A Guide to a Dignified Dismissal

It’s a conversation dreaded by all employers. How do you tell an employee that their time with the company has come to an end? Whether it’s a layoff due to budget constraints, or termination due to performance issues or inappropriate behaviour, firing someone is one of the most challenging tasks a manager or business owner will ever have to do. And for the employee, it’s the toughest moment they’ll experience in their career.

While there’s no secret combination of steps or tips that will make firing an employee easier or less traumatic, approaching the conversation with compassion will help. In the moment, the employee may not recognize the ways in which it has helped, but in time he will. And how you handle this difficult process will send a message to the rest of the team that you are a principled leader with the best interests of the company at heart.

Here’s how to dismiss an employee with class and dignity :

Performance issues should never be a surprise

If you’re letting someone go due to poor performance, the termination meeting cannot be the first time you are communicating the issues that have led to this decision. Performance expectations need to be clear from the start and performance feedback provided and documented on a regular basis.

HR experts recommend conducting performance reviews annually or semiannually so that employees know where they stand and have an opportunity to improve. Always document your feedback and comments and get the employee to sign off that they’ve discussed them with you. While there will always be an element of shock and surprise when an employee is let go, performance documents will reflect that the dismissal isn’t coming out of left field, and it will also support your decision legally, should that become necessary.

Don’t send mixed messages: Compassion should never obscure clarity

There’s no right way to tell someone they’re fired. Experts do agree, however, that clarity is necessary. Before the conversation begins, the team member will pick up on your body language and tone, and quickly realize that this conversation will not be a good one. If you hedge around the hard part and try to sugarcoat it with compliments and platitudes, you’ll only confuse and prolong the process.

In an article for Harvard Business Review, Dick Grote says to avoid small talk and get to the point right away. “State the reason for termination in one or two short sentences and then tell the person directly that he or she has been terminated,” he explains. The conversation could look something like:

You’re probably wondering what this is all about, so I’ll get right to the point of our meeting today. As you are aware, we are restructuring due to budget pressures. I appreciate your contributions over the years, but your employment here has been terminated.

Stay calm and do not engage in defensive behaviour

Everyone will react differently to the news that they’ve been let go. Some may get teary while others may get defensive and angry. And some people will cycle through several different emotions as the reality sinks in over time.

Particularly for terminations due to poor performance or behaviour, the employee might get upset and argumentative. Resist the temptation to engage in a heated debate about why the termination was justified. Above all else, remain calm. This will help defuse the situation should things become heated. Give the employee an opportunity to be heard and have a box of tissues on hand. Gently but firmly try to steer the conversation forward:

This is a lot to take in right now, but there are some important details we need to discuss. Let me know when you are ready to go over the next steps.

Have all essential transition details prepared in advance and be generous (if you can)

Most people will start thinking fairly quickly about how they’ll manage to make ends meet while they search for a new job. Ensure all details and documents are prepared in advance with information about severance or outplacement services, if applicable, as well as benefits, references, and how the termination will be communicated to the rest of the company.

If possible and if warranted, err on the side of generosity. Whether that’s an extra month or two of severance, or covering the cost of career coaching sessions—it’s a gesture that can mean a lot to someone who is going through an incredibly difficult time.

Be open and honest with the rest of your team afterwards

News travels fast and the workplace is no exception. If possible, try to get out in front of the gossip mill and communicate with the rest of your team once their colleague has been let go.

Be prepared for questions. The rest of the team will likely feel some anxiety about the future of the company, whether it’s the safety of their own employment or how extra work will be distributed. Be as open as possible while still respecting the former employee’s privacy. Respond professionally and empathetically to the team’s questions and concerns.

Letting someone go isn’t easy, but bringing some compassion and composure to the conversation will help.





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