Chris, a digital content specialist, was preparing for a weekly call with her CEO and chief brand officer when the two delivered some shocking news: She was fired. “I had no expectations of what was going to happen next,” said Chris, who asked that her real name not be used. “They simply said it was ‘hard’ for them and that I wasn’t a perfect fit, but offered no further explanation or next steps.”
Chris hadn’t been warned of any failings prior to the firing. She received no opportunity to improve her work performance, nor was she offered any job placement services.
This happened almost two years ago. Chris now has a job she enjoys at a tech-focused marketing and PR agency, but the memory of the firing lingers. “There was no transparency and no empathy,” she said, adding that it didn’t have to be that way. “Open communication is everything,” she said. “To make it a better experience, it’s important to see employees as people and really get to know them on a personal level.”
Firing is a manager’s most unpleasant task, even if it means letting go of an exasperatingly terrible worker. “It can get messy ... there are a lot of emotions running hot,” said Mike Sweet, founder and CEO of Boston-based edtech firm NimblyWise, which employs 10 people. In two decades as a tech professional, Sweet has delivered the ultimate in bad work news to dozens of people, some laid off due to a business situation, others who were shown the door for performance reasons.
6 Elements of a ‘Good’ Firing
- Written policies and procedures guide the process, ensuring consistency.
- The firing is planned in advance, giving HR, IT, accounting and other departments time to prepare documents and halt the employee’s access to systems.
- The news is confidential, shared only with those in the “need to know” bubble.
- The termination happens in a private area.
- The person is told why they are being fired, but not given room to argue the point.
- The fired person is treated with respect, empathy and compassion.
“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.
Why People Get Fired
Employees get let go for two main reasons. One is that they’re laid off due to a “reduction in force.” That’s no news to tech industry professionals as close to 100,000 have lost their jobs since March of 2020, according to Layoffs Tracker. Layoffs leave room for the possibility that employees will be welcomed back at some point when business picks up, White said. “Employees aren’t usually to blame [for layoffs] because it’s based on economic reasons that are outside of anyone’s control,” she said.
“If you get to the point where you think ‘oh, this is nothing,’ then you’ve lost something as a leader.”
The second reason is for cause. The employee has violated or fallen short of company policies, whether it’s conduct, attendance, meeting deadlines, or another performance metric. These breaches of conduct should be documented over time. Say an employee misses a month of deadlines; they’re likely to be given a verbal warning and a chance to improve. The second month, a written warning will follow, again with a chance to improve and guidelines for doing so.
The third or fourth time — depending on company policy — the employee is likely to be shown the door.
A third type of exit can occur when an employee doesn’t meet company expectations and is given the option to resign, rather than be fired. This option, usually reserved for high-level executives, lets them depart with some dignity and without the onus of having to say they were fired when they’re searching for their next job. This option can prove “a little bit troublesome” for employers, as their records must reflect exactly why employees are no longer at the company and whether they are eligible to be rehired. “Again, that’s where having policies in place can be helpful,” White said.
Before It Happens
The first step is to plan in advance when the employee will be fired. Advance notice gives HR time to pull together the proper papers, such as non-disclosure, non-disparage or non-compete agreements, plus assemble the employee’s severance package, which can include pay, extended health insurance coverage and job-search services. Accounting should prepare the person’s final paycheck. The rules on this vary state by state, with some requiring that fired employees receive their final paycheck on the day of their termination, White said.
Management also must figure out how to distribute the to-be-fired person’s workload and clients until a replacement is hired. The person’s clients should be told that they’re no longer with the company — no more, no less. “The company doesn’t owe them an explanation,” Sweet said.
Advance notice also gives IT time to cut off the employee’s access to email, chats, websites, documents, and other resources for which post-employment access would be inappropriate. The timing on these cutoffs must be precise: Too soon, and the employee will know something’s up; too late, and a disgruntled employee could do real damage to the company. The employee also needs time to clear their desk and hand over badges, keys, laptops, cell phones and other company property.
Before the employee is told, only those in the “need to know bubble,” as White puts it, should be informed. This includes the person’s supervisor, plus necessary HR and IT people to wrap up the loose ends. Deliver the news in a place that affords privacy. “Nobody likes being fired, as far as I know, and managers and supervisors don’t enjoy it either,” White says.
One exception: Violent or otherwise wildly unacceptable behavior that might require the offending employee to be removed from the premises to keep everyone else safe. Despite what you see on TV, badly behaving employees usually aren’t fired on the spot, as those witnessing the behavior might not have the authority to fire anyone.
Rather, the person is removed and put on unpaid leave while the behavior is being reviewed and a decision is made regarding it, White said. “It could be that an employee is fired on the spot, but employers still want to make sure that they review their policies and make sure they have everything they need to let somebody go,” she said.
Delivering the News
Sweet of NimblyWise suggested rehearsing ahead of time, and keeping the conversation empathetic, compassionate and succinct. He recommended leaving no room for discussion or negotiation around the firing. “The decision has been made,” he said. “It’s not helpful to rehash how we got to the situation.” The exception is for employees laid off as a business decision; there, Sweet argues for more, rather than less, transparency. “They need to know that it wasn’t them, that it was a necessary step for the business, and was needed given the current business reality,” he said.
When the news is delivered, the person’s supervisor and a representative from HR should be in the room. The fired person needs to leave the meeting knowing three things clearly: Why they were fired, when their employment will end, and what the company will offer as a severance package. Sweet suggests following up on that intricate HR information with an email. “When someone is facing an emotionally charged situation, the details sometimes are hard to absorb,” he said.
As for actually telling the person? “Clarity, and delivering the message clearly and in a brief way, is the best thing in my experience,” Sweet said.
Being let go undoubtedly hurts the employee, and, in Sweet’s opinion, the manager should feel bad too. “If you get to the point where you think ‘oh, this is nothing,’ then you’ve lost something as a leader,” he said. Even if a firing is deserved, “you still have to recognize that this is another human being impacted by this,” he said. “You can’t just charge into this and trivialize it.”