7 Best Practices for Terminating Employees with Empathy, Dignity and Compassion
Let me ask you… How do you feel when someone is being phony or inauthentic with you? What about when they try to downplay bad news?
Letting an employee go is never easy, for either side, but the discomfort can be compounded when the delivery of the bad news feels phony, robotic, or lacking in humanity. It can amplify or even create feelings of anger, shame, bitterness, and so on.
Usually, when someone delivers news in a “phony” way, it’s because they’ve been advised by people trying to protect the company (which is valid and we’ll explore more), or they’re trying to minimize the discomfort of the situation (which is also valid and we’ll also explore). The problem is, neither of these goals are truly achieved when we remove humanness from the conversation.
In this article, we’ll explore:
- Why it matters to “fire well”
- What to do before deciding to let someone go
- 7 best practices for terminating an employee relationship
- FAQs about letting employees go
- What NOT to do
Why it Matters to “Fire Well”
To “fire well” means that you’ve done your due diligence in trying to make things work before deciding to fire, that you approach termination with empathy, dignity and compassion, and that you consider the well-being of your remaining employees.
Doing this well matters for 3 key reasons:
- You will never know the full impact of treating someone with genuine decency and respect, and I promise you that the impact will be positive, even in a negative situation.
- Your remaining employees will be watching and remembering, and how you handle the situation will impact their relationship with you and the organization, and that will impact their engagement, motivation and loyalty.
- Chances are good that you or the organization will cross paths with this person again, especially in certain industries. They may not end up working for a competitor, but they could end up holding a role with a client, supplier or partner. They may not be your biggest fan, but they should be able to say that you were fair and that you treated them the best you could in difficult circumstances.
Terminating someone’s employment doesn’t have to mean burning a bridge, and it’s in everyone’s best interests to lead from your heart in approaching the situation.
What to do Before Deciding to Let Someone Go
There are typically two reasons for terminating an employee:
- There has been a shift within the organization, market or economy.
- The employee’s performance isn’t up to par with the expectations of the role.
In terms of the first reason, there isn’t much you can do aside from ensuring there truly is no other viable option for the organization. Some companies are looking at alternatives to layoffs, and it’s worthwhile to explore options such as furloughs and job sharing, but understandably, these alternatives just aren’t going to work for all organizations, industries or roles. Once it’s been determined that layoffs have to happen, there are some avenues to explore. In cases where a position is being cut in only one department, you may be able to suggest alternate roles within the company. I’ve seen some companies tell employees that major shifts were coming and give a period of time for people to volunteer to take a package. I’ve also heard of leaders reaching out to other companies that may consider hiring employees they had to let go. It matters to go above and beyond the “business case” and to reach for humanity. After all, it isn’t just the individual impacted, but their families, communities and others around them.
In terms of the second reason, make sure you truly have done everything you can to make things work for the employee. Have the difficult conversations that need to be had. Look into coaching, mentoring or development programs. Try different goal setting strategies. Strive to understand the employee’s perspective. Be as clear as possible about expectations and dig deep to understand why they are not being met. Ask yourself if you have done everything you can in terms of removing obstacles and/or providing resources. Involve HR or other leaders, if relevant.
Above all, make sure the termination does not come as a surprise. If there is a problem, termination should never be an employee’s first notice of that problem.
7 Best Practices
What are the key tips for terminating an employee with empathy, dignity, and compassion? Here are 7 best practices:
Take care of your heart first
We’re all familiar with the analogy of putting our own oxygen mask on first. It means that if we want to be of any good to anyone else, we need to prioritize our own needs.
In the context of an air emergency, you could lose consciousness. In the context of a termination, if you haven’t addressed your own thoughts and feelings around the situation, you could so easily become triggered by their reactions, which could lead you to become hostile or defensive, to say things you shouldn’t say, to make it about you and your feelings, or some other reaction that only amplifies the difficulty for the other person, and even yourself.
