A note about this post: None of what follows is a legal opinion; I’m not a lawyer, and I haven’t run this past a lawyer to see whether I’ve held to the letter of the law in my recommendations. I recommend you consult legal advice before terminating any employee, whether for cause or otherwise. My intent here is to spark discussion on how to make terminations more human and humane. I welcome comments and feedback – especially from those better versed in legalities than I am.

“There’s no easy way to say this, so I’ll cut to the chase,” I said. “This isn’t working out.”

He nodded his head, looking me in the eye. “Yeah,” he said, after a pause. “I don’t feel like you’ve seen my best work.”

“I agree. And I believe you’re capable of so much more. But for whatever reason, this doesn’t seem to be the right place for you.”

The conversation continued for some time after that, unstrained, though tinged with sadness. In fact, I think we chatted for a good twenty minutes or so, friendly to the last. I really, really liked this person; still like him, in fact, and look forward to running into him at local tech meetups and other geeky events. He’s brilliant, funny, and my kind of quirky. But he wasn’t a fit for my business.

This goes down in my personal history as the least stressful dismissal I’ve ever had to make. But while it’s not something most people relish, I’ve come to feel at peace with firing people when it’s necessary.

That’s not to say I look forward to it. I can’t eat a bite beforehand, and I don’t sleep very well the night before. I feel terrible before and during, and I don’t do it lightly. But I’ve learned a few things that make it much easier – and more importantly, that I think convey the kind of kindness and respect that belong in any employer-employee conversation.

Before I dive in, it’s worth noting that I’m not talking here about firing an employee who has done something that violates your company’s ethics, or the law. That’s an entirely different matter. I’m talking about firing someone who just isn’t an A player, when you need an all-star team – someone you like and respect, but have come to realize isn’t bringing you the results you need.

That person deserves a compassionate, respectful dismissal. So how do you do that? Some thoughts:

  • Frame it as a poor fit. What you are about to do is sort of the opposite of a sales pitch: Instead of seeking a good fit between needs and offerings, you’re here to explain why their particular gifts are not a match for what your organization needs. It’s not about them being a bad person, or incompetent (even if they seem that way to you); it’s that they don’t bring the capacities you most need at this time. You can respect their gifts all you want, but if they aren’t right for your business, it’s time for them to take them elsewhere. While you may harbour a strong desire to list out all their most aggravating flaws, it is probably not their unwillingness to take their food out of the staff fridge on weekends that has led you to this point. Focus on the big picture: Your needs are X; their strengths are Y; and they’re not matching up.
  • Edit your script. Once you’ve reached a decision to let someone go, it’s not helpful to catalogue every challenge you’ve had with them in the past. Nor is it worthwhile to sugar-coat everything you say, because the fact is, they won’t remember the nice things you’ve said when the outcome is that they’ve lost their job. My preferred middle way is to lay out a couple of relevant observations (“The company needs _______ right now, and that doesn’t seem to be your strong suit”; “We’ve made several attempts to get you up to speed on ______, but we’re not seeing the progress we’d hoped for”), explain how you arrived at your decision, and infuse the whole thing with kindness by letting them know that you’re sincerely sorry it hasn’t worked out.
  • Consider what you can offer them to cushion the impact. I always prefer to offer a generous severance package, and if I’m able, a letter of reference for future employers. I would far rather pay someone out than have them keep working incompetently. And I would rather give them a financial cushion to help tide them over until they find another job. If you can’t write a reference letter without holding your nose, though, don’t offer one. Better to abstain than to compromise your integrity, or deliver a lukewarm testimonial that damns with faint praise.
  • Practise what you’re going to say. You will be nervous – as nervous as if you were giving a speech to a huge crowd. Rehearse your talking points as if you were going on national television. This is a good place to put the anxious, night-before energy, since odds are you’ll be rehearsing inside your head anyway. If possible, find a trustworthy companion to practise with.

