How to Fire Someone, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Well first, how not to do it:

A reader returns to the real world:

What a fabulous note! And so needed, as many manager and business owners fear this type of conversation (guilt, embarrassment, etc) and consequently become heavy handed in its execution, especially if they think the Deutsche Bank approach is the right one, as this is the one that the “big” boys adopt!

I have always thought that if you value your reputation as an employer, then having someone you laid off speak well of you, and even be willing to return at some point in the future, is the best testimonial you can ever gain. Consequently, quality people will want to work with you, because they know that they will be treated well and with respect even if things go bad for any reason.

I have fired many people, both for business redundancy reasons and for failure in the job role, and many have thanked me for doing so.  Well, not thanked me for firing them!  But thanked me for the way in which I fired them—with truthful feedback, respect, and helping them find better roles. More managers and business leaders need to know this is possible!

A less enthusiastic reader:

Gosh, I must say, I didn’t learn much from that note. But the topic caught my eye, since terminating someone is a very important act in a work environment.  Here are a few of my thoughts on how to fire someone.  

I find the most important thing to do when telling someone we are terminating his/her employment is to “be human,” to be empathetic. Think about what it must be like to be on the other side of the table. Never hide behind convenient gibberish phrases. Be honest. And don’t rush the conversation. I take as long as is needed, as long as the other person wants, and offer follow-up meetings as necessary.    

There is the official mumbo-jumbo that must be said, but I find that is only a small part of a much more important conversation(s). Often, termination is a shock—sometimes unavoidably (as in reductions in force). And it can take some time and be tricky to explain why this is happening.  

Being fired can be akin to being served with divorce papers; even though you knew there was trouble, you didn’t think it would come to this. As the manager, my job is to help my employee help handle that shock, explain the situation as best (and honestly as) I can, and to talk constructively about what can be done, not just deliver the official line. I try to do these meetings one-on-one. If I do have someone from HR/legal with me, I always take the lead, and they support only when needed. The conversation is my responsibility, not theirs.

As a fellow human and someone who is most responsible for this employee, it is my obligation to help if I can. Short of termination for gross wrong-doing, I have always offered to help in any way, and it is gratifying when I can. When allowed to help, I have even found people new jobs—better jobs!—through my own network.  That isn’t always possible, but when it works, talk about turning a bad into a good.

Firing someone sucks. It takes a piece out you every time you have to do it. But if you accept responsibility greater than reading the company policy, put yourself out there with the employee during and after the meeting, and act like a fellow human with empathy and kindness, you have done the greater thing—for yourself, the employee, and the organization.

Have a different kind of story about firing someone? Email