Firing people stinks. There’s just no two ways about it. Maybe the soon-to-be ex-employee deserved it. They were incompetent or they stole or they set the store on fire—again. Maybe you hated that person’s work ethic, their lackluster production.
You have to take the high road—people always remember how they are let go. A bad word or smeared reputation, deserved or not, can haunt your business more than you think. Think of ending a business relationship as you would end a personal relationship—with a combination of directness, sincerity and care. Do all that with absolute resolution and an unwavering commitment to end it.
Here are some tips to letting down a soon-to-be-former employee with grace and dignity.
1. Do all firing out of sight
This should go without saying, but firing people in front of others is a no-no. In fact, try to keep the entire process—the call-in, the termination conversation, the aftermath—as discreet as possible. As far as your remaining employees know, your employee was fired by the HR ghost.
2. Cut to the chase
Don’t drag it out. The employee might know the firing is coming, or it might be a complete blindside. But don’t feign that your meeting is anything but what it is. It’s disrespectful and insincere to ask Jerry about what kind of bass he caught on his fishing trip before you give him the axe. Be respectful. Just get to it.
3. Play a variation of “It’s not you, it’s me”
Seinfeld characters famously mocked the relationship-ending cop-out “It’s not you, it’s me” for being an insincere lie. But a variation of this is useful in terminating business relationships. And it’s probably completely honest. It’s not you; it’s not me. It’s us.
You can let (former) employees down easily, placing the onus of blame on the employee-employer bond, not on the employee or employer as people. This can be done while asserting that the professional relationship is irrevocably broken. It works like “It’s not you, it’s me” but you’ll actually be telling the truth.
4. Compliment, compliment, compliment
The strategy of complimenting profusely is part of “it’s not you, it’s us.” You’re letting your employee know that they possess many strengths. Those strengths are just not what's necessary for this working relationship.
And again, you aren’t being insincere. This employee probably has many positive qualities. Write them down and memorize them, if you have to. Even if it doesn’t seem likely, complimenting will soften the blow.
If you are laying on the compliments really thick, you’re liable to get a protest along the lines of “If I’m so great how come you’re firing me?” Which is why it’s important to follow the next strategies.
5. Be absolutely resolute
This goes back to cutting to the chase. Do not allow wiggle room. The quicker the employee-employer bonds are severed completely, the quicker everyone can start moving on. Do not waver or give false hope. As when ending a personal relationship, this is the equivalent of “maybe one day down the road.” No! Not one day down the road. Quick and clean is how you fire.
6. Open the floor before they go
Ask if the employee has any questions. Chances are, they will. If you have been truthful and maintained that the problem is the working relationship, you can answer questions directly and honestly without disparaging anyone personally or lying. And again, answer truthfully while maintaining zero wiggle room. You are great, but this is over.
Firing people is never easy. You're terminating a relationship this person has come to rely on. But a relationship goes both ways, and if one party is dissatisfied, that relationship cannot continue in good faith. This can be communicated tactfully, honestly and cleanly. Then both parties can move on to finding new people.
Jacob Harper co-founded Vintage Vice, a clothing store and apparel brand, in 2006 when he was 23. After selling Vintage Vice in 2009, he has been writing and teaching. He is currently a head writer on the weekly political sketch show Top Story! Weekly at the iO West in Hollywood.