The humane way to fire someone

Strive to make the process as dignified as possible.
Strive to make the process as dignified as possible.
Image: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
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As a manager the hardest thing you will have to do is let someone go. 

Firing someone will be an event you will quickly move past, but for the other person, the impact could last an entire career. Aside from the fact that termination is one of the areas that companies are particularly vulnerable for lawsuits, as a human being, it’s important to be humane when terminating someone.

You should strive to make the process as dignified as possible for everyone involved. With that in mind, here are some suggestions.

Check your biases

Once you have come to the decision to fire someone, chances are, it’s been months in the making. And if you are doing your job right, you’ve been having direct conversations about where your expectations aren’t being met and the steps for correction. This direct feedback is particularly important as it has been shown that women often unfairly do not get this type of feedback, and it is holding them back in their careers.

When you have formalized your reasons for firing someone, ask yourself, “Are these standards being applied to everyone equally?” This is particularly important if you are using reasons typically prone to bias, such as communication issues, lack of assertiveness, or too much competitiveness. These negative traits are ascribed to women, mainly minority women, more than their male counterparts. 

If the reason for the termination is performance-based, are you equally grading all of your reports for poor performance? If not, then you are also exhibiting bias. And that bias is not only going to perpetuate exclusion in the workplace, but will open your company up to a discrimination lawsuit.  

If you give a reason, don’t make it up

It is not necessary to give a reason when firing someone. If you are managing well, you’ve already been having direct conversations about where your expectations aren’t being met and the steps for correction. So when the time comes, you may not want wish to rehash the obvious.

What you say in the final meeting is very important. The person you fire will be reliving this conversation for a long time, so every word counts. It may be best not to say anything than to search for reasons on the spot. Giving cause opens that cause up to scrutiny and can expose your biases.

Don’t play games

I have seen managers decide to terminate an employee for personal reasons but fabricate performance deficiencies to assuage suspicion of discrimination. They eliminate positions, change infrastructure, and place people on projects guaranteed to fail and thereby justify termination.

These games waste time and can have a lasting impact on the confidence and mental health of the victim. Instead of laying elaborate traps, if there’s a justified reason for firing someone, treat the other person with respect and try to find a compromise in which they can leave on good terms.

Don’t slander them after they are gone

After you fire someone, there may be a lot of questions from within the company about what happened. This is particularly true if the termination was unexpected. How you handle these conversations will be extremely important. You might be tempted to win favor by opening up to people about the details of your decision, but doing so is a very bad idea. If you choose to, anything you say in these conversations should support the reasons you stated in your conversation with the person. But a better approach might be to recognize that person’s contribution and point out that there was a mismatch with the company. Sharing negative comments about that person makes you look bad—and sets the stage for slander lawsuits. The more you say to others, the more you open your company up for damages.

Make special considerations for women and minority groups

Don’t reinforce exclusion of protected groups: Termination can be a deeply painful and embarrassing experience for anyone. You want to make sure that when terminating someone who comes from a group that is typically excluded, you aren’t reinforcing the message that they don’t belong in the industry. They just weren’t a fit for your company. Take the time to have an honest conversation with the person about the positive contributions this person made and where the mismatch was.

Never ever make the decision to fire someone from a protected class in haste. I would even argue that companies should have a diversity and inclusion ombudsman they consult in the pre-firing assessment. If nothing else, the ombudsman could check for biases and help protect the company.

Don’t demonize people: When you have made the decision to terminate someone, particularly if you’ve done so out of anger, it is very easy to demonize him or her. Your anger can cause you to see the person as an enemy that you want out of your way as soon as possible rather than as a person. Women, particularly strong women in leadership, can often be seen as impervious to pain and are easy to demonize. But you should know that for many women, it takes every ounce of courage just to walk into work every day and lead teams of people. Don’t turn their strength into their liability. If you truly want to support women, be extra careful when letting them go. Treat them with respect, be honest, and if this decision is coming out of anger, wait until you are not angry. Firing someone out of emotion is always a bad idea.

Because firing someone can be so difficult, inexperienced managers may rush through the process and leave a trail of destruction in their wake. Leadership should pay particular attention to how these situations are handled, not only because they put the company in jeopardy, but because they have a lasting impact on the values of the company. Everyone around the person who was terminated is watching and forming opinions about how their termination was handled. You might think that once the person is gone, you are out of the woods, but in many cases, you have planted a seed for the people who are still with the company. They will use the event to measure how their personal values align with the values the company exhibited, to understand how they will be treated, and as an example for how they should treat others. Termination is an expression of company’s values; it’s best to make sure they are humane ones.

Cynthia Maxwell led product teams that helped make it possible to use your phone for making video calls, reading books, communicating on Slack, or browsing Pinterest.