Managing Exits; How to Fire an Employee

This off-limits subject is critical and needs to be well-understood by leaders everywhere

In a famous scene from the 2009 movie “Up in the air” the protagonist, corporate downsizer Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney, counsels the person being fired with the famous line “How much did they pay you to give up your dreams?” 

I am not going to attempt to sell you your dreams but there is a point to the counseling indulged in this scene from the movie. Anyone who has ever been fired or has fired someone can easily relate to the feeling. 

In a recent conversation with a CEO, he shared that his biggest fear, quite naturally, is getting fired from his job. But then proceeded to add that he has even worse feelings when he himself has to perform the act of firing an employee. 

If you’re a leader, few things can ruin your day (or month or year) more than needing to fire someone. It’s just plain hard to do, even when you know it’s the right decision and it’s not personal, it’s business. 

And at senior management levels, the reason for getting fired could just be for having different views about the business. If you have climbed the greasy pole without ever being fired for holding on to your convictions and having a difference of opinion with your bosses, your personal growth is still a work in process.

But that could be a topic for another piece. This one is about the right way of firing an employee and managing exits from your organization. 

It is not easy to write or talk about it because it has a huge impact, especially in our culture, we tend to think of being let go as a near-death experience and, quite wrongly, treat it the same way. 

In the capitalist world that we have chosen to be part of, being asked to leave is as normal as being asked to join an organization.

On the other hand, the biggest disservice leaders can do to an organization is to keep someone in their job because of their discomfort with letting go. They forget that the leader is responsible for the entire organization and not for any one individual. 

This does not mean that they become trigger-happy, firing people with ease. For people who take this as easy, perhaps they should never be in leadership positions in the first place. 

As Tom Peters, the famous American writer on management, says “The day firing becomes easy is the day to fire yourself”.

It is a serious responsibility and an important part of a leadership role. Because it is a taboo subject in organizations, leaders do not pay attention to it – unless things go wrong.

Firing can go wrong in several ways. For starters, when you’re firing someone, it should be the end of a series of conversations you’ve been having with the impacted employee. The element of surprise is the biggest cause of ongoing hurt. Being kind means you sometimes have to be direct and to be clear. 

Not being clear is not kind- this is what we mostly get wrong in our performance discussions. We end up, dressing our intentions of communicating that there could be serious consequences for lack of performance, in motivational monologues confusing the employee about our real aims.

Additionally, in many such situations, the offboarding process is not in place, HR misses on the necessary forms and documents, key folks in the organization haven’t been alerted, or there’s some other reason for ambiguity. 

In this age of social media, it is not unusual to see angry laid-off employees taking to various platforms and expressing their dismay for being mistreated by their respective organizations. 

According to an FT article Gen Z workers in particular are posting videos of online calls in which they resign or are made redundant on social media sites such as TikTok as they wage a campaign of workplace transparency. Tech workers and schoolteachers are the source of many of the videos but they have also been posted by blue-collar workers”

This does not mean employees should never be fired. But it does mean the process followed in these circumstances probably could have been managed better.

When an employee is no longer a good fit for the organization (assuming there’s no clear wrongdoing), it’s time to let go. 

But before making that final decision, (other than general layoffs or downsizing) it is crucial to examine whether employee onboarding, regular 1-1s with management and performance reviews have adequately supported their development. 

If the answer is no, then perhaps instead of hastening the letting go, it’s time to review and improve these processes. 

Enter the highlighted importance of good management practices; training on people management, comprehensive new employee onboarding, 30-60-90+ day check-ins, feedback-rich cultures, a well-run performance review process, annual job description reviews–and all of the crucial practices and systems that set up employees for success.

If all of the above fails and you need to take the final step, you have to appreciate that the nervous system of the person being fired will go into full alert. The moment you start this conversation, the person you’re communicating with will not think rationally and it’s going to be full-on big emotions. 

Be clear that it’s not a conversation. It’s information and clarity on what is about to happen so they can take care of themselves. Re-assert that it’s not the time to discuss the decision – tell them what is ending and what will be happening next regarding benefits, follow-up, timeline, etc. Focus on delivering everything in a crystal clear manner. 

Letting go of an employee is not just about the impacted individual. The discussion should be planned to coordinate communication with the remaining team simultaneously so that leadership is messaging thoroughly and helping everyone make sense of the decision. ​This is particularly important when you are letting go of someone in a key role.

Of course, whatever you do, chances are that people will believe what they like. You need to be prepared to let people make their own stories and narratives. It’s not a bad thing, it just happens. Stay honest, stay direct, and be consistent about reiterating important elements of the situation. And when you can’t communicate everything, it’s okay to say so.

Most senior leaders I work with feel responsible for creating the best conditions for their team, but they need to understand that they are managing adults and can create all the great conditions and sometimes it still doesn’t work out.

This is when their responsibility to do the letting go part of their job well becomes amplified. They need to remember that the end of this relationship requires everyone to be respectful. This is the least one can expect in a difficult situation.

By being more thoughtful about it and following the few simple do’s and don’ts explained above, terminations and exits can become a little less painful for both parties and may help in leaning into the hard stuff with more ease.

Asif Saad
Asif Saad
The writer is a strategy consultant who has previously worked at various C-level positions for national and multinational corporations


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