You Have to Fire Someone for the First Time in Your Life; Now What?

Large companies employ teams of human resources experts who are there to guide their field leaders in hiring and firing practices. That’s in the best case scenarios, but sometimes the speed of business dictates that someone, still wet behind the ears in leadership, needs to swing the ax.

Here’s the good news: If the idea of telling a team member they have to find a new job makes your stomach churn, then rest assured you are still a human being. The day firing someone feels as stressful as brushing your teeth is a dark day, one for which nobody should hope.

We’ll assume in this scenario that someone in your organization already followed proper operating procedures dictated by labor laws, union contracts, and company policies.

This team member was either warned and developed as much as possible or has committed something so egregious to warrant immediate termination.

Theft is one hypothetical often warranting immediate termination, but there are others, assault, compromising the company’s security, that sort of thing.

First, you need to align your heart with your head by considering the individual. Then, you’ll gather as much information as possible, meet with the team member, and document the heck out the conversation.

For the record: Before I had this sweet gig as a writer, I spent a decade in single and multiunit leadership roles for a large corporation. I learned by doing—so can you.

You got this.

1. Gather Information

Start with the obvious: the employee file. If you have a human resources department, contact them to gather the complete employee file.

You’ll need to understand as clearly as possible if you don’t already know, why you will be terminating this employee’s contract. The better you understand, the more transparent you can be during the meeting.

Speak with peers, senior leadership, anyone else privy to the situation to learn what you can. In some cases, you will have to speak to the peers of the team member.

Save those conversations for last and be prepared to move quickly after you have them. Employees talk to each other, even when you ask them not to, not sometimes but always.

Be sure to preface those conversations with expressions like “trying to understand what happened.” Deflect any inquiries about your actions by asserting that you are only investigating at this point.

Retain only the facts.

2. Plan the Conversation

If you’ve never once spoken the words “we’re letting you go,” don’t let the first time happen with the employee in question.

A mirror would be better than nothing, but if you can role-play the conversation with a peer, senior leader or human resources representative, you may avoid breaking into tears in front of your team member.

Role-playing can be weird if you’re not accustomed to it, but it’s far less weird than saying something wrong in the real conversation. Just get through it as many uncomfortable times as you can.

Role-play what you will discuss. The conversation will not be an opportunity to debate the facts, but you should be able to communicate with the utmost clarity the what and why of the termination. Get comfortable explaining it.

The more you practice with someone else, the better.

Plan to have someone there as a witness who is not a peer of the employee. If you must, include that person on a conference line, and if that is not possible, have the conversation someplace where others can hear if things escalate.

You never want to sit trapped behind a closed door with an employee who could flip-out despite your best efforts to keep things calm. This is unlikely, but it can happen. It once did to this writer.

Leaving a door ajar can retain the privacy of the conversation without jeopardizing privacy. Avoid public places for obvious reasons.

3. Understand the Ground Rules

The overarching paradigm you have to remember, no matter how insidious the accusations made against the soon-to-be-axed, is that you will be talking to a human being.

Confrontation does not have to be disrespectful, especially when you are holding all the cards. Employ respectful candor, not reckless honesty. Instead of respect, demonstrate regard.

Shooting from the hips is not honesty. It’s an excuse to say the first thing that comes to mind.

If you have any intentions of your conversation remaining civil, you will work overtime to protect the dignity of the team member while not covering the factual truth as you understand it.

This will not only save the two of you unnecessary stress, it will retain the reputation of your organization as one that treats people right, even in the toughest situations.


4. Meet with Team Member

Start by asking the team member if she knows the nature of your meeting. In many cases, they do. If they can walk you through what and why you’ll save yourself so much stress.

If the employee seems confused, don’t let that throw you. Walk them through the facts, only the facts.

Be respectful. Allow the team member to talk, but be clear that you are not there to debate the facts. Make sure they are clear about what is happening then walk them through the next steps.

This will vary by company and state but will involve how they receive their final pay and how they will remove their personal items from the property. You need to explain to them what level of access they will have to the business going forward.

Make sure to gather any required signatures, repeatedly ask if there are questions about what is happening (not the decision), then part with good wishes.

A handshake and thank you is appropriate, but judge the situation.

Of course, you’ll need to document the conversation. Most companies have form documents, but if there are none, a simple email to yourself will date and time-stamp your professional journal of the conversation.

Don’t forget to restrict passcodes, cards, and any other security aspects of the employee’s former access. Download with a peer if you can, then get back to work.

This will get easier with time, but it will never be easy. Also, if you didn’t just transcribe this blog into an outline, go back and make notes for yourself. Like I said, you go this.