I have to fire someone- help me

Donald Trump’s approach to termination is certainly theatrical.

Firing someone, sacking, terminating- lets be quite clear about it, there’s no nice word for it – is something that lies ahead of every manager, and while you may wish to emulate Trumps property management nous avoid his HR skills.

If done poorly -the Donald way-  your and your company’s reputation can be damaged. Your ability to deliver business results can be compromised. Your team can experience a dramatic reduction in performance and employee engagement.

Conversely, if done well, terminating a well-liked team member can result in the team maturing, increasing their perception that you are a good manager and it gives permission to emotionally move on so that the focus can go back to performance and productivity rather than the negative work habits of the terminated.

I’ve fired quite a few people in my time, and funnily enough I remain friends with some of them. So I hope I can share some insights and experience to complement your existing HR policy and can help ensure you are on the positive end of the post sacking stick.

Disclaimer ; This piece is not a legal check list to successful manage a termination, if you desire that maybe go back and google “termination checklist” and your country, this is about personal tips on how you can manage the process and ensure good team performance continues.

By looking at this from an organisational psychology perspective can assist you to look beneath the surface at some dynamics that may be occurring in an individual and within the team. These may not be immediately evident, and yet are critical. While your HR policy can indicate that you need to make a simple announcement about someone’s sacking and not to provide any detail to ensure the person’s confidentiality, this may not be the best way to do this for your team. I’ve seen more than a few “left to pursue personal aspirations and we thank them for their contribution” words… but did they resign? or were they sacked?… and if they were sacked what did they do that I should avoid doing?

Certainly, not going into details ensures that people don’t pry into the reasons why the person was sacked thereby assuring that person of confidentiality and an untarnished reputation. This can be useful in some situations, however, there are times where following this at a basic level can destabilise the team and exacerbate pre-existing problems.


Here are the 5 things that can help make a positive post-termination environment:

1. Prepare Well Before the Termination

Even before you have the meeting to tell someone they are being terminated, take the time to understand the wider impact of what is happening with your team. Consider the team member’s preferred behaviour styles and personality and then try to predict how they could react to your discussion. It isn’t overkill to prepare like this. The result of a bad termination experience could be with you and the team for a long time.

Making decisions about the best way forward as you deal with the termination is most effective when done with solid evidence. Useful data can include cultural engagement and climate survey results, and qualitative data from the team. Think also about their personalities and how they could react and prepare for this feedback as well.

This review will better prepare you to deal with the filling gap the person has left, and also assists you reflect on how best how to introduce their replacement if one is needed.

For the rest of the team, think about who is likely to respond strongly to this termination or what  factors could destabilise team morale and diminish team performance.

Make sure you are on the lookout for any changes in emotion or change in behaviours within the team around the time of the termination discussion. People will cover their emotions in a positive way as they don’t want to appear weak or disturbed, but might have conversations with their fellow team members about how they are really feeling and you need to know about this. Keep your feelers out for insights.

If there is someone you trust to have a confidential conversation with, ask them how they feel the team is faring emotionally. Even if people don’t talk about how they feel, you can tell by changes in their behaviours which might include a drop in productivity, being a bit snappy, quieter than usual or taking increased sick days off.

The team itself might change from a typically positive and productive group to one which is quiet and withdrawn. This passive aggressive behaviour has to be responded to immediately to ensure the team survives in a positive environment.

2. Make Sure the Employee Leaves with “face”

It amazes me to hear the horror stories that still happen in businesses regarding the process of how an employee is sacked in companies that really should know better. If the person can’t maintain  face, or leave with their dignity respected this can give rise to a belief that the company is not acting according to its values. Your team members can fear that, one day, that could be them leaving, which can be quite frightening.

All of these principles are important whether a person is long term, within probation time or even an intern- let them all leave with “face”.

The first step with any termination happens a long time before the end point. It is essential to ensure that the employee was fully aware that they were potentially going to be sacked if behaviours didn’t improve. And that there is an objective basis to this.

For a termination to be a surprise to an employee can be an incredible and unnecessary shock. Following basic management guidelines regarding giving negative feedback is imperative. Early, specific and behaviourally-based feedback with examples is essential, as is  agreeing an action plan to address these failures.

Make sure the person are given specific data to allow them to understand why they were being terminated. To leave them wondering what they did wrong is cruel and totally unnecessary- as long as there is a logical reason for their termination.

