An employee steals something or is caught in a terrible lie. It’s clearly time to sack them.  But what about a worker who hasn’t made an egregious mistake? 

Before you sack someone, make sure that you have done everything possible as a manager to develop their skills

What if someone isn’t an untruthful or malicious person but just doesn’t have the right skills or aptitude for the role, is the wrong fit, or needs to be let go due to layoffs? Are there particular words or times that are better than others to deliver the news? And is there anything you can do to soften the blow?

Firing someone is “never easy because [it] impacts individuals, families, workplaces and communities,” said Chicago-based global executive leadership coach Alicia Bassuk in an email. But she said sometimes it’s just inevitable. 

Do the right thing

Before you sack someone, make sure that you have done everything possible as a manager to develop their skills, said Bassuk. And, consult human resources to ensure you’re following the right process. 

“If it seems like ‘they don't get it’, then they probably don’t,” she said. “Give them the benefit of the doubt that if they had that skill, they would be using it. Teach them that skill by taking the time to mentor them through it step-by-step with your full attention.”

If things still aren’t working out, then it will be clear that it is time to part ways. That way, “you can sleep well at night knowing you did the right thing,” said Bassuk.

What versus how

For a lot of managers, getting rid of an employee is very stressful and not something they are skilled at doing. But it’s important to remember that there is a difference between “what you do and how you do it,” according to Robert Sutton, author of Good Boss, Bad Boss and a Stanford University professor of management science and engineering. “It is important to help people understand why it is necessary,” he said, “that it’s justifiable, not just a crazy leader doing it.”

It is important to help people understand why it is necessary

One of the worst parts of losing a job is the loss of control one feels, said Sutton. While you might not be able to give a worker control over whether they lose their job, they can be involved with figuring out how the process unfolds, “the when and how they go,” he said. 

 

Behaviour problems

Even if the reason for being fired relates to the employee’s behaviour, don’t use the meeting as an opportunity to blame them. “It may be tempting to do so and to say everything you always wanted to say. This can be seen as justification and you do not have to justify yourself,” said Jorg Stegemann, head of Kennedy Executive Search with offices in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, London, Milan, Paris and Prague. 

By the time you get to this meeting, there should already be well-documented evidence that the person isn’t working out in the position. “If something goes wrong, always keep a written trace (record) and not just a verbal one,” said Stegemann.

He recommends sending emails that clearly document the problems. For example: “You have come late to work for the second time this week. This jeopardises the production and results of the team. Please make sure you arrive on time or we will have to take disciplinary actions. You are a loyal employee and we count on you.” This way, “the employee cannot say ‘I did not know’,” said Stegemann.  

Keep it short and sweet

You don’t want the meeting to drag on. You can always turn to human resources for help with the preferred language to keep that conversation focused as well as help with any rules or steps they want you to follow. Don’t confuse the conversation about being fired with feedback, said Bassuk. Once the decision has been made, “it is too late for feedback.” 

It is too late for feedback

“Make it short, swift and clean,” said Stegemann. “Avoid something like, ‘You know, it hasn’t been easy for all of us...’” This is an unnecessary torture for the employee and may leave them unclear on what you are actually telling them. Stegemann instead starts with, “I am very sorry, [insert name], but I have to dismiss you today”. Then he pauses and counts to five so the employee can digest what he just told them. Then, he explains it in more detail.

Don’t do it alone

Stegemann said he has seen everything from tears to people yelling at him during a sacking. So, it is better not to hold a meeting like this alone. “Take another manager, preferably a human resources manager, with you in case something out of the ordinary happens,” he said. “It might become emotional and you never know how [the person] will react.”