It’s Hard to Let Go: Advice From a Pro on Making the Employee Termination Process as Painless as Possible


One of the biggest challenges faced by HR professionals is knowing when and how to let employees go, writes Vera Glushkova, head of human resources, Anadea Inc.

Over the course of my more than 20 years of experience as a human resources professional, I’ve noticed that most managers are hesitant about letting under-performing or problematic employees go. This attitude is far more common than one would expect, given the stereotype of decisive, unsentimental employers we meet in television and film. 

Sociologists attribute this hesitancy to a natural human aversion to situations in which we may cause others harm, stress, or offense; some companies actually bring in outside experts when an employee needs to be fired because of the emotional impact on the person doing the firing is so profound. Another reason managers avoid firing may be that it’s a subtle admission that the manager herself made a mistake when hiring the employee, or dropped the ball while onboarding or monitoring the employee’s work. 

The problem is, though, that the longer a manager waits to fire an employee, the more difficult it is to actually do it. The consequences of such a delay can be toxic – the employee feels terrible because they know they are underperforming, and the manager may subconsciously avoid communication with them because they feel uncomfortable, angry, or a bit guilty about the whole situation. Things can get so bad that managers inadvertently create the conditions for the employee to quit out of frustration, rather than having an honest, adult conversation with the employee about their future at the company.

While, on the one hand, employee rage-quitting solves the manager’s problem, it’s a far from an effective way to manage staffing decisions. In fact, we can say this scenario yields only negative outcomes, for manager and employee both.

Because the manager avoided difficult conversations, their ability to engage directly and honestly with those they manage remains underdeveloped. They’ve learned nothing from this situation, and are likely to make the same mistakes again the next time this happens.

Because the employee left out of frustration, they’re going to feel unduly mismanaged and stressed out. What’s more, they’re going to tell all their friends in the industry what a lousy employer their former company is to work for, creating a reputational risk and future recruitment challenges. 

Advice from a Manager

If you’re a manager faced with the unpleasant prospect of letting an employee go, I know how you feel. As a Human Resources professional with 20 years of experience, the awkwardness of giving an employee the bad news that they are being terminated is something I’ve had to struggle with many times. 

With time, I’ve come to rely on the following simple truths to help make the process easier:

  1. You cannot make difficult decisions from an emotional place. Decisions about staffing should be driven by the needs of your company and its employees.
  2. Delaying decisions about letting under-performing or problematic employees go can have an impact on staff morale and office culture. 
  3. No one person, regardless of their skill level, is cut out for every position at every company. An employee can be charming, talented, experienced, and still not a good fit for what your company needs. Being let go isn’t necessarily an indictment of a person’s character or skills.
  4. Letting someone go when they need to be let go is good for both the company and the employee. Even unpleasant situations at work can be relatively painless and affirming.

Making the best of a bad situation

Managers often make the mistake of turning the final conversation with an employee into an “airing of grievances”, a list of the departing employee’s failures designed to justify the manager’s decision to let them go. This is a big mistake. Confronting someone with a litany of their missteps provokes a natural self-defense mechanism, and so the person being fired becomes defensive. Instead of really understanding why they are being let go, the employee feels personally attacked and responds with a counter-offensive; they’ll feel justified in telling anyone who will listen that their former employer is poorly-managed, biased, and unfairly critical (even if this isn’t actually true). 

Our goal is to make this final conversation an occasion for honest feedback, and make sure that the employee leaves, if not a friend, then at least not an enemy.

The process of letting someone go should be seen as an additional opportunity to provide feedback, and that feedback should be delivered according to the standard plus-minus-plus formula (also known as the “compliment sandwich”). 

The most constructive way to let someone know they have room for improvement is by providing them with a “development plan.” Start by talking about the employee’s positive qualities – there’s a reason you hired them, and they should get some insight into what that reason is. After that, it’s time to discuss how the employee’s performance didn’t meet expectations; the employee has a right to know why you’re letting them go. Finally, provide recommendations or ideas for how the employee can work on their mistakes and develop professionally, emphasizing strengths that will be useful as their career develops further.

Don’t forget that when a person believes they are being unfairly deprived of their job, they can act out in ways that can damage your company’s reputation or even jeopardize information security. If things go really badly you may end up facing a wrongful termination lawsuit.

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Here are a few simple rules I’ve developed to help make that final conversation as productive and painless as possible:

  1. Don’t condescend to your employee, or speak in a way that expresses derision. We’re not here to punish someone for bad behavior, or make them feel like a failure. Just the opposite – we’re two parties going our separate ways, and there’s no reason to believe the employee you’re letting go won’t be a star at their next job.
  2. The reasons we’re letting an employee go, even if it’s due to a mistake of epic proportions, should be explained without emotion. Our goal is to describe a discrepancy in expectations, not to evaluate an employee’s work; employee evaluations should have happened much earlier, and in a different context than this meeting.
  3. We give the employee the opportunity to speak. We’re not here to agree or disagree with what the employee says, just to listen. We speak firmly – the decision has already been made. We finish the conversation on a positive note. We provide emotional support and avoid negativity.
  4. We ask questions about we can do better as a company so that we can identify problems and fix them.
  5. We see the employee leaving as a friend.

Nobody wants to be in a position to have to let an employee go. Hopefully, though, my experience can help you navigate the process in as straightforward and painless a manner as possible.

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