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11 Things You Should Never Say When You Fire an Employee

Plenty of articles focus on making the firing process as easy as possible for a boss who has to terminate an employee.

This is not that type of article.

When you fire an employee, you only have two goals:

  1. Treat the employee as respectfully and humanely as possible, and
  2. Protect your business from a legal aspect
Your feelings, while very real -- believe me, I know -- are basically irrelevant, even though the second-worst task a boss has to perform is firing an employee. The worst task? Laying off a great employee. Firing a sub-standard employee means they "failed" you; laying off a great employee due to lack of work or poor company results means you failed them.

For the boss, firing someone is hard. But for the employee, being fired is financially and emotionally devastating. So let's make sure you don't make a bad situation worse by saying:

  1. "This is really hard for me..." Who cares. The employee doesn't. Firing employees is part of the gig. Any time you talk about how difficult the situation is for you the employee thinks, "Oh yeah? What about me? How hard do you think this is on me?" If you feel bad -- and you will -- talk it over later with someone else.
  2. "We've decided to go in a different direction." You're not an NFL team firing its coach. You're not holding a press conference. Save the platitudes, since the last thing you want to do is leave the employee wondering. Besides, if you've done your job right the employee already knows why he's being fired. Either state the reason for your decision as clearly and succinctly as possible or just say, "John, I have to let you go."
  3. "I'll have to get with HR to figure out..." Firing is both an ending and the start of another process for the employee: Returning company property, collecting personal items, determining what happens with benefits, etc. It's your job to know how all that works ahead of time. Getting fired is bad enough; sitting in limbo while you figure out the next steps is humiliating for an employee who wants nothing more than to leave so they can cling to whatever dignity remains. Know your stuff and never make an employee wait to meet with others who are part of the process. Remember, now the employee is on their time, not yours.
  4. "Compared to Mike, you just aren't cutting it." Never compare employees when you fire an individual (or just in general.) The cause is a failure to meet standards or targets or behavioral expectations. Plus, drawing comparisons between employees makes it possible for what should be an objective decision to veer into the personality zone, a conversational black hole you'll find incredibly difficult to escape.
  5. "I disagree with you, and here's why..." Some employees plead, most are quiet, and a few argue. Never let yourself be dragged into a back-and-forth discussion. Just say, "John, I'll be happy to talk about this as long as you like, but you should understand that nothing we discuss will change the decision." Arguing or even "discussing" almost always makes the employee feel worse and could open you up to potential legal issues. Be professional, be empathetic, and stick to the facts. And don't feel the need to respond if an employee starts to vent. Just listen -- that's both the least and the most you can do.
  6. "Fine -- if it makes you feel better, I'll go get my boss." Occasionally an employee will want to discuss things with someone above you. Never open that door. Firing is final -- allowing the employee to think "hope" still remains will only make them feel worse when all their "options" have been exhausted.
  7. "You're a good employee... but we have to cut staffing." If you're downsizing, leave performance out and just say so. But what if you're not actually downsizing and you're hiding behind an excuse so the conversation is easier for you? Then you do the employee a disservice -- and you open your business up to potential problems, especially if you later hire someone to fill the open slot. Don't try to protect the employee's feelings -- or your own. Just be straightforward.
  8. "I know you weren't happy here; hey, you know... this could work out for the best in the long run." Possibly so -- but it's not your place to judge. For the employee there is no silver lining to be found in the "You're fired" cloud, at least not at first. Let the employee find their own glimmers of possibility.
  9. "I need to walk you to the door." At a past job company policy was to immediately walk the terminated employee to the door. (And then to let the security guard know they were no longer allowed in the facility.) I hated doing it. A fired employee is not a criminal, so don't put them through the fired walk of shame. To keep a terminated employee from hanging around all day, set simple parameters. Say, "John, go ahead and gather up your personal belongings and I'll meet you back here in 10 minutes." Then, if John doesn't come back, go get him. He'll know why and won't argue.
  10. "We." The word "we" is appropriate in almost every setting... but not this one. If you are the person firing an employee, man- or lady-up and say, "I." Why? At this moment you are the company. Don't be tempted to make it seem like you're just carrying out orders, even if that's the case. Take responsibility.
  11. "If there is anything I can do for you, just let me know." Like what? Write a glowing letter of recommendation? Call your connections and put in a good word for him? You should say, "If you have any questions about benefits, final paychecks, or other details, call me. I'll make sure you get the answers you need." But you shouldn't offer to do things you can't do. You might feel a little better because you made an offer, but the employee won't. Remember, when you fire an employee it's all about the employee -- not about you, and especially not about what makes you feel better.
Related: Photo courtesy flickr user WalkingGeek, CC 2.0