If a termination is done well ( fact-based, the employee knows the situation,  has had a chance to address the shortfall and has failed) increases the chance that the soon-to-be ex-employee sees their termination as an opportunity to grow and learn and they can continue to be a fan of you and your company long after they’ve left.   There are still some examples of companies shaming people by taking away their computer and other company property in front of everyone in the office whilst they are visibly distressed- this is completely unnecessary.

The emotions of shame and humiliation are much stronger than people imagine and can have a profound impact on the person being terminated and the way they then tell others about the company after they have left. The rise of social media has given a real and cogent voice to disgruntled employees. Given the way that the brain is wired, team members witnessing this type of humiliation can have a strong empathetic emotional response themselves which can have terrible consequences for you and your company.

3. Engage in One on One sessions

Speaking with ‘surviving’ team members about their response after the termination means that there will be no nasty surprises down the track and allows them to feel heard and enable their emotional reactions to be ‘drained’.

If negative emotions in team members are identified and dealt with at an early stage, you ensure issues don’t fester and infect others around them. Once individual and team performance are emotionally ‘infected’, it can be very difficult to undo the damage down the track.

By simply actively listening to individuals’ emotional responses to the change allows them to ventilate any insecurities and for them to feel valued.  When one on one conversations are initiated by you, the team members involved will be far less inclined to perpetuate negative or inaccurate stories about the way the person was dismissed. I have found that being honest with team members enables them to address rumours and to defend the company- rather than them listening passively to others bad-mouthing the business.

It will be uncomfortable at the time but better this than cleaning up the damage later when it is much harder to repair.

For example if there is a feeling that your sacking of the person was unfair, people might feel angry. If anger isn’t expressed it goes underground and surfaces as ‘passive aggression’ which can include taking longer to complete assigned tasks, not returning emails and doing what is possible to undermine the performance of the team knowing that your personal KPIs are on the line.

4. Rites of Passage

Most significant transitions in our lives include experiencing a loss and moving on to the next phase. The most effective transitions occur when the natural human responses are given some  time to air. We all have a grieving process hard wired into us that enables a significant loss to be emotionally dealt with so we can let go of the past and move forward and embrace change.

When this is avoided and a person just disappears and is never spoken of again this can result in people not letting go of either the person who has left or any negative emotional response to their termination. They are therefore less likely to deal positively with the next phase of the team’s development.

This doesn’t mean you go into great detail about why the person was sacked but allow for the team to express about how the person was regarded and how it feels for them to be gone. Many leaders shudder at the idea of even mentioning emotion, but my personal experience is clear: if you don’t do this, it is probably going to bite you when you least expect.

When people don’t have a chance to deal effectively with the loss of a team member and there is limited information, responses can include false rumours developing about the team member and why they disappeared, insecurity about surviving team members own positions, questions arising about the effectiveness of your leadership and your ability to  manage performance which could damage trust in you and your credibility could be questioned.

No matter how you felt about the person who has been terminated, make sure that people do not feel that you fired them for personal reasons. Despite what you feel, for those who did have a positive view of that person, they will most probably develop resentment towards you which can lead to subtle undermining behaviours which are hard to put your finger on but negatively impact on team morale and performance. Make sure you spend time thinking about how you frame the person’s leaving and turn it into something positive, if possible and if true. This could include that the person had many good qualities, was liked by others, and had the full support of the company with moving on, and that this was a mutually agreed choice, or that the individual was given many options but chose not to take any which meant he regrettably had to move on.

5. Deal with Messages about Work

Team members, particularly at lower level positions, often feel quite angry if the direct day-to-day impact of the person’s departure isn’t spoken about. People will often feel that the impact on them will be a much higher workload and even if this is the case, it needs to be spoken about and reassurance given that management is aware of this and will do what is possible to deal with it quickly. Be clear about who does what- and take some of the burden yourself- and be clear about the length of tme they need to bear the extra burden and what, if anything; enhanced bonus, leave-in-lieu, recognition etc


Some of this might seem a bit challenging, but if  you follow these 5 steps, you’ll assist your team to move forward, enhance your leadership profile with your team, and most importantly make sure that your team continues to enjoy their work and perform so that your life at work is easier and more enjoyable.

Please share your experiences in the comments area- both good and bad- of firing or being fired, but enable all to learn.