Think of yourself as the flight attendant in the situation. You need to be at your absolute best so that you can remain calm, kind and supportive. Do the work to cultivate a sense of calm and connectedness within yourself. Ask yourself if you’re sliding into one of these disempowerment roles, and make a plan to stay out of that role. If you find yourself ruminating on possible outcomes and how the other person will react, explore how non-attachment can alleviate that stress and empower you to show up with compassion. Ask yourself what you need to do just before the conversation. Maybe you need to pray, meditate, exercise, listen to music, play with your dog, take a walk, call a friend or mentor. Think about what will help you bring your best self forward, and make a plan for it.
Be human and speak from the heart
Speak like a person; like you. People can tell when they’re being fed platitudes and corporate speak, and that can add to the negative feelings that come up for them. It makes a difficult conversation so much more painful.
Often, HR will want you to follow a specific script, usually for legal reasons, but they may also be trying to make the experience as compassionate as possible, and have drafted a script that uses all the “right” phrases. The thing is, people know when they’re being fed a script and there’s no dignity or compassion in being on the receiving end of one.
By all means, use a script as a guideline, and absolutely be sure you know what you legally can and cannot say. But instead of a rote recital, tap into the part of your heart that recognizes the human being on the other side of the table, and use your own words. Let humanity come through in your tone, your eye contact, your body language. Lean forward, not away. Keep your arms and hands open, not crossed or fists clenched. Look the person in the eye when you deliver the news. Lean into transparency, which absolutely can be done while maintaining professionalism.
Let the person know that you are there to support them in any way you can (and within the company’s legal terms, of course). This can mean helping them with references or introductions, setting up regular meetings to offer advice on their job search, keeping your own ears open for potential job opportunities and so on.
Practice outloud, ideally with HR or someone who can advise you from a legal perspective
Legal issues are not something I usually talk about, but I’m bringing the topic up often in this article because it is a critical part of a difficult task.
If there’s a provided script, do use that as a sort of outline and practice delivering the message in a more genuine way. Practice it out loud, and ideally practice with someone from HR who can give you pointers on what’s ok and what isn’t, but also practice with someone who can give you genuine feedback on the tone of your delivery.
Practicing out loud is actually one of the things that will put you most at ease (or as close to it as possible, given the circumstances) about the actual event, and will help you confront whatever emotions you’re experiencing beforehand. That will help you get out of any kind of disempowering mindset, and into a mindset of empathy, respect and humanity. I have done this with many clients and it helps relieve a lot of stress. It helps them feel more confident and genuine going into the conversation, which prevents putting any additional stress or discomfort on the person being let go.
Take the personal out of it
One of the most critical steps you can take is to prepare yourself to not take anything personally. In fact, I strongly believe that taking things personally is one of the top things leaders should strive not to do, in all circumstances.
When you have to let someone go, emotions will likely run high, and as difficult as the task may be for you, the person on the other side of the conversation has a lot more at stake. Not only is this a loss of income for them, but also a loss of benefits, social connections, daily routine, and possibly even part of their self-identity. It can be a big blow.
However they react to the news is not personal to you. They may say things that you don’t deserve to have said to you. But you are not the one being cut loose. You’re not in the vulnerable position in that moment. Your feelings are valid and can be addressed on your own or with someone you trust later on. But for the moment, it isn’t about you. Respect that. Do the work in advance to protect your energy so that you aren’t triggered into a personal response to something that isn’t personal.
Be brief and get to the point
It does no one any favors to beat around the bush. Clarity is kindness. Deliver the key message within the first 30 seconds. “I’m sorry to say that we are letting you go.” (Do run this by HR or Legal as you may not be able to use the word “sorry”.) “I’m here with bad news today. We are terminating your employment.” “Unfortunately, your position here has been terminated.” Be brief and direct.
Brevity is key for legal reasons (it keeps you from saying things you shouldn’t say) and it’s respectful toward the other person.
