How to Fire Someone with Dignity

The Bozo Explosion. It’s what Steve Jobs described when he discussed hiring “real” managers during Apple’s explosive growth phase.

Jobs said that when you hire a “B” player, they will hire another “B” or “C” because they are too insecure to hire “A” players. Next thing you know, you have a company filled with “B’s” and “C’s”, or a “Bozo Explosion”.

Bad employees can ruin your company. Unfortunately, most people aren’t sure how to fire someone with dignity, so they let bad people stay.

I remember one of my former coworkers who used to wander around all day doing nothing but complaining and distracting others. All he did was talk about the game the night before and complain about management.

Not only was his salary a waste for the company, he took other people off task and killed morale. He was a toxin.

The funny thing is that at least once a week, I talk a client out of firing someone.

Just last week I got a call about a teammate who was “not a good fit”. He went on to tell me about her poor performance and all of the things she does wrong on a consistent basis, and then asked me to prepare termination documentation.

I asked one simple question:

“Is she going to be surprised when you fire her?”

In other words, does she even know her performance is terrible? Has anyone discussed her poor performance and, more importantly, has anyone documented those conversations?

“But, Matt; this is a right to work state!”

Yes, it is also a right to sue state. And, guess who the burden of proof is on?

Bad employees become even worse ex-employees. Most wrongful terminations come from resentment. When someone feels like they have been done wrong, they are more apt to seek revenge.

If you are going to terminate someone, you need to take the proper steps to reduce the risk of wrongful termination claims.

The average legal case against a company with less than 500 employees takes 275 days to resolve and carries a cost of about $125k. Do you have the time and money to not do this right?

Let’s also keep in mind that this is a human being whose world you are about to turn sideways. Whether you are firing your CFO or a drive-through attendant, people work to live. They need their job to support themselves and their family, and it is important to have empathy when you do this. It is important to know what to say when firing someone. Read on to learn more.

How to fire someone with dignity

Eliminate surprises

An employee should never be surprised they are getting fired. I can’t stress how important this is.

You should follow a course of progressive discipline that allows them to “see the writing on the wall” prior to the final cut.

By meeting with someone multiple times about their performance, documenting those conversations, and warning about the possibility of termination, you will substantially limit your exposure to a wrongful termination suit.

You can eliminate most of the concern for this happening by creating a culture of coaching and feedback. Coaching means asking a lot of questions of employees when they do something right or wrong. Don’t give them all the answers, ask and let them find their own solutions.

Document, document, document. Keep all conversations and explanations consistent across all team members. Inconsistent treatment is one of the main reasons lawsuits come about. Consistency is key.

Be prepared

Most people aren’t sure what to say when firing someone, but a little bit of preparation will save you from headaches down the road. It is hard to know what to say when firing someone, but here are some tips.

Walk in to the termination meeting with your script, notes, final paycheck, contact and benefits information in hand. It is also important to clarify how the benefits will work going forward, or who the proper contact is to discuss benefits.

Be concise with your wording and leave emotion out of it. Allow the employee time to compose themselves before they go.

The one piece of advice I give every manager or executive prior to a termination meeting is “shut up!” Once you have said what you need to say; shut up. Don’t get drawn into an emotional conversation.

Think about the logistics of the meeting and how you will handle things after it is over. When and where will you have the meeting? How will you tell the team afterwards?

My suggestion is to have the meeting in a private place and have a witness there. The meeting should last no longer than 15 minutes. Make the reason for termination explicitly clear. Allow them to speak as long as they are respectful.

This meeting is a good opportunity for the employee to get everything off their chest and establish some closure. Make sure it is clear the decision is final.

Finally, don’t ever, EVER, badmouth a former employee to your current team. This will destroy all trust and kill employee engagement. Teammates do not want to follow a leader who they think can turn on them at any moment. Even if the team is crushing the person, don’t join in. Rise above it.

Do it with dignity

Remember that while this is an inconvenience for you, it can be life-changing for the person on the other side of the table. Having to walk out to a room full of your teammates with tears running down your face is the type of memory that makes you want to exact revenge. The keys of how to fire someone with dignity are to put yourself in their shoes.

Have empathy for the person you are firing and do it the right way. Consider severance pay based on your company policy and any other assistance that the situation merits. Do what you can to help the person find a company that is a better fit when it makes sense.

It is never easy when you have to let someone go. Make sure that you are fully prepared to sever the relationship. This doesn’t just mean being prepared for the meeting, it means having all of the documentation in place to protect your organization afterwards as well.

Share some of your stories from terminations that went well (or poorly) in the comments. What would you have done differently if you had it to do over again?

 

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