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The Toughest Call: How to Fire Right

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When you are a human resource professional or hiring leader, firing right is just as important a part of your job as is hiring right. No one wakes up in the morning looking forward to terminating a staff member’s employment. In fact, people hate it so much they often wait far too long. While firing the right way won’t eliminate all the pain for either party, it will make the conversation much more palatable.

In any employment separation, voluntary or involuntary, most of us want to have clean and graceful closures. Many HR professionals and managers doubt this is likely, or even possible. It is. For involuntary terminations, clean closure means: dot your I’s and cross your T’s with every aspect of the decision, the process and the conversation. Graceful closure means treating the individual with dignity and compassion. After all, they are losing their livelihood, status and security, not you, so graciousness is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.

5 Reasons to Fire
Does Not ‘Play’ Well With Others: More people are fired for this reason than any other, no matter what the public cover story might be. The inability to work well with others will continue to be, the ‘Achilles Heel’ of too many very bright people, done in by a serious deficit of emotional intelligence competencies. We know it when we see it; an employee is consistently difficult to work with, won’t collaborate, is a bully or high maintenance. If the employee adds great value to your organization, then training, and/or coaching may help shift these behaviors. If not, fire and fire fast.

Loss of Trust:
Loss of trust is a root cause underlying several reasons to terminate. Consistent poor performance, broken promises, ethical breaches, sabotage, policy violations, lying, etc., all produce low levels of trust. We know in our gut when we do and don’t trust someone and often why we feel that way. Loss of trust is a very important signal that something is wrong. Don’t ignore the warnings.  

Blame Shifting and Avoidance:
When an employee avoids conversations about performance, and/or shifts the blame to another person, they likely suspect they will be held accountable, and don’t want to have that conversation. When blame shifting, the employee is failing to take responsibility for their choices and throwing someone else “under the bus.”

Insubordination: This is a sub-category of both trust and not playing well with others, but it’s egregious enough to stand on its own. Insubordination is the direct or indirect refusal by an employee to perform a legal, ethical, and reasonable directive from a manager or supervisor when the directive has been clearly understood. If coaching or counseling is an option, then by all means, start there.  

Lack of Engagement: This can be an outcome of someone who has “retired in the job” or a newer employee who came in sprinting but couldn’t or wouldn’t run the marathon. If you see low or no drive, a lack of a “can do” attitude, and it’s clear an employee’s heart isn’t in it, then many of the reasons you hired this person are no longer present. Before lack of engagement becomes a cause for firing, search for the root cause and offer to help the employee course correct.
Some organizations have a culture of almost never firing anyone. Others have a culture where firing is a handy “go-to” option at any moment. There are times and situations when firing fast is absolutely the right thing to do, and the same is true with firing slowly. Too fast and too slow are both bad for business. Since firing right is the goal, it’s worth taking the time to explore the pros and cons of each.

The following five Be Principles for involuntary terminations, when followed rigorously, can transform the experience for both parties: Be Truthful, Be Fair, Be Clear, Be Respectful and Be Smart.

Be Truthful: Employees should know exactly why they are being released from their jobs. Tell them the truth. People fill in blanks with inaccurate and bad news, so don’t leave room for doubt. Gross misconduct is gross misconduct, and poor performance is poor performance. Sometimes it’s a matter of a bad hire or a bad fit and it’s simply time to part ways. Don’t embellish and don’t minimize; tell the truth with accuracy, sincerity and kindness.  

Be Fair: Fairness is a fundamental human need and expectation in our workplaces. It is a major factor in how the terminated employee feels when he or she exits the organization. Furthermore, whether the terminated employee is perceived to have been treated fairly is the question everyone else makes judgments upon.

Asking yourself what would feel fair to you is a good litmus test. Does the punishment fit the crime? Then consider how this employee needs to hear the news. While you and that fired employee may disagree about what is or is not fair, be kinder than you have to and be more gracious than you have to be. In the end, that employee will still go away; the only question is will they go quietly.

Be Clear:
Whenever possible, you should have had at least one, and preferably several, discussions with the employee where it’s been made crystal clear that their job was on the line and exactly why. If the person is let go after a thoughtful process of attempted improvement, remind them what was discussed and when, what needed to happen by when, and spell out how they did not succeed in making the changes necessary to continue in their position. Document all of these conversations carefully. Do not put yourself in a position to defend this move with the employee; it is not a negotiation, it’s a final decision.  

Be Respectful:
Always take the high road. Believe it or not, you could be fair with the process and not respectful to the person. Being respectful to the employee is not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do.
People don’t sue people when they feel respected. This should not feel or be transactional any more than hiring should be transactional. You are ending it, and you need to acknowledge the pain in doing so. It is in your best interest to keep that relationship respectful and professional every step of the way.  

Be Smart:
There are emotional aspects of the termination discussion and there are other factors to consider, like might the employee become volatile, do you need security precautions, whether HR or others should be present in the room, as well as ensuring your exit checklist is complete. Your organization should have a solid termination process to follow to keep you out of legal and any other kind of jeopardy. You should have prepared a comprehensive Termination Check List long before you begin a termination meeting with an employee. It is almost never worth it to be stingy, as offering some money can go a long way to making a bad situation turn out a lot better. Having said that, when the firing offense is so egregious that you would rather risk a lawsuit, then, by all means, offer nothing of value. It is the smart thing to take all the time you need to be well-prepared and then stick to the plan unless something truly extraordinary changes your mind.  

Being fired is a tough experience for the employee and you, even when it is fair, done respectfully, and with grace and integrity. By utilizing the five Be Principles, both parties have a much better opportunity to end the relationship with dignity and grace.

Roxi Bahar Hewertson is a leadership expert, executive coach and organizational development expert with more than three decades of practical experience in the worlds of higher education, business, and non-profits. She can be reached at

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