How to Fire Someone Humanely

I’m surprised by how often I encounter someone in a leadership role who has never had to fire anyone. I suspect it’s a combination of technology companies generally having pretty flat organizations and also the tendency to have dedicated HR functions in larger companies that insulate people from any “unpleasant business”.

Whenever I’ve had to fire someone, I’ve not slept well the night before. Regardless of the reason, you are changing someone’s life and everyone deserves to be treated humanely. It definitely gets easier after you’ve done it a few times but I hope that it never becomes routine.

Here are my 10 recommendations for how to fire someone humanely:

1.  Immediately set the tone of the conversation upfront.  
It gets super-weird if you have a friendly “how are you?” conversation and then fire someone.  I normally get straight down to business and open with “I’m sorry we have to have a difficult conversation today” before the person even sits down.

2.  Do not use the word “fire”.
The word “fire” creates an emotional reaction – to“fire” someone implies an active act of aggression.  I generally say “this will be your last day”.  That way, it’s not a value judgment or a process – it’s just a fact.

3.  Keep it short.
There is no point in dragging it out.  But, you should at least give the person a short and true reason as to why it’s happening, unless there is a good legal reason not to.

4. Do not get drawn into arguments.  
If someone wants to argue, be clear that this is the decision, it’s already made, that you understand they are angry but that it’s not beneficial for either side to drag it out.

5. Have your paperwork in order and be aware of the local employment law.
For example, here in CA, it’s the law that you have to give an employee their final pay in the form of a check when they leave.

6. Say you’re sorry it didn’t work out.
It helps humanize you in the process. It might seem trite or hollow to say “sorry” but, on balance, I believe it helps soften the blow.

7. Don’t fire someone on a Friday.
You’ll read conflicting recommendations in this regard but I am strongly in the camp that says firing someone on a Friday is a Bad Idea(tm).  It means they are likely to just seethe about it all weekend.  If you fire them during the week, they are more likely to focus on finding another job.

8. Have others ready to cut the cord.
You will need to confide in a small group of people ahead of time so they are cued up to terminate account access, etc as soon as the person leaves the room. Create a list of accounts ahead of time so it is not a rush and nothing gets missed.
You may be tempted to think something like “I’ll just leave Dave’s email on until the end of the day”. Resist this temptation at all costs. Although this may seem counter to the “being humane” approach, the potential benefits in terms of seeming more humane and feeling better are massively outweighed by the downside risk of the person doing something stupid.

9. Treat the person with respect and try to make it as comfortable as possible.
If possible, try to make sure that their team mates are not around to gawp as the person clears their desk, etc. This will again require the confidence of someone you trust.

10. It should not be a surprise.
Firing someone should be culmination of a process of clear and honest communication over weeks if not months.  If you are a good manager, the person on the receiving end should be clear on the gap between what is expected of them and their performance.
With the exception of gross misconduct, if there hasn’t been such a dialogue, you probably shouldn’t be firing the person.

2 thoughts on “How to Fire Someone Humanely

  1. Very self serving article. There is no “humane” way to fire employees – and let’s call a spade a spade here: that is precisely what the authority figure is doing. Or to be more clinical, authority figure is terminating employee.

    The author pays only lip service to the notion this all-powerful figure is merely endeavoring to change someone’s life. For some people, being fired can inalterably change the course of their lives, i.e. they may never work again for pay.

    Which brings me to my final point. Most employees are employed at will, meaning employers can terminate them without notice and for no reason. (In fairness, under at-will employment, employees can quit employers without notice and for no reason.)

    That in any way is not a humane exercise of a one’s power over another person. The power to terminate employees for no reason is simply too much power to vest in employers.

    It is high time to abolish at-will employment. That way employers can truly fulfill the author’s aspirations to humanely terminate employees if indicated.

    1. Thanks for reading and for your comment, Bob. It’s nice to still get comments on pieces I wrote some years ago.

      To me, I think it’s a question of degrees. Perhaps I should have titled this “How to Fire Someone MORE Humanely”. You might be right that it can never be entirely “humane”.

      My intention with this piece was to give inexperienced people some pointers on how to make it less bad for the receiving party. At least here in Silicon Valley, many of the people doing the firing are young and inexperienced. I think few of them think of themselves as “all-powerful figures”. Many of them suffer from extremely anxiety around these difficult decisions and from impostor syndrome.

      As a European who moved to the US, I also find “at-will” employment a little odd. Here in Silicon Valley, it’s common to give terminated people severance, unless their behavior has been egregious. So, in practice at least, the process has roughly the same economic outcome for the person as it would in a country with a legal obligation. But, I appreciate that this is a Silicon Valley-centric view and this is not the case in many other areas and industries.

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