How to Fire Someone Nicely and with Empathy

Some employment relationships simply don’t work out well – sometimes firing an employee is the best choice for your organisation and most compassionate course of action you can take for the employee’s career.

However, many managers dread firing employees simply because of how uncomfortable it is.

Even when terminating a certain employee’s employment is urgently necessary for the safety and well-being of their coworkers or because they have done such an abominable action that firing them is immediately warranted, most managers find the task of telling someone they don’t have a job anymore horrible.

Firing an employee does not have to be a terrible experience, especially if the cause of termination is poor performance and/or job mismatch.

Sometimes, an employee consistently fails to meet your company’s productivity standards no matter how much assistance and guidance you offer them and sometimes an employee is just bored or unsatisfied with their current job responsibilities and/or pay.

Here are four key steps you can follow to fire someone nicely without crushing the employee’s self-esteem, end the relationship on a good note and maybe even help them get started on looking for their next job.

Make sure they see it coming, no surprises

Before you terminate an employee’s employment, give them ample warning that they are not meeting your company’s expectations of them. Do a performance review before firing them. Make sure that your performance review contains written documentation of the employee’s performance.

These documents ensure that the employee is never caught off-guard by the termination and in case they decide to file a wrongful termination lawsuit against you, this kind of documentation greatly helps your legal defence.

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Firing the employee should be your last resort after offering them every possible opportunity to do better. This is why conducting performance reviews at least twice a year is important, so that your employees always know how well they are doing their jobs.

It also gives you the chance to share advice on how they can improve as well as to reiterate your expectations of them. Most employees respond accordingly to an honest performance review and pull up their socks before firing becomes necessary.

The only exception to this is if the cause of employment termination is a serious policy violation such as committing fraud, perpetrating (sexual) harassment/violence or engaging in corporate espionage – in such cases, firing needs to be done with immediate effect, both to stem the effect of the violation and to set a clear example for the remaining employees that certain rules are not to be bent or broken at all.

Keep it short and go straight to the point

Idle chitchat is not welcome here. You need to get straight to the matter at hand, and keep the meeting short and informative. Avoid getting caught up in explaining yourself to protect the employee’s feelings and to ease your own guilty emotions as well. This might sound very cold but it has to be done like this.

Beating about the bush and prolonging this stressful experience is not the way to fire someone nicely.

Let the employee know they’re being fired, when you expect them to empty their office, when you expect them to return any company property (such as documents, keys and/or pass cards), how much severance pay and other benefits they are entitled to and what you’ll say should any of their next prospective employers calls you for a job reference.

If the employee tries to bargain their way out of their termination, you should stay firm and simply say, “I’m sorry, but this is my final decision on this.”

You need to mentally prepare yourself for a wide variety of possible reactions from the employee being fired – some people become upset, some turn cold, others become confused, some freeze with shock and others boil with anger.

Also make sure to have an unambiguous way to end the meeting if it appears to stagnate – a really good one is standing up and offering a handshake (even if they don’t accept it).

However, you should make sure to have a witness present for their termination – preferably someone from the Human Resources department. If you don’t have an HR desk, a trusted employee or your company lawyer will do.

Having a witness in the room who can confirm that your actions while firing the employee were both legal and ethical is crucial should the employee decide to file a lawsuit against you.

Avoid uttering certain statements during the meeting

Many managers get nervous while firing an employee and end up uttering statements that have no place in a termination meeting and only serve to make everything more difficult for both parties. Saying things you don’t mean or that don’t really help the employee is not the way to fire someone nicely.

Here are the top three statements you should avoid saying at any point while firing an employee:

“I’m really sorry to have to do this.” No you’re not – you’re firing them because they are failing the company, so stay on point and don’t give any impression that your decision is wrong and/or unsure.

“I know how you feel.” No, you don’t. You just want to make yourself feel better. Even if you have ever been fired, you have no right claiming to know what this employee feels – everyone’s life is different.

“You’re very valued here.” If so, then why don’t they have a job there anymore? Such mixed messages only serve to confuse the already emotionally unstable employee and leave you open to a lawsuit.

How to fire someone

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Avoid humiliating the employee in the process

Losing a job is already crushing enough, you don’t need to add to it with humiliation. Treat the employee with dignity by firing them in private, behind closed doors.

You could even ask the employee being fired to stay behind after their coworkers have left so that they don’t have to face their colleagues in a state of emotional distress after leaving your office (or wherever you do the termination from).

Giving the employee this kind of room to avoid embarrassment is key if you want to fire someone nicely. Also keep in mind that employment termination doesn’t just affect the particular employee being fired but the rest of the employees too.

People get nervous wondering if they are going to be next – if this is just a one-time termination or a company-wide layoff is coming to sweep everyone. Also, the fired employee has relationships with other employees who empathise with them despite what they are being terminated for so firing them in front of everyone can cause office morale to significantly drop.

In Summary

There’s no avoiding it: firing employees is a necessary part of management no matter how unpleasant it may be. However, it doesn’t have to be a task void of all kindness just because a work relationship is being ended.

Learning how to fire someone with empathy can go a long way, you can still fire someone nicely and with empathy, leaving the mutual respect intact.

Gerald Ainomugisha

Gerald Ainomugisha

Gerald is a freelance writer with a pen that is keen for entrepreneurship, business and technology. When he isn't writing insightful articles on employee engagement and corporate culture, Gerald can be found writing for a number of media outlets.