the dos and don’ts of firing someone (hint: be kind)
Leadership | June 2, 2017
Firing someone is, quite possibly, the most difficult thing to do as a leader. The idea alone can initiate feelings of guilt, sadness, anger, and even relief — because once that struggling employee is gone you won’t need to think about firing them anymore. The tough conversation will be over.
The problem of course, is that you will think about that employee again. You’ll wonder if you let them go too soon, waited too long, or could have done anything different. This of course, as we’ve heard from many leaders, begs a new question. The struggle with firing people is typically not whether or not people should be let go, but more specifically, how to fire someone in a respectful, firm, and thoughtful way.
While we don’t have an official checklist, we do have an opinion — the simplest, most universal do’s and don’ts—on how to let employees go so that you have no regrets.
1. Don’t neglect doing your research. One of the worst things a leader can do is make the decision to let someone go based on nothing but hearsay. Has your team been griping that a teammate — say, Alice — is less productive lately? Go straight to the source. Look up her production numbers, make note of her schedule, and see for yourself what’s working and what’s not. Don’t make the decision to let her go without seriously considering hard evidence. Relying on someone else’s sinking feeling is not a good way to approach letting go of a previously valuable member of the team.
2. Do have a conversation. Once you’ve done your research, approach the struggling team member. Have a game plan in mind. Think about your non-negotiables: things that have to change in order for her to remain with the team. If she always leaves meetings early or routinely misses deadlines, make an action plan for how she can improve. Set some concrete, measurable goals together. And then, ask how you can help her meet them. Check in often, and be supportive. Sometimes, team members disengage precisely because they don’t feel valued — and that can set off a chain reaction that leads to them being let go. Stop that process in its tracks by being extra engaged with a struggling employee.
3. Don’t ignore red flags. Sometimes there are glaring red flags that shouldn’t be ignored. If your team member doesn’t want to give an action plan a chance, or makes it clear that she is unwilling to work together towards a cooperative solution, those are red flags. Sometimes outside circumstances make a job that was once a great fit no longer work. If that is the case, heed the signs. Letting go of someone who will not — or cannot — improve in the way your team needs makes room for someone new and great to join. We’ve also heard from many leaders, “We wish would have let them go sooner.”
4. Do keep it between you — for the most part. HR should be in the loop. You could probably ask your professional contacts for advice on how to proceed. Speak with your own leader, too, to clarify what the expectations are for you in this situation. U.S. News has a short and sweet list of who you should speak to before you make a firing decision. But the one group that’s missing from the listing? Your immediate team. Don’t share your thoughts on letting someone go with immediate team members, no matter how good of friends you are. People talk. And if news gets out, gossip and resentment will spread like wildfire — and your chance to build a better working relationship with your struggling colleague may be lost.
5. Don’t overlook your role. Employees are just people. They have ups and downs. And sometimes, a little coaching and patience is all it takes for a lackluster employee to blossom into a great worker. Instead of making a hasty decision, think about your job—as a manager, and a leader — who bears the responsibility of helping others become their best. Offer support and guidance. Encourage effort. Remove hurdles, and reward results. If you sincerely have given your best and the struggling employee still can’t (or just won’t) succeed, then you know you’ve done all you can.
There is just one last piece of advice we’d like to recommend. When you reach that boiling point of firing someone, it would be much easier to get angry, yell, scream, and rush people out the door. However, we’d like to suggest some advice that will feel better for everyone involved — be kind. “Anyone with empathy can at least understand how losing a job will impact a spouse, children, and others who are blameless,” said John Stieger, the chief marketing officer of Wilke Global, in a Harvard Business Review case study. He’s right. No matter how deserving a person might be in getting fired, you’re still the person delivering the bad news. Be kind.
This post was originally published on Forbes.