Once you deliver the message, give a clear and concise explanation. Don’t over explain, but also don’t omit or gloss over the truth. Be honest, clear and respectful, and keep your own emotions out of the conversation.
In many situations, you may be turning the conversation over to someone from HR at this point. Some managers may choose to leave the room, but I strongly encourage you to stay for the full meeting. Good leaders stay for the hard stuff.
Move onto next steps swiftly, but compassionately
I don’t mean for you to rush people or yourself. As humans, we have a tendency to want to soften the blow when giving bad news and we think we’re being kind when we draw things out and pepper the discussion with apologies and platitudes. The truth is, it’s kinder to be quick.
Give them a pause to let things sink in a bit, then gently, but swiftly segue into next steps with something like, “If you need some time, let me know, but if it’s ok with you, I’d like to go over details of your severance package and how we will support you in finding a new role. I have all the information here, and we can take as much time as you need. If you prefer, we can also schedule a meeting in the next day or so to go over details.”
It should go without saying that you need to be fully informed of all details regarding severance, continuation of benefits, unused vacation, and so on before going into the meeting. You need to be fully prepared to say what needs to be said, and to answer any questions. Even if HR will be handling this part, you should be able to act as a resource as well.
At the end of the conversation, offer to walk them to their desk to gather up their things, and to walk out with them. If they prefer not to go back to their desk, still walk them out as a show of continued support. You may say something like, “I know this is a difficult situation. I’ll walk with you like it’s a normal day and we can keep up a conversation if that feels comfortable for you.” Tell them when you will check in with them and how they can contact you or HR between now and any scheduled follow up meeting.
Give as much support as you can
In terms of severance, insurance details, information about unused vacation or sick days, and so on, there are probably standards the organization has in place, but if you can advocate for any additional benefits, do so.
If it’s the case, let them know that you or the organization will be happy to act as a reference in their job search, and provide the contact information they should use. If you feel you can honestly write a letter of recommendation, have a default one ready and offer to personalize it to specific roles or organizations when they start sending applications.
If there are any other ways that you or the organization can provide support, push for as much of it as you can. Are there recruiters you work with that you can refer them to? Do you have resources to help them update their CV and/or LinkedIn profile? Can you – or others in the organization – reach out to your network about employment opportunities? Can you offer them any career development resources? Whatever you can provide, do it.
FAQs About Letting Employees Go
Q: How can managers effectively prepare for the termination conversation?
A: Role playing with someone you trust (who you are legally allowed to discuss the situation with) is one of the best ways to prepare, and I cannot recommend it enough. Not only does it ensure you’re saying what needs to be said, in the best way possible, but it also gives you the opportunity to work through your personal feelings before meeting with the employee. When you’ve dealt with your feelings beforehand, it empowers you to fully show up for the other person.
As you practice, consider the different roles in the Triangle of Disempowerment: Victim, Persecutor and Rescuer. Ask yourself what role you might have a tendency to slide into and what steps you can take to stay in Hero-mode (if you haven’t, be sure to read the linked article because Hero does not mean saving anybody else). Then imagine scenarios where the other person might assume one of the three roles and determine how you can respond in a way that keeps you in Hero-mode and shines a light on more empowering choices for the other person.
Shining a light means offering guidance as well as attempting to divert their attention away from disempowering choices, but does not mean taking responsibility for what the other person ultimately chooses to do or say. It could sound like:
- “I hear that you’re angry and you have every right to that reaction. Let’s discuss the details of your severance package and see what questions or concerns may come up for you.”
- “I see the feelings coming up for you and I get that. The decision has been made. I cannot reverse it, and here are the ways myself and the organization can commit to supporting your next steps.”
Essentially, establish tactics to continually bring the conversation back to next steps. The termination is happening and guiding the person toward how they can genuinely take control of the situation is not only compassionate, but respectful as well.
Q: What role does active listening play during the termination process?
