A Script for Firing People.
What to Say So That You Don’t Get Stabbed.
I’m embarrassed to have this script because it’s an admission that I’ve fired people. I wish I’d never fired anyone, that I was the perfect judge of ability and that I was a dream to work with. But I’m not. I sat on a draft of this post for six months, but during that time I kept needing to share the draft with friends who hadn’t fired people before. So, I think it’s a useful read for other managers, who like me, aren’t perfect.
Every manager I know has an awkward firing story—usually from the first time they fired someone.
My story is that I froze.
My boss accompanied me to the meeting so that he could be the witness. I was pretty confident that we were doing the right thing in letting this person go. The person on the receiving end, let’s call him Joe, was more of a strategist than a developer and we wanted developers.
I had put him on a Performance Improvement Plan (managers from big companies use the acronym PIP as in “I PIP-ed him.”). So the news wasn’t going to be a surprise to Joe.
The second Joe showed up to work, my boss and I pulled him into a conference room. It was my job to perform the firing and I started with, “Joe” followed by a pause.
And then I froze.
I literally wasn’t able to say another word. Eventually the silence became so unbearable that my boss spoke up, told Joe that he was fired, that we wanted to leave on good terms, that Joe was getting a small severance and that we appreciated his contributions. At about that moment, I was able to muster the courage to meekly say, “Goodbye.”
Recently, a friend asked me to help her with her first firing. I thought back to my first time with Joe and to every other awkward firing I’ve been involved in over ten years as a manager.
The firing meeting is just inherently awkward. Both sides of the meeting are feeling a combination of shame, resentment and fear.
For me, I always wish I could have fixed the situation, resent that the person I’m firing didn’t fix the situation, and am a little bit afraid that I’m going to end up in a fight. Plus, the more people I’ve fired, the more I realize how hurtful it is to the person being fired.
Seriously, the ethics of firing are messy. On the one hand, businesses are competitive and no one has a right to work at your business. It’s like getting cut from an All-Star team. On the other hand, being fired hurts so bad. It’s a permanent blow to your ego.
On top of emotional tensions, there’s not really any way to salvage the meeting. You’ve presumably already had a series of constructive conversations. You fire someone when you’ve given up on those constructive approaches.
So, based on all of that, my theory on firing is to get in and get out of the meeting as quickly as possible. Below is the script I use based around five talking points. This is the same concept as the talking points you’d have during a TV appearance. They’re a set of pre-decided responses that you pivot all question towards. Never go off script!
I never ad-lib (I’m too nervous to trust myself), but I will repeat some of the talking points multiple times until it’s clear that I’ve got nothing else to say. Repeating the same talking point is a strategy that works in almost any situation where someone is trying to pull you into an argument. I’ll cover the standard “you’re wrong to fire me” argument below.
Do this first thing without any small talk.
Joe, we’ve decided to let you go. Today is your last day. Thank you for the work you’ve done here and I want to leave on friendly terms. I have some logistics to go over with you. Afterward I can answer your questions.
The strategy here is to:
A. Deliver the news quickly and definitively.
B. Fill in whatever bullshit pleasantries you feel like you need here. They just got fired! So they won’t hear or believe anything nice you say. But almost everyone feels like they need to say something. Some things to try: “I really appreciate the work you’ve done here,” “I feel like we’re parting on good terms” etc.
C. Pivot the conversation to logistics, which takes the pressure off of the person to respond.
Deliver the Logistics
For logistics you need to know what company property you want back (laptop and keycard), have their last paycheck, and (usually) offer a separation agreement. The separation agreement requires consideration in order to be valid (i.e. money). But our lawyers usually only attach a nominal sum, like $500, which implies how little importance they place on the separation agreement. If you’re going to offer severance, then you make that a requirement for signing the separation agreement.
The final paycheck requirement implies that you need to get your act together the day before. Theoretically, you could cut the check yourself. But I’d always rather have my payment processor do it so that I don’t screw up the math. That means coordinating with them the day before and having them Fedex you a check.
Here’s my basic script.
These are the logistics.
