I will never forget the first time I fired someone that I had hired. Even though I had helped other managers fire employees over the years, I had NEVER fired someone who worked for me that I had hired.
I was terrified and could hardly talk in the meeting I was so nervous. While none of us wants to be an expert at firing people--we could all benefit from the experience of others to make these very difficult moments go better than they otherwise might. As an HR Exec once told me, "Steve, there are no good ways to fire someone ... only better ways to do it."
Over the years, I have participated in the termination of employment for thousands of employees. Some of these actions were office closures, some of them were layoffs caused by economic downturns and some of them were terminations as a result of misconduct or poor job performance. While these terminations were never fun or easy, along the way I have learned a few key lessons that I hope can help you if you are facing firing someone for the first time OR if your company is preparing to terminate its first employee.
Lesson 1: The Delivery
The best advice I can give you is that the communication to the impacted individual should be clear, definitive and not last more than a few minutes at most. If you take too long or you ramble you will appear defensive and that will likely open the door to more anxiety or discomfort by the individual you are firing than might otherwise be the case. Firing someone is not a decision you are going to reverse in the meeting. Nothing is up for debate in that conversation, so rehearse what you are going to say--role play it with a colleague orHR person if you have one--and make sure you come across clearly.
Lesson 2: The "Survivors"
While being clear on your message to the person you are terminating is important--MORE important than this is the message you communicate to the rest of the organization about the termination. These people are going to return to the office the next day and continue working with you. It's important that you address the elephant in the room quickly but that you do so in a way that has gravitas and respects the person you just fired, regardless of how poor their performance may have been or how obvious it was that they should exit the company.
The reason you need to communicate to the rest of the company in a way that protects the privacy and dignity of the person you fired is because everyone else will assume this is how you communicate to the team or the company if and or when you terminate them. If you brag about the termination or if you speak poorly of the person you fired--that is not something that will put you in a good light with the team that is staying. Trust me on this one. The best path to take here is the high road and say something along the lines of, "Team, I want to make you aware that Joe is no longer going to be working with the company as of today, and that the company wishes him well in his next position. The reasons Joe is no longer here is between Joe and the company and it's a confidential matter. We all want the best for Joe and I am sure he would appreciate your understanding and support. For now, this is how we will absorb Joe's work," and so on.
Avoid what I call a "drive-by termination." Plan what you are going to say to the individual and the rest of the team and prepare for all their questions. It is really tempting to be completely candid and honest in these situations because others may feel that without information about "why," the decision may come across as random or arbitrary, and they may feel they could be terminated without warning too. Never say "nobody else is going to be fired" because you honestly cannot and should not promise that, but you can say something to the effect of (if true), "at this time there are no further staff changes expected..." It's a delicate balance--being candid and protecting the privacy of the departing employee and the more time and care you put in to this, the better.
Lesson 3: Moving Forward
Firing your first employee is so scary sometimes that you are likely to forget something really important beyond how you communicate to the people who are not getting fired. What you, the company and the person getting fired need to also focus on is helping the person being terminated move on, both emotionally and professionally. While its easy to just focus on the day you are terminating someone, don't forget that you will have a problem that will last beyond the day of termination if the person you fire gets stuck and cannot emotionally move forward.
Change is really hard and regardless of how well you plan your communication to the impacted individual--they will still likely struggle. However, if you can find a way to help them with job leads, provide them with a reference (if merited), offer them the services of a top notch outplacement firm, or steer them some leads about which you are aware of companies hiring people with their skills--this will help the individual focus on moving forward and not looking backwards and stewing on how upset they are at you and or the company. Let's be honest--not every company or job is a fit for even people who are super talented, so while you do not want to offer a false reference on someone who is truly a miserable employee regardless of where they work, if you can find ways to help them move forward quickly--this will really help diffuse the whole post message impact and situation.
Lesson 4: Respect the Fired Employee
Most managers think that as soon as an employee is notified that they are fired or losing their job- they will immediately behave in a disruptive manner or will act to sabotage the business. I will tell you that while this is always possible--most of the time employees act professionally if you treat them with respect in the process of ending their employment. Be careful here, because I have seen cases where employees found out that they were fired because IT cut off their badge or system access before the manager notified them. This DID lead the employees to be infuriated and I bet they will never forget those situations. Treat people you are firing the way you would want to be treated if you were being fired. I know that sounds simple but think truly before you act.
Lesson 5: Location & Timing are everything
Where and when you conduct the event is really important. If you are conducting this meeting in the office, then chose a time when few people are in the office--later in the day is typically better. There are two key reasons for this; first, if the person cries or becomes emotional or upset, there will not be an audience and you will have less to manage; and second, if they are packing up their belongings, it's a whole lot less humiliating to do so when others are not watching them do it. Regarding packing up, one thing I have done often is offer the employee a time at a later date to retrieve their things--after hours or on the weekend--OR offer to pack them up and send the items to them. . These are just a few tips to keep in mind if you face having to fire someone for the first time. Every situation is unique and some of these ideas may or may not apply to your situation, but the key point is that this is a very challenging activity requiring a great deal of thought and planning.