A: Everyone deserves to be heard, especially in times of crisis, which a termination will probably feel like (or actually be) for the other person. Active listening is allowing them to be both heard and understood.
Active listening is a technique that goes beyond simply hearing what’s said. It’s about being fully in the moment and tuned into the other person so that you notice non-verbal cues like body language and eye contact. It means listening to understand, and mirroring back what you’re hearing without judgment. Just as it’s so important to speak with dignity and compassion, active listening is how you listen with dignity and compassion.
Keep in mind that this may also be the one time this person feels able to speak freely to you, and things may be said that truly need to be said and heard. Don’t let that opportunity pass you by. Really listen and strive to understand. You may learn something that will make you a better leader for your remaining employees. If some hard truths do surface, you may also want to look at ways to cultivate a culture of openness so that truth becomes the new norm for your team or organization.
Q: How can managers communicate the decision with empathy and compassion?
Accept that this will be hard news to hear. No amount of sugar coating will change that and there really is no way to say it that will make it feel like good news. Accept that. Fully.
Once you fully accept that, you’ll recognize that the most compassionate, empathetic way to communicate the decision is to be quick and clear.
Do not start off with small talk, make jokes, try to put everyone at ease, or beat around the bush in any way. Your body language and facial expression should convey that this is a serious conversation, but also an open one. You can do that by leaning forward and keeping your arms open, rather than crossed, and making eye contact.
Once everyone is seated, dive right in. That could sound like: “I’m sure you’re wondering why we’re here, so I’ll get right to it. We’ve had to make some hard decisions due to market shifts, and I’m sorry to say that your employment here has been terminated.” OR “… We’ve taken multiple steps to work with you on improving performance, but the data shows that no improvement has been made. We’ve made the decision and your employment has been terminated.”
Q: What can be done to support the employee during the transition period?
A: This really depends on the reasons for termination. If this is a situation where you feel you can give a glowing recommendation and possibly even refer them to people in your professional circle, do that. Sit down with someone from HR and go through the full process of job hunting, from updating a CV, to searching for open roles, to reaching out for interviews. Identify any steps that the organization can potentially help with. You could even research coaches that specialize in supporting people through career transitions and consider offering that service as part of their severance package.
If the employee is not someone you can confidently recommend at this time, still consider offering coaching services, professional development options, or recruitment services as part of their severance package. You may be asking why you should bother in the case of a really problematic employee. Maybe their behavior was truly toxic. Why bother supporting them? As I mentioned before, you may find yourself having to work with them in some capacity down the road, but the most important and potentially influential side of the argument is the effect on your remaining employees. It matters for them to see that you handle even the most difficult situations with dignity and respect.
Q: Are there any specific techniques for delivering the termination news respectfully?
A: While there is no one specific technique, I would highly recommend following a formula of:
- Say it fast
- Keep it brief
- Put your heart in it
- Keep YOU out of it
What I mean is much of what is outlined above. Deliver the news within the first 30 seconds of the meeting and keep the delivery brief. Absolutely speak from your heart in terms of your body language, tone and so on, but don’t pepper the conversation with your own feelings or perspective. If anyone is going to be openly emotional about the situation, it’s the other person. Respect that.
Q: How can managers address the emotions and reactions of the employee being terminated?
A: For starters, if you feel that you may be in physical danger, by all means shut down the conversation and get help. If violence or aggression is something you fear prior to meeting with the person, speak with someone above you about options, make sure you are not alone in the room, and have security standing by in the event they are needed.
That’s an extreme situation and one not to be taken lightly. However, most situations will not be like that and the emotions and reactions that come up – even the angry ones – should be addressed with humanity, compassion and respect.
As mentioned above, active listening is a powerful technique. When someone sees that they are truly heard and understood, that really can help calm difficult emotions.
Avoid telling them to “calm down.” That phrase has never helped anyone calm down, and can often have the opposite effect. Instead, opt for something like, “I hear you and I really do understand.”
