A guide to letting go of an employee with compassion
One of the most difficult, and frankly worst, parts of being a manager is letting go of an employee. While it’s often a necessary action for the sake of the organization, it can be an incredibly painful process – and one we hope you won’t have to experience too many times during your career.
Despite the challenges that come with letting an employee go, there are some small yet significant things you can do to make this time of transition a bit easier for everyone involved. Below, we share tips on managing the termination process for all key parties: the employee that is being terminated, the team, and the broader organization.
Regardless of why an employee is fired or laid off, we should prioritize treating them with respect and compassion. While there are legal guidelines you have to follow throughout the process, there are actions you can take to make the employee’s exit as graceful as possible. Here are a few considerations:
Have the conversation face-to-face
It may be tempting to notify a direct report about their termination through email or phone. This isn’t a good idea. Not only do most organizations require the conversation to happen face-to-face (over video or in-person) - since there’s a lot of sensitive information that needs to be exchanged - but it’s also just common courtesy.
If it doesn’t violate any guidelines, make sure you – as the employee’s manager – are the person delivering the message instead of having the HR person or company lawyer do it on your behalf. Your employee is incredibly vulnerable and deserves the respect of having an in-person or video conversation with someone who knows them.
Be compassionate but clear
While it may seem like a nice thing to do, beating around the bush to ease into the news is actually a disservice to your employee. Imagine kicking off a termination conversation with small talk about weekend plans, only to have the bad news delivered to the employee right after – can you imagine how blindsided they would be?
Instead of risking confusion or unnecessarily dragging out an already painful process, simply be direct. Remember: being clear doesn’t mean you have to be unkind. There are ways to balance being straightforward and empathetic.
Prepare for multiple reactions
Everyone has their own method of processing grief. Upon receiving news of their termination, some employees may go into shock and require time alone. Others may accept the news quickly and calmly. Some may become upset or angry.
Since the reactions can vary, you should mentally prepare yourself to handle every possible situation. You can try practicing interchangeable responses, ask a trusted colleague to role-play multiple scenarios or write out how you would empathetically handle the various reactions you’re faced with.
A termination has an impact beyond the employee in question: it ripples out to the employee’s direct team. The employee’s peers can be affected in many ways: they could be friends with the person being terminated, feel anxious about how this transition impacts their own work, be upset by the news, or even wonder if they’re next. During this transition, there’s a lot a manager can do to make the process a bit easier for everyone.
In a time like this, transparency is especially valued. Employees don’t want to receive a corporate-sounding email from the CEO announcing that their friend and colleague were fired. They want to hear from their manager, who speaks to them as humans about the news and why the decision was made. Of course, there are limits to what you can share out of respect to both the terminated employee and the company’s legal obligations. But it would be best if you strived to be as open and genuine as possible.
Make yourself available
This is also a good time to make yourself more available than usual to your team. Your employees will likely have lingering questions and concerns around the termination and need a safe place to turn to. Prepare yourself for conversations around how you plan to redistribute the workload, choose a replacement, and upskill the team to fill in any gaps - just as you would after an employee resigns. You may also consider extending your office hours, having longer one-on-ones with your direct reports, or letting your team know you’re there for them and available to talk any time.
Think of ways to boost morale
After a well-liked employee is fired, there’s usually a drop in employee morale and a rise in work stress. To address this, think of meaningful ways to bring your team together. This could take the form of going out for lunch together, planning an intimate team outing, or even encouraging more walks and talks among team members.
One word of caution: be sensitive about your efforts to boost employee morale. Throwing a big company party the day after an employee is terminated may not be the most appropriate gesture. Instead, take note of the sentiment around the news, and be thoughtful about when and how you time your approach.
It can be jarring for employees to see a coworker at their desk or on Slack every day – only to have them be gone the next. To minimize confusion, you should be prepared to help the leadership team communicate the news about the termination to the broader organization and support them through the transition. There are a few ways you can do this:
Ideally, there’s a plan in place that maps out the company’s communication strategy around employee terminations. If not, now is the time to create one. Managers should work in tandem with the leadership and PR teams to ensure everyone is aligned on communicating the news and answering questions. Otherwise, you risk having leaders share different messages across the company – which could cause confusion and add to the chaos.
Break the silence
While it may be tempting to sit back and hope the termination news blows over, silence is rarely the right option. This would only create tension and feelings that the company isn’t being transparent with its employees. It may also spread false information in the absence of facts. So break the silence, communicate the news authentically to your team, and be prepared to answer complex questions.
Give the company time and space
Again, everyone processes negative news differently. You and the leadership team should be respectful of this fact. While your CEO may feel it’s best to brush off the bad news and move forward with new product launches and exciting announcements, the rest of the company may not share that sentiment. So it’s essential to give the company at least a few days to process the news – especially if there were multiple terminations involved. When the time is right, leadership can begin to discuss the next steps and move forward.
While we hope you don’t have to go through the difficult process of terminating an employee, you can do some things to make the experience a bit less painful for all involved. Take the steps to actively plan for, communicate, and support your employees and teams during this time, and we’re optimistic that you’ll be able to help them move forward past this challenging time together.
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