The right way to fire someone

Your employees are watching closely when you fire someone. Here’s how to do it right.

Firing people is hard and it never gets easier. No one enjoys the process of firing people — and obviously no one likes being fired. But as your company grows, it becomes necessary to replace people, especially when you’re growing fast.

Just because you’ve decided to fire someone, though, doesn’t mean it has to be a bad experience — for you or for them. You can actually replace someone at your company and have them leave on a positive note instead of a negative one.

The trick is in how you approach things. If you take a holistic view of the firing process and actually realize you’re doing the person a favor by letting them go, it will not only make the process a positive experience, but you can actually turn them into a life-long company evangelist too.

Don’t believe me? Let’s dig in, shall we?

The typical firing process

Most leaders approach firing people as a necessary evil, where one side wins and one side loses. Here’s how the process goes at 99% of companies (this assumes there has been no criminal wrong doing and that the employee isn’t performing):

  • Employee is identified as a poor performer
  • The employee receives a single warning with no quantifiable feedback to improve
  • The employee is fired a few weeks later

Let’s look at the pros and cons of this approach.


  • You’ve moved a poor performer out of your company


  • The employee had no legitimate chance to improve
  • The employee is frustrated and angry with the decision
  • The employee has lost his income, at least for a few weeks
  • The employee now resents his boss and your company

One of the key things most leaders don’t think about when firing people is word of mouth. The process of being fired is remembered more than the process of being hired.

Being fired is a highly emotional experience. There’s pride, embarrassment, fear, confusion and sadness. Who wants to go home and tell their partner they were fired that day?

So let’s turn things around. How can you make the process of firing someone a more pleasant experience for you and for them?

Turning the firing process on its head

The key thing to remember when firing an employee is to alway remember there’s a human being on the other end of your decision. If you can make it all about them, you’ll both get through it and will look back on it as a positive experience.

There are really 5 parts to the process. Let’s look at each of them in detail.

They should see it coming

Unless there’s a criminal act involved, never, ever, ever fire someone on the spot. Never.

When it comes to performance management, you should give them 3 clear written warnings, spaced out over at least 30 days. Each warning should be delivered as part of a one-on-one as well as via email after the meeting is done.

The warning should be short and to the point — you’re not performing, here’s what I expect from you, here’s when I need it by and here’s what will happen if you don’t step up to the plate.

You need to provide the employee with clear, measurable goals that they can realistically reach between now and your next check-in with them, which is typically 2 weeks.

Most importantly, they need to agree on the goals and give you a verbal commitment that they will do their best to accomplish those goals. This is a psychological trigger which shows they are accepting responsibility for committing to the goals and not having the goals forced on them.

So what might their goals look like? Well, for a sales rep they look something like this:

Goals to achieve within 2 weeks, before our next review:

  1. Close $15,000 in new sales agreements
  2. At least 20 calls with warm leads every day

Short, simple, measurable. In your next review with them, one of two things will happen. They will either achieve their goals (or come very close) or won’t have made any improvement.

If they achieved the goals or came close, great — they’re improving. Repeat the process and give them measurable goals for the next 2 weeks and then have a follow up review.

If they’re not even close, give them a new set of measurable goals but instead of your next review being in 2 weeks, make it 1 week. There’s a good chance they’re simply 1) not going to try and already have one foot out the door, or 2) are incapable of meeting the goals.

They key message is this — they should have a chance to improve based on measurable goals and if they don’t improve, then they should know what the consequence is, well in advance of them actually being fired.

Know they’re frustrated too

No one likes to be on a performance plan and of course no one likes to be fired. Unless they genuinely don’t care about their job, then they’re probably frustrated too — with themselves and their inability to perform.

Empathy is the key word here. They’ve probably already beaten themselves up a few times for their poor performance, so if it does get to the point where you need to fire them, it’s important to explain that they’re better suited for another role and that finding that role will also make them happy.

Avoiding embarrassment is a huge motivator for someone when they know they’re going to be fired, so if you’ve made the decision to fire them, take time to sit down with them and explain the process at a high level:

  • Explain that you want to see them happy and can see they’re frustrated in their current role
  • Let them choose to resign instead of being fired (this can help them “save face” within the company)
  • Tell them you want to publicly thank them for their work in front of the company
  • Reassure them you’ll help them find another job, quickly

Let them choose to resign

Remember — no one likes being fired. If firing them is inevitable and you feel they’re genuinely a good person that tried hard but just couldn’t achieve their goals, give them to option to resign instead of being fired.

Net/net the outcome is the same — they move on and will find a job somewhere else, but the transition process is different. You might let them look for their next job and attend interviews while they’re finishing the handover process in their current role over the next few weeks.

Essentially you’re helping them “bridge the gap” from one job to the next. This is especially important for senior leaders on large salaries (who typically have higher personal expenses and families).

While they’re looking for a new job, you can be actively interviewing candidates to make sure the role isn’t vacant while they’re transitioning out of the company.

Celebrate their time at your company

Whether they’re fired or choose to resign, let them (and everyone else) know you appreciate them as a person. At the final company meeting before they leave, thank them for their contribution and wish them well. Your employees will remember that you treated that person with empathy and respect on the way out, which says a lot about your character.

Help them find another job

We’ve already touched on letting them find a new job and attend interviews as they’re transitioning out of your company, but that may or may not be financially feasible for you. Luckily there are a few ways you can go about this.

One of the simplest ways to help is to write a recommendation for them on LinkedIn. This is a hugely positive sign to potential new employers. Bonus points if you let them list you as a reference on their resume and can genuinely speak positively about their time at your company.

Another thing to consider is your network — do you have any friends or people you know that might want to hire this person? Maybe they didn’t do well as your head of sales but they were a killer account executive. Spend a few minutes thinking about who in your network might be looking for their next great sales hire and make an introduction.

But why help them find another job? It comes back to empathy. If you treat employees just as well on the way out as you did on the way in, that’s not easily forgotten. They will respect you and will continue to refer people they know for open positions for years to come.

This is an intangible part of company culture that’s not often spoken about — how you handle your employees when they’ve been fired or resigned.

Key take-aways:

  • Being fired is hard, but you can do a few small things to make it a pleasant experience
  • Put the same care into the firing process as you do into the hiring process
  • Make the transition out of your company as painless as possible
  • How you handle firing someone says more to your employees than you realize

This post originally appeared on the PeopleSpark blog. Follow us on Twitter where we share our best advice for founders and CEOs.

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