Connect with your inner leader – your intuition – to help you dance in the moment and respond to what comes up. Does it feel helpful to redirect them towards next steps, or is your gut telling you they need time? Does it feel right to offer a follow up meeting once they’ve had time to digest? Do they seem ready to hear about severance details? Connecting with your intuition and striving to respond rather than react is another way you can bring humanity into the situation.
Q: What steps can be taken to preserve the dignity of the employee throughout the process?
A: If this is a situation where the employee is being fired for cause, be forthright about the cause, but keep it brief. If the employee has made a genuine contribution to the organization or has displayed valuable skills/knowledge, bring that forward as well. “These are the areas where I see real potential and strength for you. Unfortunately, your employment here has come to an end, but in the future, these are some areas that I believe you can grow from.”
If the termination is about a financial or market shift, give an honest rundown of their contribution to the organization and how it has benefited the company. This makes it clear that the termination is in response to other circumstances, and is in no way a reflection of the employee. A termination can be a real blow to someone’s confidence, so do address strengths, just be sure it’s genuine and not flowered up. People can tell the difference.
As mentioned above, strive to continually steer the conversation toward next steps. What the person does next is where they truly have control and continually guiding them back to that can truly help preserve their dignity. It’s up to them to recognize and seize that control, but in a time of high stress, it can be helpful to have someone act as a beacon, guiding them in that direction.
On a more practical note, have a conversation with them about how they’d actually like to leave, and let them lead that. Would they like to pack up their own things, or would they prefer to have someone else handle that? Would they like the opportunity to say goodbye to colleagues or to send a leaving email? Are they ready to take those steps or would they prefer to return the following day? Obviously there may be company guidelines to follow, but strive to allow as much flexibility as possible.
Q: How can managers provide closure and help the employee move forward after termination?
A: A really important factor is to have all documentation printed, packaged and ready to hand to them, as well as digital copies emailed to their personal email address. This is so important in empowering people to move forward with dignity and respect. No one should be having to chase down paperwork in the days following a termination. It’s disrespectful to their situation and it keeps them tied to the company after they’ve left, which can hold them back from fully moving forward.
Q: Are there any post-termination actions that managers should consider to support the remaining team?
Above all, be honest and human.
Remember that how you handle issues with this employee will impact your other employees. They will be taking note of everything you say and do, and it will influence their trust in you and the organization, how safe they feel with you and the organization, and all of that will impact their engagement, which impacts their productivity, creativity, sense of loyalty, willingness to collaborate, and so on.
Be sure to also have a plan for handling the workload. Please ensure it’s a genuine plan and not just, “we’re all going to have to pick up the slack for now.” If people will need to take on extra work during the transition, be open about that, provide an anticipated timeline, and be prepared to provide compensation for additional work in the form of pay or paid time off.
If this is a situation where layoffs were due to financial strain and you cannot compensate employees for added workloads, be honest about that too. People will figure it out regardless of how you approach the situation. If you show up with honesty and transparency, they are far more likely to react positively and to be on your side.
Finally, if this is a situation where the person was fired for cause, recognize how your remaining employees are a good fit for the organization and its goals. Whenever someone is let go, it’s natural for others to start worrying that they will be next. While you can’t give confidential information about the terminated employee, you can calm fears and rumors by being open about your employees’ value. In fact, you should be doing this anyway ;)
What NOT To Do
- Don’t post about it on social media. Remember the “crying CEO”? Don’t be that guy.
- Don’t fake emotions you don’t have.
- Don’t make it about you.
- Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
- Don’t dwell on past issues in the case of termination with cause. Give the reason and move on.
- Don’t try to act like everything’s fine with your remaining employees.
Remember that people are deeply intuitive and will sense when something is “off” or inauthentic, even if they can’t quite put it into words. Be human. Be real. Be kind.
If you would like guidance on building strong teams, developing compassionate leadership, or empowering your organization to thrive through even the most challenging situations, I invite you to connect with me.