Jun 7

How to Fire Someone (with Humanity) 📄

Featuring Catherine Stewart

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Episode details

In this session, taught by Catherine Stewart, we cover how to fire someone with dignity & humanity. Here are the topics we cover:

  • Why firing an important skill for managers to develop

  • Different reasons people are fired

  • Pre-work for firing in case of underperformance

  • How to prepare & what to expect for the firing

  • What to do if someone becomes emotional

  • Firing for cause

  • Layoffs

📝 Notes: 

Why is firing an important skill for managers to develop? 

  • Most managers struggle with first firing (and often, all firing). 

  • Letting someone go kindly, humanely, and with respect is in the best interest of the employee, the company, and the manager. 

  • The world is small - the people you fire will carry their impression of you and the firing into the future (where they may be potential partners, references for new hires, etc.)

Different reasons people are fired: 

  1. With cause: violated the terms of their employment (e.g., HR violation, breach of confidentiality)

  2. Without cause: usually related to underperformance 

  3. Layoffs (e.g., different strategic direction or budget cuts) 

Pre-work for firing in case of underperformance: 

  • Touch base with the HR and/or legal department to understand the legal environment. It can vary by state, city, county, and country (e.g., "Gardening Leave" in the UK).

  • Communicate clearly with the employee over weeks/months the expectations & document the communications & issues (e.g., in a performance improvement plan aka PIP) → this mitigates the risk of a lawsuit. 

  • Ensure you know what you are offering the employee (e.g., assistance finding a new role).

  • Align with the HR and/or legal department on the checklist of logistical items (e.g., when is the last paycheck, health insurance coverage (COBRA), internal messaging, separation agreement, and general release of claims.)

How to prepare & what to expect for the firing: 

  • It will be challenging, but don't let that get in the way of being direct and doing it swiftly.

  • More direct = kinder. 

  • Schedule it in person if possible—next best video, then phone. Ideally, schedule it soon to avoid dragging it on, which can be anxiety-inducing. 

  • If performance-related, it will be the culmination of an ongoing conversation that has been happening for weeks or months → there should be no new information; they will understand how you got there.

  • Be sensitive to emotions - there will be many. The person being fired may feel that their identity is threatened, and they may feel shame or financial anxiety for themselves and their family.

  • You may also feel many emotions such as disappointment, guilt, self-recrimination, and even betrayal (especially if you hired them). 

  • Do not debate. Use a kind tone of voice, and don't be aggressive. Use a tone of respect and empathy paired with direct language. The conversation should be clear & easy with no opportunity for misinterpretation. They should feel cared for. 

  • If at all possible, call out the positive and what you will miss and what you appreciate about the employee and their achievements. 

  • Communicate the path forward - the transition plan, severance (if applicable), and what the next few weeks will look like (e.g., 1:1 frequency, paperwork, separation agreement and release of claims, COBRA, what will happen with their options, parting gesture such as goodbye drinks. 

  • Follow up afterward with a written summary in consultation with HR and/or the legal department (it can be hard to digest everything in the conversation, and helpful to have a paper trail to mitigate risk). 

What to do if someone becomes emotional:

  • Very common for intense feelings of negativity (e.g., anger, shame, sadness, crying) --> Listen and understand that this is human and natural; try to create an environment where they feel comfortable sharing feelings with you, and ensure they feel heard and understood. 

  • If for underperformance, acknowledge how you could have done better and listen to their feedback → you can learn a lot from upward feedback regarding how things could have gone better. 

Firing for cause: 

  • An employee let go for cause (e.g., sexual harassment, breach of confidentiality) will typically require more involvement with HR or Legal (and they may lead the process themselves.)

  • Sometimes there may be a need for a discovery process (e.g., interviewing people about the incident, reviewing documentation such as Slack messages and emails).

  • For the termination itself, HR may attend.

  • The employee may need to be "walked out the door" to ensure they don't download confidential materials or do anything potentially vindictive. 

  • The process will depend on circumstances and company policy.


  • Usually, there's a standard severance package (may be a formula for the number of years or months or seniority). Work with HR and find out what is standard for the company.

  • Best to communicate to everybody on the same day to ensure that people hear the information as quickly as possible from you rather than from other team members. 

  • Ensure those who remain know the cuts are over & they have a place at the company. This makes it more likely you will retain top performers. 

  • If you have the capability, help the laid-off employees find their next job (e.g., put them in touch with recruiters, reach out to hiring managers, serve as a reference) 

📇 Glossary:

  • HR Violation/HRV: violation of the terms of employment

  • Performance Improvement Plan (aka PIP): a tool that provides employees with performance deficiencies the opportunity to succeed

  • Cause: terminated due to HR violation and/or broken policies or laws

  • General release of claims form: waives the right to sue the company down the road [note that it won't be binding unless the company has paid consideration to the employee, such as severance]

  • Garden(ing) leave: the employee does not work while remaining on the payroll 

  • Discovery process: period to obtain evidence

  • "Walked out the door": a more formal termination process that typically involves revoking access to digital files (aka "a box and an escort") 

📇 Further Study:

💬 Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you worked alongside someone who you felt should be let go? 

  • If so, describe the situation. What was the person's role on the team? Why did you think that termination was merited?

  • How did this employee’s behavior or performance affect the rest of the team? 

  • How did the situation ultimately resolve? 

  • If you had been this person's manager, what would you have done differently? 

  1. If you knew you had to terminate a direct report *tomorrow*, how would you feel? 

  • What fears or concerns might you have as you prepare for the conversation? 

  • How would your feelings change if you considered this direct report to be a friend? 

  • How do you think the news may affect your direct report, both emotionally and practically? 

  • What might you do to help your report adjust to the news? How can you help them cleanly transition out of the company, and find their next job?

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