How to let an employee go

Let’s talk about how to let an employee go — what kind of mindset it takes, and how to keep things cordial while still standing your ground.
employer firing and employee

How to let an employee go

Learning how to let an employee go is a skill no one wants to develop, but it’s also a skill that every small business owner, mid-level manager or multi-national CEO will need to have at some point. However, since firing an employee is a difficult and emotional process that can impact the affected worker’s career, livelihood and self-esteem, it’s important to handle the situation with as much tact and care as possible. 

That said, you shouldn’t feel bad about firing an employee. As an entrepreneur, the health of your company is ultimately your number one priority, and sparing someone “the talk” will only hurt the both of you in the long run if they’re not a good long-term fit for your business.

With that said, let’s talk about how to let an employee go — what kind of mindset it takes, and how to keep things cordial while still standing your ground. 

See them in a positive light 

It might sound counterproductive, but before you fire an employee, it helps to see them in a positive light. That’s because despite the fact that you’re giving them the boot, you want to make sure you’re not doing any undue damage to them or your company in the process. 

Showing your ex-employee that you still value them is meaningful in several ways. First, it goes a long way toward making sure you’re not going to get a nasty review on Glassdoor for being terse and objectionable in their exit interview — and while that’s certainly not the only reason to be friendly to your workers, it’s also important to keep your reputation intact as an entrepreneur. 

Second, being kind to employees on the way out and pointing out their virtues shows the employees you’re not firing that you’re a fair, competent leader who always sees the best in people. People want to work for someone who values and appreciates their workers, and your employees will feel much more inspired to stick around if they don’t think their positions are in constant jeopardy.

Put your money where your mouth is 

Seeing your ex-employee in a positive light means putting your money where your mouth is, too. Giving them the time and/or money needed for them to get their ducks in a row can go a long way toward ensuring things end on good terms. Additionally, being open about their departure with other workers helps.  

As Karl Sakas, agency consultant and author of Made to Lead puts it: “When you fire an employee, your actions speak loudly to everyone you didn’t fire. Pay severance, let people leave without a security escort, and don’t sidestep questions afterwards about what happened. Otherwise, everyone left on your team will assume you’ll treat them poorly, too.”

Intervene before firing is necessary

If you’re reading this now, chances are pretty good you’re already committed to firing an employee who’s not working out. You don’t have to walk back on your plans, but here’s some good advice for the next time this happens: if possible, don’t let it get this far. 

By instating one-on-one meetings with workers to discuss goals, performance reviews and any potential problems, you’ll be able to avoid issues that might otherwise grow out of control. What’s more, if you set up meetings regularly to talk about performance statistics — and you consistently demonstrate that an employee isn’t meeting them — then you won’t blindside them if you do need to have “the talk.”

Frame it as being in their best interest 

No, this isn’t some manipulative “hack” to get employees to like you on their way out. Instead, framing a termination as part of your employee’s best interest is a smart way to remind them that the end of their employment with you doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the problem, or that they’ll never find work again. 

Think about it this way: what good are you doing your workers if you’re only keeping them around because you’re afraid to let them go? Instead of helping them grow and flourish in their careers, you’re keeping them from finding gainful employment with someone who can make better use of their skills. What’s more, you’re preventing them from finding new networks, contacts and colleagues who they might better serve. 

Have compassion for them

What is empathy? Empathy is feeling what others feel. When you feel empathy for your terminated employee, you’re feeling their sadness, too. You don’t want that. Why? Simple: you can’t help your ex-employee move on if you’re just as miserable about their termination as they are. Instead, you’ll get caught up in their emotions — you might feel sorry for yourself, sorry for how you made them feel, and sorry for firing them. 

But being sorry doesn’t help them find a new job. Instead, practice compassion when you fire someone. Compassion is understanding how someone else feels without feeling it, too. Compassion in a corporate setting allows you to continue to keep a cool head about things despite the presence of an emotionally charged situation.

By practicing compassion, you can feel for your worker while also looking at ways to prepare them for life after working with you. Let them know you’re happy to help them in any way, like writing a letter of recommendation to a new employer.

Understand they have a right to be upset

Losing a job is like being broken up with. There’s no good way for it to happen. As an entrepreneur and the leader of your organization, team or business unit, it’s on you to deliver hard news sometimes. That’s just the facts. 

Part of delivering news means accepting that your employee has a right to be upset about it. This is their livelihood, after all — you’d be upset if you were terminated, wouldn’t you?

To that end, make sure you let your employee discuss their dissatisfaction freely. If they choose to vent about the unfairness of what’s happening, let them. Should those conversations become volatile, promptly see them out.

However, scenarios like those aren’t likely. Most often, employees just want to see that you understand what you’ve just done has been hard on their self-esteem and mental health. By being compassionate and giving your ex-worker space to grieve, you’ll be helping them move onto the next stage of their career more smoothly. 

With that said…

Keep things brief 

Ultimately, because there’s no good way to fire someone, it’s best to keep things brief. You don’t need a firing to become an hour-long tell-all that unearths all their failings as an employee or your failings as a boss, and you certainly don’t want things to devolve into a shouting match about who failed who. 

The best thing you can do for your employee is to be clear, direct and heartfelt. Terminate them, provide concrete reasons for their dismissal, hear their concerns and then promise to make their exit a smooth one. That’s really all you can do, and — with certain exceptions — it can reasonably be done in half an hour or less. 

Always end with what they did well

Did we say firings are like breakups? The truth is, much like the end of a long-term romance, letting go of an employee should be bracketed by everything that went well during your relationship together. 

People often remember what others said at the start and end of a conversation, but the middle is harder to pin down. By beginning a termination with a review of how they helped the company in their time there and ending it the same way, you’ll be more likely to frame the entire letting go process in a more positive light. 

Letting an employee go: the bottom line 

Ultimately, learning how to let go of an employee is hard, but possible. The process will never be pleasant, but there are ways to handle it like a real entrepreneur — with tact, grace and a positive mindset that frames things in the best possible light for both you and your ex-employee’s future. 

Interested in learning more about how to take your business to the next level? From the difficult act of letting an employee go to building your own business to acquiring new workplace skills, our coaches can help you develop the tools you need to succeed. Learn more about us here.

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