5 Tips on How to Fire an Employee Gracefully

If you’ve ever had to fire someone, you know how difficult it is. I’m certain that most business owners would agree that dismissing an employee is a horrible experience for everyone involved. We don’t like to do it. But without weeding out unproductive employees or making necessary cuts, we can’t grow our business. Knowing how to fire an employee gracefully is the key to keeping the ship sailing smoothly.

How To Fire An Employee Gracefully

I’ve been an entrepreneur for over 30 years and currently have over 100 employees. However, the very first person I fired was in the early days of my second startup. In fact, I’d hired that person earlier the same day. I had no clue how to fire an employee gracefully.

That experience helped open my eyes to a better way to fire employees. Still, I hate firing people. If I absolutely must fire someone, I will do it after much deliberation.

As an employer, you need to know how to fire an employee. Here are five tips I’ve learned on how to fire an employee gracefully.

1. Be Clear With The Employee

My business partner and I were in a pinch and needed some clerical help, so we called a nearby high school to send someone over. We did not have a formal job description. We didn’t check references. And most embarrassingly of all, we didn’t even interview the young lady! But, we hired her anyway. This was reckless.

We gave her easy tasks to start with, but she struggled. Then, we tried giving her easier tasks, but she failed with those too. We knew her work was going to cost us precious time and resources, so we had no choice but to fire her.

I had never fired anyone before, so my methods were poor. I tried beating around the bush and being very gentle, but the employee didn’t understand. I tried getting firmer in my words, but the employee just smiled at me because she still didn’t understand. Finally, to get her attention, I blurted out the words… “you’re fired.” Well, she understood that, and she started crying. She cried a lot.

It was a horrible experience. Really horrible! And, it was 100% my fault. It was my fault for hiring an unqualified worker. It was my fault for giving her tasks she couldn’t perform. And, it was my fault for mishandling how she was let go. This is not the kind of experience you want. You need to be clear with the employee on two fronts—when you first hire them and if you have to fire them.

Be Clear When You Hire

When you hire an employee, do your research. Make sure you articulate exactly what the job entails. You don’t want to onboard someone only to find that they don’t know how to do the job. Be clear about the skill set the employee should have.

Be Clear When You Fire

If you must fire an employee, do so gracefully. When you meet with an employee to tell them they are being fired, you need to tell them as soon as the meeting starts. If you were getting fired, you wouldn’t want to talk about the weather or last night’s football game before hearing the news. Answer any questions relating to the employee’s last paycheck, collecting unemployment benefits, and health insurance.

2. Don’t Humiliate The Employee

If I must fire an employee, I treat them with dignity because I don’t want to humiliate them. I will always fire someone in private behind closed doors.

Employment termination isn’t just bad for that individual— it’s also bad for the other employees. Other employees don’t know if or when they’re going to be on the chopping block. And, your employees could have relationships with the fired employee. If you fire an employee in front of everyone, you risk draining the morale out of the other employees.

Consider firing the employee after your other employees leave. That way, the terminated employee does not need to leave your office (or wherever you fire them) in front of their co-workers.

Do Have A Witness

When you need to fire an employee, you and someone from Human Resources should be the only two people in the room with them. If you don’t have an HR department or representative, grab a witness, like a trusted employee or even your business’s lawyer if applicable.

Having someone in the room is important in case the employee comes back at you with a lawsuit. A witness can confirm you acted legally and ethically while firing the employee.

In very rare cases, you might consider having a police escort during an employee termination. If there is a chance the employee might become aggressive or violent, it’s best to have backup.

I once had to fire an employee with a police escort. She threatened to beat up another employee. On the weekends, she participated in cage-match fighting. The officer came, I fired the employee, and she left without incident. Having a police escort as a witness and protector might be a good idea.

3. Make Sure Your Actions Are Legal

Did you have your employee sign a contract when you hired them? If not, they are employed at-will, meaning you can terminate their employment at any time. Don’t fire an employee as an act of discrimination. And, you can’t fire an employee for taking medical leave. You might want to consult a lawyer before you fire an employee.

If your employee has a contract with your business, you cannot fire them for reasons not listed in the contract. The contract should state reasons you can end a worker’s employment at your business. If they don’t violate the listed reasons, don’t break the contract.

4. Leave The Element Of Surprise Out

Before you fire an employee, give them warning that they are not performing well. If you are firing an employee because of a serious policy violation, that’s a different story. But if their performance is poor, do a performance review before firing them.

You should have performance reviews at least twice a year, so your employees know if they are doing well. This will give you the chance to give them tips on how they can improve, as well as what you expect from them. In most cases, giving your employees an honest performance review will kick them into gear, and you won’t need to fire them.

Always give the employee every possible chance to improve first, and reserve firing as your option of last resort. Before firing, make sure that you have documented the employee’s performance “in writing” as part of your official performance review process. This documentation is necessary to make sure that the employee is never surprised by your actions, plus it may help you defend your actions legally if necessary.

If the employee still doesn’t improve after you give them fair warning or if they break a policy, don’t wait to fire the employee. You don’t want them to single-handedly sink your business because they are wasting your time, resources, and money. When you need to fire an employee, plan a meeting with them.

5. Tell Your Employees

In some situations, it’s necessary to tell employees that you let one of their co-workers go. For example, you might want to point out that there will be changes in workload or new opportunities available. But, don’t go into detail and become the center of a gossip-fest. Remain professional throughout the process of firing an employee: before, during, and after.

By Mike Kappel