything it just added a lot more complexity to the conversation.
  • DON’T add elements of doubt to the conversation – being clear in your communication is listed in the dos. Re-enforcing the importance of clarity it is pertinent to mention that adding any doubts about the outcome of the meeting or the avenues of next steps is anything other than both parties parting ways will only add confusion to the employee and you, the firing manager. This includes any parties that might be with you. Again mentioned in the do’s is that any party you may bring in with you should be clear of their role and the agenda of the meeting. You might question why I would even mention this but I have been through a situation where the approach taken by HR seriously added confusion to all parties about what the dismissal meant and what options were open for the party being dismissed. This was because we hadn’t discussed the outcomes with 100% clarity prior to the meeting.
  • DON’T back out or back down – it might sound crazy to say but it is a thought that could cross your mind. You may be talked out of going through with the dismissal or talk yourself out of it depending on what is being said or heard during the meeting. It is easy to be swayed by a sob story or a diversion. I am not saying do not be empathetic, you should be but what you shouldn’t do is second guess why you came to this decision. If you are at this point, you should have already exhausted methods and means to make this engagement and working relationship work. This is now the point where it has become untenable and irreparable so do not go back. Focus on getting through this and doing what in the end will be the best for all parties.
  • DON’T carry this with you – some people are great at letting things go and moving on. This is important for your mental health as well as the health of the business. You’ve made a decision or the business has and once the process is over you must move past it and move on with making plans for the future. The same advice can be given to the former employee. This isn’t a reflection on them, or you necessarily, it’s simply a circumstance where the role didn’t fit the person. So make sure you are able to keep performing in your role and provide the support to the remaining staff.

    Most of all look after yourself before, during and after what could be one of the toughest things you’ll face in a management role.

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