Today is your last day. I have your final paycheck, covering payment through today [hand it to them]. I also have a separation agreement for you [hand it to them]. If you sign the separation agreement, I can give you severance of $X. [show envelope for that check.] I’d understand if you want to review the agreement. The separation agreement expires in X days [usually 5].
Also, could you please leave your laptop and keycard at your desk. We’re not going to ask you to do any more work today.
If you’d like to take your belongings home right now, that’s fine. I’m going to gather the team after this meeting and let them know what’s going on.
Otherwise, you can come back tomorrow morning at 9am and I’ll help you carry your things down.
My feeling is that you’re leaving on good terms with everyone. This is a work day for us, but if you’d like to reach out to people on the team after work hours, I think they’d appreciate it.
Do you have any questions?
You’re basically working through two logistical issues, getting the separation agreement signed and getting their desk cleaned out. The cleaning of the desk is the more emotional of the two. I want the person to be able do that with dignity.
Answer #1: Why?
At this point, you’ve said everything of substance that you can say. Hopefully, you’ve previously tried to work through issues with the person and this firing isn’t coming as a surprise. Nobody should be fired by surprise.
Given the work you did before making the firing decision, there’s no actual reason to talk about the reason. You’ve just clarified that all the previous reasons you’ve given were actually really important, possibly more important than the person realized.
Of course, that’s not why the person is asking you why. The real reason is that they don’t agree, or are hurting, and want to put some of the blame on you. The firing meeting is not a place to give constructive feedback.
So, I give the following answer to any variant of Why? or any start to an argument, often along the lines, “You didn’t really give me a chance…”
I want to be helpful if I can. However, I don’t think this is the right meeting to have this conversation. If you really think my feedback can be helpful and constructive, could we schedule a lunch in a month or two? Think about it and get back to me if a lunch would make sense.
Only one person has ever taken me up on this lunch offer. I mean, if the person wanted to work on personal growth with you then you probably wouldn’t be letting them go.
Answer #2: All other questions.
After, “Why?” you’ll get another set of reasonable questions, like “Do you know if I’m eligible for unemployment?”
I actually think I know the answer to most of these questions, but I’m never 100% sure. We use a third-party HR service (Ventureloop). So, I always just refer people to them.
That’s a good question and I’m not sure I know the definitive answer to that. Could you speak to Ventureloop? Here is their contact info.
I think this is mostly theoretical. What happens if someone really starts cussing you out.
There’s no need for that. I enjoyed working with you and wish you well in the future.
Post Firing — First Year
You probably won’t hear from them, but you will hear from people doing a reference check.
The reference check is your first opportunity to take the sting out of the firing, assuming you don’t hate the person.
On any reference check, I’ll make sure to highlight the person’s strengths.
The trickiest scenario is the backchannel reference check, where a hiring manager is checking with you but without the permission of the employee.
This is one of those situations where you have to choose sides. Do you choose fellow hiring managers or do you choose supporting former employees. I choose employees on the idea that I believe in growth and that I’m not a perfect person to work for. So the script is twofold:
To the hiring manager:
That’s great! I’d love to talk to you about Joe. Do you mind if I check with him first?
And then to the (former) employee:
Someone from company X is contacting me for a reference check. Is it ok for me to talk to him? Are their any strengths you’d like me to emphasize?
This is basically the only time you get to repair the relationship post-firing.
Post Firing — Much Later
It’s actually pretty common that you’ll run into each other later and become friends. I was once hanging out with a group of people and it turned out we’d all fired the same person. Four of us. And we all were still friends with this person. But this happens a year or more later.
I am not a lawyer. Duh. I hate when people say that.
I think what a lawyer would say about the above is that you’re increasing surface area for a lawsuit in a couple of places (like creating a paper trail that you even did a reference check).
But when you work in small communities (like startups), you’ve got to balance that with relationships.
The Other, Much Nicer, Way
For the most part, I don’t have a super compassionate script because it seems like compassion isn’t received well. In the meetings I’m in, both sides are looking for relief, not compassion. But, I did find this excellent article by Lauren Bacon, How to Fire Someone with Compassion and Respect. Read her advice for a counter example of how to let someone go.