Empathy is everything when you're letting someone go.
I turned into a robot the first time I fired someone. Cold, emotionless, uncompassionate. Like a lot of people who find themselves in that situation unprepared, I was scared. I was delivering bad news — maybe the worst news this person had ever received. I resorted to what seemed like the safest approach.
Later, I watched a colleague at DoorDash who took a diametrically opposite approach. When he let someone go, the conversations often ended in a hug. It was astonishing. I learned that I could deliver terrible news, but also be empathetic and compassionate.
We naturally think of terminations as the end of a relationship. But from a human perspective, it doesn’t have to be — and from a business perspective, it really shouldn’t be. In this age of interconnectedness, firing someone poorly leaves a sour taste in their mouth, a taste which may end up on Glassdoor, Blind, Discord, Reddit, or old-fashioned conversations with peers and colleagues. I’m always amazed at how small the tech world is, and how quickly stories get around.
There is a correct way to fire someone, and it begins long before the actual termination. Actually, it begins before the employee’s first day on the job. It’s not that you should plan to fire every employee you hire. It’s that you should proactively provide codified expectations and feedback throughout an employee’s lifecycle. This prevents misalignment, and, if necessary, makes it easier to part ways on mutually respectful terms.
Leaders have ethical and fiscal obligations to fire people the right way. Here’s how to do it.
1. Set proper expectations and give constant feedback (give people the best chance to succeed).
Companies often wait until an employee’s first day to outline expectations. This makes day one a rush of information — simultaneously jumping into projects and learning about more nebulous topics like company culture and workplace norms.
Even for startups in rapid hiring mode, setting expectations should start before day one. I recommend sending a plan that outlines goals at 30-, 60-, and 90-day milestones. This way, you won’t be playing catchup when they start.
Once they begin, provide constant, real-time feedback on what’s working and what’s not. Ideally, you want a 5:1 positive-to-negative ratio, administering praise in public and constructive feedback in private. Healthy feedback brings a spectrum of benefits, including higher employee engagement, better employee satisfaction, and greater productivity.
2. Use monthly performance check-ins to stay aligned
It’s easy to fall out of alignment, especially in the era of remote work.
Monthly performance check-ins are a great compliment to real-time feedback, and provide managers an opportunity to synthesize themes and communicate directly with their reports to make sure everyone is on the same page.
Clear expectations and consistent feedback show you who’s a great fit and who needs extra guidance. If an employee’s behavior doesn’t improve after verbal feedback, provide the feedback in writing (email works, no need for an official writeup). Codifying written feedback gives the employee a chance to process in another communication medium. It also implies the severity of the situation.
If their behavior still doesn’t improve, it’s time to escalate.
3. If performance declines, schedule a “Come to Jesus” meeting
Arrange a sit-down meeting outside your normal cadence to discuss their performance. Review negative behaviors, how long they’ve been happening, steps you’ve taken to remedy them, and the lack of meaningful change. Be clear that their current performance isn’t meeting expectations.
This shouldn’t be an adversarial conversation. Your overarching goal is mutual candor and respect, so showing the employee that you want to find the right outcome is crucial.
You have two options at the end of this conversation:
- Put them on a 30-day performance improvement plan (PIP). PIPs are often the first step in firing someone. Many people use PIPs to fend off legal liability if the employee gets fired. That’s not how I use them. If you’ve given constant, documented feedback, you don’t need to worry about liability (though you should always leverage employment counsel to get another perspective). You should only use a PIP if you really believe the employee’s performance can improve. If not…
- Ask them to think about the “best way forward.” Give them a few days — or the weekend — to think things over, and schedule a follow-up. This gives them the chance to opt out on their own terms, which allows them to preserve their dignity. If not, it at least prepares them for the parting conversation.
4. If it becomes necessary to part ways, here’s how to have that conversation:
First of all, prepare. Think about what to say, how they might respond, what your overall goals are. If you don’t, you’ll end up like I did in my first conversation. Trust me, you don’t want that.
Then, when you talk, focus on the future. It’s important to review what wasn’t working and why, but pivot toward next steps and ideal outcomes for both sides. Preserve the utmost confidentiality around their departure, and try to maintain a relationship. You’re not burning everything to the ground just because they no longer work there.
In addition to what you say during this conversation, focus on how you say it. Meet them on an emotional level. Consider how this will impact them, and adapt your demeanor. In the best-case scenario, they leave appreciating the time they spent with the company. They’ll be disappointed, but as time passes they’ll understand that it wasn’t working for them and that the relationships built are not the end of the road.
In the simplest terms, firing someone correctly means preserving their dignity. As Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” When people feel blindsided or treated like a legal liability, they feel undignified. But when they see that you took every possible step to help them, and that you want to preserve the relationship, they may not feel happy, but they’ll at least feel respected.