Have to Fire Someone? Here’s How to Do it and Avoid Getting Burned

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Jun 11, 2015

Whether it’s AOL CEO Tim Armstrong firing an employee in the middle of a conference call, or British entertainment company HMV firing the employees that ran their social media before changing their official Twitter password, it’s no secret that terminating employees can get ugly.

But, it doesn’t have to be. While firing will never be nice for either party, learning how to do it properly makes things easier for everyone. A poorly executed offboarding process can cause frustration and hurt feelings, but a well-handled one presents a growth opportunity for both parties.

Don’t wind up on the list for “Worst Public Firings Ever;” keep these guidelines in mind to handle the termination process with grace.

Exercise discretion

It’s not the Middle Ages — employees shouldn’t be metaphorically led out in stocks for the whole village to see.

Rather than giving an employee the not-so-good news in the middle of the cafeteria or another public setting, choose a private venue for the conversation. Make sure the room is sufficiently quiet, too — you’ll want to let the employee digest the information without distraction and ask questions as they come up.

And this should go without saying, but you should never under any circumstances take to venting your frustrations about an employee being let go on any social media platform; there’s no quicker way to damage your brand than making poor choices on an account linked to your company.

While discretion is important, transparency is equally vital. Relevant team members should be informed if they are no longer going to be working with someone, and they deserve to know why (or as close to why as you feel comfortable getting). If you don’t explain why someone was let go, employees will simply assume that they know.

Communicate openly

As a necessary precursor to open communication, document everything that led to the employee being fired. It sounds crass, but in a society that lawyers up as frequently as ours, concrete evidence is your best friend.

But beyond protecting you from potential lawsuits, documentation is key in informing the employee being fired where his or her actions failed to align with company expectations. And with every pattern of issues you notice during the documentation process, you need to have had conversations with the employee.

If you’ve done a good job of communicating the performance issues over time, the offboarding conversation should never come as a surprise.

When you do finally arrive at the offboarding discussion, make sure that the employee knows exactly why he or she is being let go without having lingering questions or confusion. Terminating an employee without a solid and detailed explanation can cause anger and bitterness. On the other hand, a well-informed employee will harbor fewer negative feelings and is more likely to grow from the experience.

Don’t monopolize the conversation

Communicating openly is one thing, but blathering on so much that the employee can’t get a word in edgewise is something else entirely. Say what you have to say and be thorough, but once you’ve made your points clear, it’s time to hear the employee out.

Hearing feedback from departing employees can be hugely beneficial. It’s easy to blame the other party entirely when you fire somebody, but the truth is that you are the one who hired him or her.

While the employee may have failed to measure up to your expectations, it’s possible that you’ve failed to measure up to theirs. Figuring out what went wrong and why can help prevent the same thing from happening in the future.

In doing so, make clear to the employee that the conversation is taking place in a safe space where he or she can express opinions honestly. If the employee being let go feels too intimidated to give genuine feedback, you’re missing out on a huge opportunity to address and correct issues within the company.

Keep it civil

Offboarding conversations can get heated — emotions are running high and, oftentimes, people take criticisms of their work performance personally. Even if conflict arises, though, you can’t risk burning any bridges.

Once an employee is gone, your competitors might be eager to hire someone with firsthand knowledge of your company — or worse, rudeness might encourage him or her to share insider secrets or spread malicious rumors. Some disgruntled former employees may even take to Twitter or Glassdoor to broadcast their negative experience with the company, which can seriously damage your employer brand.

Even if you don’t fear retribution from an employee, keeping a level head will benefit your company if you ever want to work with this person again in the future. People can change and grow over time — at some point down the road, a previously let go employee may end up being a good fit. Expressing hostility only reflects back poorly upon your company.

Minimizing the fallout

Remember: relationships can last long after people stop working together. You never know where you — and the employee being let go — might end up down the line.

While firing someone can be difficult, there are definitely ways to minimize the negative fallout. Keep your focus on maintaining composure in the moment, and use the experience as a lesson in the future. Like it or not, firing is a necessary evil — and you need to handle it professionally to ensure that your employment brand thrives.