The Art of Termination Part I: the Employer

Let’s start with the obvious. Terminating someone is never an easy task. No matter how many terminations you’ve executed in your career, they should never get easier (in terms of refining your skills, yes; in terms of tugging at your heartstrings, no). If you find yourself indifferent, remind yourself that being fired from a job ranks high on the most stressful life events list before you sit across from your next terminatee. While your emotions should always be in check, if you have none, you will come across as cold and uncaring.

If you are saddled with the unfortunate job of terminating someone, below are a few tips on how to do it respectfully. Caveat 1: Because the termination process varies from one region to the next, much of what is written pertains to Canadian and American audiences. Caveat 2: Terminations resulting from layoffs might follow a different process; this advice is intended for terminations resulting from poor performance, and where the employee is asked to leave immediately. Caveat 3: The male pronoun is used consistently simply to alleviate the text. This article applies equally to all genders.

If you’re an HR professional, I trust you are already advocating this. If you’re a manager who has to terminate an employee, please practice the following:

1 – Be prepared. If you’ve never terminated someone before, make sure to consult with someone who has. It’s critical that you take the time to educate yourself on the logistics (time and place etc.), the choice of words to use and the ones to specifically avoid, and how to deliver the message with assertion and without sounding like you’re reading from a script. If your company is too small to have dedicated HR, find another manager who has gone through the process, or a colleague or friend at a different company who has experience with terminations. Even if you are familiar with the process, it doesn’t absolve you of your responsibility to prepare. This is someone’s life you’re about to seriously disrupt. Show some respect.

2 – Make sure your message is concise. Never engage in small talk in an attempt to break the ice or give a preamble about how the company is going through changes etc. All that chatter beforehand is like the Far Side comic where an owner is talking to his dog, and all the dog hears is “blah, blah, blah DOG’S NAME, blah, blah”. Trust me – the only thing the employee hears before the word “terminated”, is blah, blah, blah. He’s likely already figured out why the meeting was called and just wants to hear you utter the words, so get to the point. It’s imperative you use the word terminated so as to remove all ambiguity. And say it assertively. Any hint that you’re unconvinced of your decision can lead to mixed messages.

3 – Do not engage in a debate. Once the message is delivered, the employee may ask for specific examples of his poor performance. He may remind you how you recently told him he did a good job on a project or how this is the first time he’s hearing anything about his poor performance (if this is really the case, shame on you). When he calls your performance into question, the urge to defend your actions and counter his arguments will swell, but you have to resist. The decision to terminate is final, so debating with him is futile and only serves to inflame the situation.

4 – Don’t be swayed by emotions. Remember, you’ve had plenty of time to prepare for this event. The employee has had none and may not be able to temper his emotions. He may say he’ll try harder and plead for you to change your mind. He may tell you about an illness that he or a family member has, and that’s the reason for his lackluster performance (if you haven’t already explored why he wasn’t performing and didn’t uncover this beforehand, shame on you again). He may yell at you or burst out crying. It’s extremely challenging to resist demonstrating sympathy, but you need to remain neutral – not cold, just neutral. You can say something akin to “I understand this is difficult for you” but reiterate that the decision still stands, and then move things forward.

5 – Don’t fall prey to silence. Don’t expect points 3 and 4 to necessarily unfold. It’s entirely possible the employee has nothing to say. Not a word. This can make for a very uncomfortable silence. It will be tempting to start justifying your decision, or explaining how it wasn’t your decision and that if it were up to you, you wouldn’t have terminated him. Stick to the original script or you run the risk of providing the employee with ammunition that can eventually be used against the company. If you’re done delivering the initial message and he has no comments or questions, proceed to the next step in the process. Whatever you do, do not attempt to fill the void.

6 – Your feelings don’t matter. At least not during this process. Despite how difficult it might be for you, it’s exponentially more difficult for the person being terminated. Don’t add comments like “this is really hard for me too”, or try to make yourself feel better by saying “I’m sure you’ll find another job soon”.

7 – Communicate with the team once the person has left. This doesn’t mean sending an email to the entire company. It entails meeting with the rest of your team and explaining that the employee was let go, and not why. Don’t entertain questions about whether or not he was given fair warning, or if he was provided with a package. Simply say he was treated fairly. If he was a poor performer, chances are the team won’t be surprised and might even have been waiting for you to take action. If it wasn’t an obvious decision, you may need to allay concerns about more terminations on the horizon. You also need to communicate next steps – will you be hiring a replacement? If not, how will the work be distributed? Don’t forget to advise peripheral employees about his departure – people outside of your direct team but who worked closely with him. If you communicate nothing after someone is terminated, you might create unnecessary panic.

8 – Quash the disparagement. Even if this was an anticipated or welcomed decision, don’t allow employees to celebrate or malign the departed.

9 – Conduct a post-mortem with yourself. Rate yourself on the success of the termination meeting. What could you have said or done differently to make it go more smoothly? Better yet, if the employee was truly surprised, what could you have done to manage his performance more consistently?

Terminating someone is unpleasant, period. But when it has to be done, a respectful execution can make the difference between bad and awful. Were you expecting a sunnier adjective to precede awful? Don’t delude yourself. Bad is the best it will ever get for the person on the receiving end.

Stay tuned for The Art of Termination Part II: The Employee

About The Author:

Jill Ram is a Strategic Business & Human Resources Advisor with over 20 years of experience leading human resources for a variety of technology organizations. She currently advises start-ups on how to scale their business by building effective teams and laying the foundation for strategic HR. Contact her via her website at

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