Once you have decided to fire an employee, you now need to give as much care to communicating the decision as you took in making it. (For tips on making the decision, see the previous blog post, ‘For all the right reasons’ – how to decide whether to fire someone.)

Letting someone go, especially for poor performance, is a significant event for the employee and the colleagues he or she worked alongside. The impact on the organization as a whole may vary according to the importance of the positionslightly less where there are many other workers who play a similar role, and significantly more if the employee’s role touched many other staff, clients, and partners.

It is expected that in making your decision you consulted appropriately with legal and H.R. advice, and with your own boss or board of directors as appropriate.

The follow-up communication of the decision needs to consider the practical aspects of reassigning work, and the emotional fallout related to the varied relationships the individual had with others, albeit for some, it may be a feeling of relief.

I have found William Bridges model for change helpful. He sees change as events, called transitions, that signify an ‘ending’ (for example, of a relationship or of leadership), which leads ultimately to the ‘beginning’ of a new or renewed approach to what that the organization needs (for example, redistribution of a position’s responsibilities, or recruitment of a replacement). Between the ‘ending’ and the ‘beginning’ will be a transitional phase through which there may be periods of uncertainty and adjustment as people get used to new relationships, processes and ways of working.

At its worst, people feel that the experience of firing someone is like making them ‘walk the plank’ as pirates did for those they wanted ‘gone’. Alternatively, communicating the event as part of a change process helps you consider the needs of all who are concerned.

Communicating the decision to the employee

If you have followed the process outlined in the previous blog post, there is less chance the employee whom you are firing will be surprised by your decision.

Here are some dos and don’ts around communicating the decision:
  • Do have the meeting at either the beginning or toward the end of the day, when there are fewer people around. Communicating the decision during the week rather than on a Friday allows the individual to seek legal advice or other support that may be less accessible over the weekend. Doing so provides him or her the opportunity to seek a helpful outlet, rather than fretting alone.
  • Do be respectful. Rather than pointing at an individual’s ‘faults’, clearly communicate the outcome as the final stage of a process. For example, ‘Brian, this meeting is a follow-up to the process we started 6 months ago. At our last check-in session, I provided feedback that you had not met the objectives discussed regarding what the organization needs from you. I am letting you know that your employment here is being terminated as of [insert details of date and conditions; i.e. whether it is immediate or you are providing notice].’
  • Do provide a written communication that repeats what you said during the meeting.
  • Don’t say how hard this was for you to make this decision; it may invite an angry response from the person who is experiencing the primary impact of your decision.
  • Do let them know what message you will be providing to others about their departure (see next section below for tips on what to include)
  • Do have a second person present as a witness and support. Carefully consider who that second person will be, as you want to avoid anyone who has an antagonistic relationship to the individual being fired. An objective third party from H.R. is common, if you have that resource. They can also play a role in talking about the next steps as per the organizational procedure: handing in keys, I.D. cards, etc.
An exception to this approach is where you proceed on the basis of an ‘informal understanding’.

This could work with employees who you assess have an understanding of their performance issue; for example, they have openly discussed it with you and are concerned that they are not meeting the organization’s requirements. It may also be that they are a longterm, highly respected employee who contributed significantly to the organization in the past, but whose qualifications no longer match what is needed.

In this situation, you could come to an agreement that the employee should look for work that better matches his or her strengths. You could provide advice to them regarding their resume and types of work settings you think would be more suitable, and you could write a reference letter that emphasizes their strengths. It is still important that a timeline be agreed upon and enforced.

In either case, you can make this process easier by:
  • Providing a severance package that exceeds the requirements of employment standards. Provide the most generous severance package your organization can afford, that you can apply consistently when needed.
  • Offer a placement service if you can afford it.
  • Provide a written reference that acknowledges strengths, unless the person was fired for cause due to a major offence.
When to consider immediate termination of employment:

in cases where the individual committed a major offence, or you are concerned that the employee may seek ‘revenge’ by talking negatively about the organization, stealing proprietary information, or otherwise undermining the function of your organization, it is prudent to walk the individual to the exit door same day. Obtain additional legal and/or H.R. advice specific to your fears.

Communicate the change to staff

If you say nothing about the departure of the employee, staff will fill in their own versions of what they think happened. Some people enjoy stepping in at these times to publicly share their version with other staff.  Do not let that happen; it is your role to communicate the message.

Only in cases where there were manifest behavioural or performance issues will staff concur the person needed to go. And, even then, they want to feel the process was respectful and fair. Even though you may think everyone could tell there was a problem, they would not have gone through the same process you did, and may have come to different conclusions as to whether the individual was treated fairly, or not. Through it all, remember that you need to keep personnel information confidential.

Your goals in the communication are to:
  • State the fact of the former employee’s departure,
  • Demonstrate that the person was treated respectfully,
  • Keep personnel matters confidential, and
  • Address the question about how you will manage the vacancy.
Here are the essentials of what to include:
  • That [insert name] no longer works here as of [insert date]. If the employee was given notice and is still there when you make the announcement, you will need to co-ordinate this communication with them. It helps to come up with common messaging with which you both agree.
  • That you wish them the best in their future endeavours.
  • The actions you are taking to deal with the vacancy (distribution of work, plans to hire or restructure, if known). Leave opportunity for their feedback and input on this point since this will directly affect them.

Be open to questions where you can clarify facts about the above 3 points, but let people know your commitment to not share personnel matters. (I suggest that you don’t use the word ‘confidential’ as that may imply an issue that may start people guessing.)

Find ways to deliver the message that are appropriate to the types of relationships people had with the person who is leaving. For example, someone who worked closely with the individual may need a one-on-one meeting. Deal with teams as a group. Send a general e-mail to others in the organization who would have cause to interact with the employee during the day, for example for placing orders.

Communicate the change to clients and partners

If the employee had contact with clients or partners external to the organization, including the funder, it is important to let them know.

Adapt the message and approach to the audience. If clients are involved, especially those with whom the employee had a therapeutic or close business relationship, involve other staff with whom the client has a comfortable relationship in order to maintain trust.

In summary, navigating the termination of an employee is a competency that managers should seek to develop. While it lacks the excitement and promise of hiring someone new, it is just as important that it be handled carefully and thoughtfully. Consider how you would want to be treated, and manage accordingly.