10 tips for firing an employee with empathy

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10 tips for firing an employee with empathy

Terminating an employee is always a major step and always a last or final effort after trying remediation. Unfortunately, if you’ve offered remediation issues such as coaching, training, and interventions like performance improvement plans (PIP), and had no success, you might not have much choice. Whether employees are failing to meet conduct requirements, failing to meet performance requirements, or slipping up in some other way, firing is sometimes the only option.

These 10 tips for firing your employee with empathy should help you to do so in a way that is humane, that avoids reducing morale for the full team, and which ensures the employee has the opportunity to move somewhere that suits them better.

Don’t surprise fire anyone

It’s important that firing an employee should be a last-resort measure. If your employee doesn’t already know their performance is in question, you shouldn’t be firing them. In every case, your employee should have received multiple rounds of constructive feedback, coaching, and performance improvement opportunities. By the time you’re ready to fire them, they should be well-aware that they’re not meeting expectations.

That means:

  • The employee should have received constructive feedback
  • The employee should have received, in clear wording, that they will face termination if things don’t improve
  • The employee should have time/opportunity to improve performance

That will mean some employees will start looking for other roles. If they do, the problem solves itself. If they don’t, they still get the upfront warning that they have to change or move on. And, that’s better for them and for their team.

Consider if an alternative role is a better fit

Sometimes employees are good fits for an organization but not for their team or for their role. For example, if someone previously did well under different management, a different system, or with different responsibilities, you have a good idea that the problem isn’t “them”. If you don’t have that data, it can be harder to make a decision.

If you have job roles, competencies, and required skills mapped out, finding that sort of match is also relatively easy. You just have to use an assessment to determine what your employee is actually good at, match them to a new role, and offer them the lateral move. While not everyone will be interested, it’s especially useful for:

  • Employees whose skills have aged out or been replaced by new software/tools
  • Employees who excelled in a different role
  • People who excelled in technical roles and are now failing in management ones
  • People who previously performed well before the scope or responsibilities of the role changed
  • Those who performed well before management styles changed

Essentially, if you have reason to believe that someone can perform well, you can always move them into a role that is a better fit.

Help the employee find a new job

Helping your employee find a new job as they leave your organization is one of the best things you can do for company branding. That’s why big tech firms like Netflix and LinkedIn engage in the practice. That helps the employee to be more satisfied as they move out of the role and into a new one. It also means they’re more likely to take a positive image of the company with them. And, when your organization goes to hire new people, those new people will be more trusting that if you choose to let them go, you’ll keep them on until you find them a new role.

Consider the full team

Teams often rely on each other for tasks, for workloads, and for projects. Firing someone, out of the blue, without consulting the team, can wreak havoc on your teams. Take time to discuss dependencies and projects with your organization can help you to pick an optimum moment to actually fire someone. That moment may never come. However, taking the time to consult with the team will give you a better idea of when and how to do so.

Take a humane approach

No matter how your employee behaves, they likely have reasons for it. Poor performance might be spurred on by stress, poor mental health, or problems at home. Taking a humane approach is important. That means being kind. It means acknowledging that life isn’t easy or perfect. It also means avoiding placing blame on the employee. Instead, it’s a good idea to express regret that things aren’t working out, to offer the employee the opportunity to come back later if they can resolve issues, or to offer consolation.

Bring performance notes and past conversations

Firing someone should always feel like it is being done for a reason. For example, if you’re letting someone go, you should bring those past conversations and performance notes with you. Reminding your employee of past points where they were given a warning can help them to link being fired to specific actions and activities. That gives them room to learn from it, to take notes, and to avoid those mistakes in their next job.

Be specific and clear

It’s important that when you go to fire someone, they understand why they are being fired and that they are being fired. It’s tempting to soften things by using indirect language. Eventually, that makes communicating the point significantly harder. A straightforward statement like, “As you know, we’ve given you several warnings relating to X. As your performance has not improved, we have to let you go. That means you will no longer have a contract with Company as of Date.” you can follow up with a more sympathetic approach but get the details of it out in a clear fashion first.

Allow your employee to share how they feel

Your employee may or may not have things to say to you. Try to let them share. If they have valid reasons for performance issues, you can take those into consideration. If you’ve heard them before or offered valid coaching, work style changes, or other aids, it may not be worth listening. However, taking the time to let them share is important to ensure they feel listened to and like a person to you and to the company.

Try not to overexplain

It’s easy to get caught up in feeling bad for firing someone and over explaining or repeating the same information. Try not to. Keep the actual information short, be direct, and don’t keep going over the same things. If your employee asks for additional information, offer it via email or in a printout. That avoids the risk that you might accidentally say things you don’t want to. It also avoids dragging out the process.

Offer severance

A good severance package can make a significant difference when firing an employee. That should include severance pay, any assistance you offer, help with resume, help with improving LinkedIn or other job-hunting profiles, a letter of recommendation, etc.

If someone has truly breached company policies, they might not be eligible for financial severance. However, you can still put in time and effort to ensure they can more easily move into a new job – whether you help them find it or not.

Firing an employee is never pleasant. People can react badly. People can also fail to understand why they are being fired. Taking steps to acknowledge their problems, to make the process as smooth as possible, and to ensure that everything is communicated in a clear fashion can help a great deal. And, eventually, if you’ve offered warnings, coaching, and performance improvement opportunities, you’ve already invested a lot in an empathetic approach before having to fire them.


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