On Firing Someone


As kids, we were sometimes allowed to watch Saturday cartoons.  Poor George Jetson was always getting fired.

It’s no joke to fire someone.  And there’s a right way to let someone leave.

Start here:  allow people to leave with dignity.

When talking about why someone is leaving, have some standard, culturally resonant language about moving on, a communication template for use with employees and clients.

Keep it simple.  Don’t use words like “fired” or “terminated.”  Don’t blame, don’t address performance.  Wish people well on their way out the door.

And then, make this a standard practice.   Use it every time.   Anything more is nobody’s business.

In recent social conversation, a tech/startup denizen told me she had been coached to be “honest” about firing someone; this honesty was owed to other prospective employers.

Not recommended.  You may be seen to be disparaging your former employee, or to be harming his ability to make a living.  Beyond that sheer badness, your “honesty” could return to your firm as a threat of legal action.  It’s time consuming, and can be expensive.  This won’t serve your own company or investors.

Clients need to know how you’ll continue to serve them.   Not why someone left.

Internally, your people are smart.  It’s no secret when someone didn’t fit, or wasn’t doing his job.  People might even ask, “What took you so long?”

They’ll be watching you, and thinking, what happens when I leave?

How you treat people builds and reflects your culture.  Unless your core values include gossip or disparagement, don’t gossip or disparage.

When you fire someone publicly, kick them to the curb, and then take to media to defend your action, guess what?  You look like a lousy manager.

Who wants to work for a lousy manager?

An employment lawyer recently told me that we should never fire people — even for cause.  Instead, we should have a severance plan in place that offers a graceful exit to anyone who needs to leave.  Check with your own attorney on that one.

Why you fire someone can be far less relevant than how you do it, especially when the employee pursues legal action.

Photo:  Pointy, by A National Acrobat, via Flickr under Creative Commons license.

(5/19 update: I rarely edit a published post.  And did so this morning, after a journo friend asked why I had buried the lede.   It’s good to have friends!   Also good to check my own archives, as I realize I wrote a quite similar post in 2007.  Good management hygiene:  it’s evergreen.)

2 thoughts on “On Firing Someone

  1. I think it was you who taught me, Anne: how you treat departing folks (fired, laid off, or voluntarily departing) is critical for the folks who are *staying.* They see how you treat people on the way out, and your actions speak loudly!

  2. Thanks, Kieran.

    People watch leaders. Every single thing we do either aligns with our values and what we say we want our culture to be…or it doesn’t.

    To manage people effectively, self-management comes first.

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

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