Getting Over Your Fears of Firing

Firing an employee is never pleasant, but someone has to do it. So, how exactly should you do the deed?

Firing someone doesn’t have to be a terrifying, demoralizing experience for either party.

Firing an employee is never pleasant, but someone has to do it. So, how exactly should you do the deed?

On the list of less-than-pleasant responsibilities that go along with being a boss, firing an employee ranks pretty damn high. Most of the business owners I know have at least one story of a firing gone bad, or at the very least, one that should have happened much sooner. It’s an unpleasant business, but unless one has extraordinarily good fortune in the hiring department, it’s something most of us have to do at one point or another.

The wrong hire can have all kinds of unpleasant consequences for your business, but few of us need convincing of that. Rather, I’ve heard entrepreneurs say that even after they’ve decided an employee is a poor fit, they have trouble letting them go: the combination of guilt, fear of emotional outbursts, and good old-fashioned procrastination is enough to fell even the most decisive among us.

So what’s the secret to a good fire? I collected stories from a few seasoned veterans who shared what to do – and perhaps more importantly, what not to do.

Don’t Do Me Any Favours

The guilt of leaving a team member unemployed drove one tech-industry consultant to make an error in judgment that wound up adding insult to injury. “One thing I’ve learned about firing is that whatever you try and do to make it easier for the other person often ends up making it harder. In one case, I lined up an employee with a new position at another company; I basically figured out what a good next move would be with somebody, and he was rightly insulted that I knew before he did.”

She also advises trusting your gut over taking input from others: “On another occasion, on the advice of an HR consultant who told me the less you say the easier it is for someone, I told the person very little about our decision, even though my gut told me I should be more disclosing. I think it made it harder for that person, that they didn’t really understand the context. But the advice I was given by this HR consultant was, a) the more you say, the more sue-able you are, and b) they’ll want to know why, but whatever you say, they’ll get hung up on, so the less you say the better. But it didn’t feel right to me.”

Rather than trying to compensate for the pain of getting fired by being either too kind or overly cool, you should simply be true to form. “Firing is of a piece with the working relationship – it’s not even the last part, necessarily, of a working relationship. So you can’t handle the firing from some formula book that’s different from what you’re using as a manager, or as a human being. The experience of parting company with an employee, whether it’s their choice or yours, it’s a live by the sword, die by the sword kind of thing – where you need to relate to them in the moment of parting the same way you’ve related to them as an employer, because otherwise it just doesn’t feel authentic, and it’s really unsatisfying for that person.”

Tears and Recriminations

According to one marketing firm principal, waiting too long to fire someone is the worst mistake you can make. “The first time I fired someone, it was a nightmare,” she recalls. “The employee in question was someone I genuinely liked and who was trying really hard, but it just wasn’t working and I’d been fighting it for months even though I knew it was doomed. We’d had endless conversations about how to try and improve the situation, to no avail. Finally I realized it wasn’t going to get better, and I just had to bite the bullet.”

Months of increasing tensions took their toll. “I called everyone I knew for advice, got all the papers in order, and practised my speech, but even so I hardly slept the night before. I got to work with my stomach in knots – the anticipation was awful. I remember staring at my schedule on the computer screen, waiting for the meeting I’d set up with her to roll around. I couldn’t think about anything else. My ten o’clock contained only two possibilities: There would be tears (maybe mine, definitely hers), and I’d come out of it hating myself just a little – even though I knew it was the right thing to do.”

So what advice would she give to employers in similar situations? “The real lesson for me out of the whole thing was never to let a relationship with an employee get that bad again. The reason it became so emotional was that we’d dragged it out so long. The next time I found myself in a situation where an employee was a bad fit, I recognized the symptoms right away and took action immediately.”

Silver Linings

Even a clear-cut case of employee misconduct can leave a conscientious employer anxiety-ridden. “I had this employee, and I knew he’d been drinking on the job,” explains the head of a local software company. “It was apparent that his work was getting in the way of his drinking, as it were. We knew we had to fire him, but we’d never fired anyone before, so we went through this incredibly long process of finding out legally whether we could fire him because we suspected he was drinking, and figuring out how to document things. To complicate matters, his wife was immigrating, and he was the sponsor so he had to be working and so on – so we thought, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t fire him, because his wife is immigrating, and they’ll have no money and she might get sent home.'”

After weighing the costs to the company, though, he steeled himself. “In the end, we realized that he was destroying us, and we were spending so much time and money trying to figure out whether or not he’d be okay – and that’s not really my job. His destructive lifestyle was destroying our company. So we eventually got up the courage and said, ‘You’re done. Pack your stuff and go. If you want to know all the details, we’ll tell you, but you’re fired.’ And he did ask why, and we said, ‘Well, you’ve been drinking on the job, and that’s been very negatively impacting your work – and we have lots of examples if you want examples.’ And he was like, ‘No, that’s fine.'”

He’d expected more of a fight, but it seems calling out the person’s drinking problem wasn’t just the right decision from a business perspective. “He called us a year later and said, ‘I walked from your office to AA and got help.'”

Is There a Right Way to Fire?

The consensus among those I spoke to was that directness, compassion and authenticity are the keys to firing someone respectfully and efficiently, and to protecting your business interests while preserving the dignity of both parties.

What do you say, readers? Have you fired someone – or been fired yourself? Got insights into how to make it a more pleasant experience? Share them in the comments.