How to Fire Someone with Compassion and Respect

A Script for Firing People.

I’m embarrassed to have this script because it’s an admission that I’ve fired people. I wish I’d never fired anyone, that I was the perfect judge of ability and that I was a dream to work with. But I’m not. I sat on a draft of this post for six months, but during that time I kept needing to share the draft with friends who hadn’t fired people before. So, I think it’s a useful read for other managers, who like me, aren’t perfect.

My boss accompanied me to the meeting so that he could be the witness. I was pretty confident that we were doing the right thing in letting this person go. The person on the receiving end, let’s call him Joe, was more of a strategist than a developer and we wanted developers.

I literally wasn’t able to say another word. Eventually the silence became so unbearable that my boss spoke up, told Joe that he was fired, that we wanted to leave on good terms, that Joe was getting a small severance and that we appreciated his contributions. At about that moment, I was able to muster the courage to meekly say, “Goodbye.”

Recently, a friend asked me to help her with her first firing. I thought back to my first time with Joe and to every other awkward firing I’ve been involved in over ten years as a manager.

For me, I always wish I could have fixed the situation, resent that the person I’m firing didn’t fix the situation, and am a little bit afraid that I’m going to end up in a fight. Plus, the more people I’ve fired, the more I realize how hurtful it is to the person being fired.

Seriously, the ethics of firing are messy. On the one hand, businesses are competitive and no one has a right to work at your business. It’s like getting cut from an All-Star team. On the other hand, being fired hurts so bad. It’s a permanent blow to your ego.

On top of emotional tensions, there’s not really any way to salvage the meeting. You’ve presumably already had a series of constructive conversations. You fire someone when you’ve given up on those constructive approaches.

So, based on all of that, my theory on firing is to get in and get out of the meeting as quickly as possible. Below is the script I use based around five talking points. This is the same concept as the talking points you’d have during a TV appearance. They’re a set of pre-decided responses that you pivot all question towards. Never go off script!

I never ad-lib (I’m too nervous to trust myself), but I will repeat some of the talking points multiple times until it’s clear that I’ve got nothing else to say. Repeating the same talking point is a strategy that works in almost any situation where someone is trying to pull you into an argument. I’ll cover the standard “you’re wrong to fire me” argument below.

Deliver the Logistics

For logistics you need to know what company property you want back (laptop and keycard), have their last paycheck, and (usually) offer a separation agreement. The separation agreement requires consideration in order to be valid (i.e. money). But our lawyers usually only attach a nominal sum, like $500, which implies how little importance they place on the separation agreement. If you’re going to offer severance, then you make that a requirement for signing the separation agreement.

The final paycheck requirement implies that you need to get your act together the day before. Theoretically, you could cut the check yourself. But I’d always rather have my payment processor do it so that I don’t screw up the math. That means coordinating with them the day before and having them Fedex you a check.

These are the logistics.

Today is your last day. I have your final paycheck, covering payment through today [hand it to them]. I also have a separation agreement for you [hand it to them]. If you sign the separation agreement, I can give you severance of $X. [show envelope for that check.] I’d understand if you want to review the agreement. The separation agreement expires in X days [usually 5].

Also, could you please leave your laptop and keycard at your desk. We’re not going to ask you to do any more work today.

If you’d like to take your belongings home right now, that’s fine. I’m going to gather the team after this meeting and let them know what’s going on.

Otherwise, you can come back tomorrow morning at 9am and I’ll help you carry your things down.

My feeling is that you’re leaving on good terms with everyone. This is a work day for us, but if you’d like to reach out to people on the team after work hours, I think they’d appreciate it.

Do you have any questions?

You’re basically working through two logistical issues, getting the separation agreement signed and getting their desk cleaned out. The cleaning of the desk is the more emotional of the two. I want the person to be able do that with dignity.

6 Elements of a ‘Good’ Firing

“It’s never a great feeling,” Sweet said. “But it can be done in a way that’s caring and thoughtful and appropriate,” he said. For Sweet, that means affording the soon-to-be terminated employee dignity, letting them go without burning bridges or unnecessarily creating ill will — yet fully expecting the person to be angry and filled with ill will.

“You can be as kind and caring and respectful as possible, and the person being terminated may not experience that,” Sweet said. “But you can do your best to control how [the firing] is perceived by other people in the company, and the sense that you’ve done it with as much care and respect as possible.”

To get an idea of what it takes to fire someone the right way, Built In spoke to Sweet and to Melissa White, an HR knowledge advisor for the Society of Human Resource Management, an Alexandria, Virginia-based association for HR professionals.

What a ‘Good’ Firing Means

It means having stated policies and procedures for firing, just as companies have procedures for onboarding new employees. All companies, even startups, should have the firing procedure “outlined, at the very least,” White said.

The firing procedures should include instructions for documenting policy violations (attendance, lateness, underperformance), when to warn employees of lackluster performance and in what fashion (verbal, written) to convey those warnings. Plus, steps for the day of firing (when to cut off the employees’ access to company systems, when to deliver the news, how to distribute necessary documents such as severance agreements and final paychecks). That way, “everyone’s treated consistently when the tough decision of letting someone go happens,” said White, and this consistency helps insulate companies against legal action from terminated employees.

In most states, most workers (the usual exception being those under contract) are at-will employees, meaning they can leave a company at any time, for any reason, and they can be terminated at any time, for no reason at all. Given this facet of labor law, consistency helps shield companies from discrimination action when the terminated employee falls into one of the seven classes protected by federal law: Race, color, religion or creed, national origin or ancestry, sex (which includes pregnancy, gender identity and sexual orientation), age, disability, and veteran status.

“Using employment at will as a termination justification can lead to [firing] inconsistencies and potential discrimination,” White said. The possibility of a firing being perceived as discrimination “restricts the ability to just terminate someone for any reason,” she said.


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