Firing right


In the past I’ve talked a lot about hiring and my approach to it. I rarely talk about or see any posts about hiring’s corollary: firing.1 It’s an area I’ve messed up more than once and I’ve learnt some very painful lessons from these experiences. Because, just as it’s critical to hire right, it is also critical to fire right.2 Obviously you hopefully never want to be in the position to fire someone but sadly it’s something that every manager needs to know how to do.3

Firing someone right is also critical because it is one of the most emotive actions you can take both personally and professionally. No matter the reason you’re firing someone, it’s horrible to see how this act affects the career and self-esteem of the individual involved. Firing is also personally demoralizing and often leaves you asking if you’re really qualified to lead if the situation has gotten to the point of a firing. As a result everything you can do to minimize the impact on your employee and yourself is a real benefit.

There are three broad reasons you’re going to fire someone.

  • Performance

A performance firing results when an employee isn’t doing their job. You should be unhappy about this. Why? Because it’s almost certainly your fault. Employees rarely fail without their managers failing them first.4

  • Culture

Cultural firings are breaches of policies and rules, i.e. a code of conduct violation or a breach of a financial or ethical nature. These types of firings are always toxic. They often involve legal issues and can be time consuming and potentially expensive.

  • Operational reasons

Operational firings are usually when things go wrong with your business. For example, if you want to make payroll and keep your business going you’re going to have to terminate some employees. These firings usually have a massive morale cost and can shatter organizations.

Obviously there is going to be a different path for each reason but there are some simple guidelines you should apply in all cases:

  1. Don’t be ruled by emotion. Firing someone induces huge anxiety in good managers. Adding this anxiety to an already emotionally charged situation can lead you to make very bad decisions and say things you will later regret. Make sure, no matter how anxious you feel internally or how highly charged the situation becomes, you remain calm, cool and collected. Losing your temper is always going to be counter-productive.

  2. Be honest and transparent with the employee. Start your meeting with the employee by being totally upfront: “This is an exit meeting, we are firing you”. Tell them clearly why they are being fired and make it clear what led you to the decision. Make it clear the next steps are:

  • When is their last day?
  • What are the severance arrangements, if any?
  • What resources are available to the employee from HR?
  1. Firing someone, for anything other than operational reasons, should not be a surprise to the employee. Any firing should be the culmination of a process. The process should clearly document the performance issues and have clear milestones for resolving those issues. That firing will be the consequence of failing to resolve the issues should also be clear.

  2. Be honest and transparent with others in your organization. Losing a colleague is not only demoralising, it’s downright scary. For many employees their first thought is: “Am I next?” Obviously you can’t always share everything about a firing, there are privacy and legal issues for example, but you can be as open and reassuring as possible.

Even with these guidelines firing is never going to be easy. Indeed you should really question your suitability as a leader if you find firing is an easy task that you can conduct without being emotionally impacted by it. I know I’ve certainly made mistakes in performance management and had interactions around performance and firing that I remember with considerable regret. So whilst I hope these guidelines help in some way, if you approach firing by being genuine, compassionate and honest then you’ll hopefully make a painful experience a little bit easier.

  1. To make it totally clear is that I am not a lawyer, employment or otherwise. Nothing in this post should be construed as legal advice, employment laws vary greatly between jurisdictions and you should always consult an appropriate legal representative before taking any action. ↩︎

  2. Because firing is such an emotive topic I am also sure that not everyone will agree with my approach and this post very much has a YMMV component. ↩︎

  3. I always use “fire” or “terminate” rather than the more slippery euphemisms. It’s better to be direct, clear, and unambiguous about what you’re talking about. ↩︎

  4. This is probably a blog post in its own right. ↩︎