The Dreaded Conversation

The conversation itself doesn’t need to be torturous, either. But it does require forethought. I try to follow this routine:

  • Do it early in the day. There are several reasons for this, beginning with the fact that you won’t be able to focus on anything else until it’s over with. So get it done, and you can both move on. Also, there’s no point delaying a fire once you’ve made the decision. Any work they’re doing can and should be passed off to someone else ASAP, because you’ve already established that you don’t have faith in their skills.
  • Do it face to face. If you’re on a virtual team, this may mean you have to travel to do it. So be it. Anything else is pretty much the equivalent of breaking up with a significant other via text message.
  • Cut to the chase. This is not a time for asking questions, giving a ton of background detail, or rambling. There is no preamble that will soften the blow – and once the blow has been dealt, there’s not much more to say. (Not only that, but the more you say, the more room you leave for confusion.) Asking them for input along the way sends mixed messages, because this issue is not up for discussion. I usually acknowledge that what I’m about to say is difficult, and then spit it out.
  • Breathe. Give it a moment to sink in. Let them ask questions if they have any. (Once you’ve delivered the news, they may have clarifying questions. Give them a chance to ask them, and to share any immediate reaction they have, even if it’s an emotional outburst. Try to respond with equanimity, and resist the urge to bring out your laundry list of grievances. Stick to your talking points.)
  • Explain what happens next. They will likely be in a state of shock, so it’s helpful to guide them through the next few steps. You might need them to return any company property (like project documents, etc.) they have in their possession. You most likely need keys, fobs, and/or pass cards returned. Let them know what their final paycheque will look like, and when they can expect to receive it – along with any government paperwork. If they have medical and dental benefits, explain what happens with those.
  • Give them the option to say goodbye. Some will be too upset to want to talk to anyone, and will just want to get out the door as quickly as possible. Others will appreciate the opportunity to say goodbye to their colleagues. (They may frame things more ambiguously, suggesting they quit, to save face – let them. You can set the record straight once they’re gone.)
  • Offer them a ride home. Ask if they’d like you to call a cab – and foot the bill. Or maybe they’d like a friend (or significant other) to come pick them up. Make sure they’ve got a safe way to get home, ideally with some company. (It should go without saying, but just to be clear: I’m not suggesting you actually drive them home.)
  • Once they’ve left, share the news with your team. Try to plan for this, by giving yourself time in the day’s schedule to notify the rest of your staff. In a smaller company, ideally this happens at an all-hands meeting so you can tell everyone at once, face to face. (In larger ones, it’s probably not of concern to all staff, so use your judgment on who needs to know.) Explain in broad brushstrokes how you arrived at your decision, so that it’s clear to them what happened – but refrain from sharing any details. This is a good time to reprise your “poor fit” explanation. You don’t need to justify yourself, though you may feel inclined to; odds are, they were as aware as you are of the mismatch, so while they may feel some shock on an emotional level, they will likely understand the business sense in the decision. It’s also important to maintain consistency, as it’s likely that some of them will maintain friendships with the departed employee, and they will hear his/her side of the story. Let them know you’re available to field questions privately if they have any. Now is also a great time to reassure them that they are appreciated and that you’re not embarking on a round of layoffs (assuming those things are true) – as the news will likely make them a little nervous about their job stability.
  • Breathe some more. Feel that butterfly of liberation unfolding its wings in your belly? That’s a sign you just did the right thing. Now go talk to the rest of your team, change any top-secret passwords, and then go for a walk or something to work the adrenaline off.

A couple of things to remember:

  • Yes, this experience will suck, for both of you. But what sucks more is to continue paying someone a salary when you know in your heart of hearts they are not contributing high value to your company. And frankly, it sucks for them to work for someone who doesn’t appreciate them. This is a rip-the-bandaid-off moment: It stings at first, mightily, and then the relief floods in. (Maybe even, eventually, for the person you fired – let’s hope they find a better home for their skills and passions.)
  • The old adage, “Hire slowly; fire quickly” is excellent advice. Once you catch yourself fantasizing about one of your employees quitting their job, or imagining how much more you could do with someone else in their place, it’s time to seriously consider dismissal. Take it from someone who’s let things drag out: Do not let things drag out. It only makes things worse in the end, because it means you’ve invested more time and energy in the relationship, and so have they, and ending it becomes that much tougher.

There’s no way around it: Firing someone is profoundly unpleasant. But it doesn’t have to be unkind, and the scars can be mitigated by ensuring the process is as human as possible. The key message should be, “This job is not a fit for you” – so that dignity and mutual respect can remain intact.