11 Things You Should Never Say When Firing an Employee
Let’s be frank: Firing people sucks.
I hated firing people. Even if an employee totally deserved it. Even if I should have fired them long before. It feels horrible, it’s difficult to tell the team, and in some cases, it will stick with you for a very long time.
Over twenty years later I still wonder if I did the right thing when I fired a particular employee; while his team felt he wasn’t pulling his weight, I wasn’t positive that was the problem. (And I’m still not.)
While letting someone go is hard on you, getting fired is way harder on your employee.
That’s why great business owners put their feelings aside and focus solely on treating their employees as humanely as possible.
Here are 11 things you should never say when firing an employee, along with what you should say instead.
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1. “This is really hard for me.”
Yes, it is… but should your employee care? It may be hard for you, but it’s a lot harder for your employee.
And while you might think you’re softening the blow, consider your employee’s unstated but natural response: “Really? It’s hard for you? It can’t be that hard—you still have your job.”
If you feel bad when you fire someone, and you will, talk about your feelings later. With someone else.
2. “I’m not sure how to say this.”
Oh yes you are. You know what to say. You just don’t want to say it.
Don’t even imply that your employee should feel the discomfort you’re going through. Your job is to help your employee through an incredibly difficult moment. Not you.
Cut to the chase as quickly as possible.
3. “We’ve decided to let you go.”
The word “we” works in nearly every setting—except here.
“I have decided to let you go.”
At this moment, you are the business. So take responsibility for the conversation you’re having.
4. “We’ve decided to go in a different direction.”
No, you decided to fire the person in front of you. You’re not an NFL team firing the head coach. And you’re not announcing their termination at a press conference.
If you’ve done your job correctly and created a performance improvement plan, your employee will already know why they’re being fired. So skip the clichés. State the reason as clearly and concisely as possible. Or just say,
“Joel, I have to let you go.”
Joel should already know why.
5. “We’ll work out the details later.”
For your employee, getting fired is the end of their job and the start of another one: Picking up personal items, learning about COBRA insurance, returning your company’s property, and other hard but essential to-dos.
You need to know ahead of time how all that works. Or have the person who does know take care of those details as soon as your part of the conversation is done.
Put yourself in your employee’s shoes: Getting fired is bad enough. Sitting in limbo while someone figures out “next steps” is humiliating when you just want the experience to be over.
And don’t make your employee wait to talk to other people who are part of the firing process. Once you let someone go, your employee is on their time. So take care of the details during the conversation.
6. “Compared to Susan, your performance is subpar.”
Never compare the person you fire to another employee. Employees should be let go because they fail to meet objective standards, targets, and/or behavioral expectations.
Besides, drawing comparisons between employees makes it possible for what should be an objective decision—and a potential discussion about that decision—to veer into a conversation about the performance of other people.
While another employee might in fact be more efficient than the person you need to let go, what really matters is whether your employee has met their performance standards.
Never muddy the waters by bringing another person into a discussion that should focus solely on your employee.
7. “I understand what you’re saying, but here’s where you’re wrong.”
Most people tend to not make a scene while getting fired, but occasionally someone will argue.
Don’t get sucked into a conversation where seemingly every mistake, every performance issue, every objective problem is open for heated debate.
What should you do instead? If your employee starts to argue, simply say,
“Joel, I’m happy to talk about this for as long as you need… but nothing we talk about will change my decision.”
While that sentence might sound cold, it’s actually a more humane approach. Arguments—especially arguments your employee will inevitably lose—will make them feel even worse.
Be professional. Be empathetic. And don’t respond if your employee begins to vent.
Just listen. It’s the very least you can do—and the most you can do.
8. “You’ve done a great job here, but we have to reduce the team.”
If you’re downsizing, leave performance completely out of the discussion. Firing an employee is quite different than laying them off, so know what the difference is before you have the conversation.
But if you’re not downsizing and just hiding behind that excuse so the conversation is easier for you, then you’re not being honest—and you open your company up to potential issues if you eventually bring on someone new as a backfill.
Never play games to try to protect your employee’s feelings, or worse, to protect your own.
9. “I know you weren’t happy here, so this is actually a good thing.”
Whether or not your employee will someday be glad you let them go is not for you to judge. (A year later I realized getting fired was the best thing that could have happened to me, but at the time I thought the sky was falling.)
It’s impossible for your employee to find a silver lining in the fired cloud, at least at first. Plus, whether or not it’s a good thing is not for you to judge.
Let your employee find their own glimmers of possibility.
10. “I need to escort you from the building immediately. Someone will gather your things.”
I worked for a company where the policy was to walk terminated employees out the building. I hated doing it. A fired employee is not a criminal. Nor do they deserve to take a walk of shame. Unless you have reason to believe your employee will cause an issue if they aren’t supervised while leaving, there’s no need to escort out every person that gets terminated.
Just set simple guardrails. Say something like,
“Joel, go ahead and gather your personal belongings. I’ll meet you back here in fifteen minutes.”
If Joel doesn’t come back in fifteen minutes, get him. He (most likely) will be ready to go.
11. “If I can help you out in anyway, just let me know.”
Granted, offering to help sounds nice. At least it sounded nice to me when I got fired.
But then I thought about it. How will you help me? Write a glowing letter of recommendation? You fired me; that’s not going to happen. Call your network and put in a good word for me? Ditto.
Of course, if you have to lay off a good employee because there isn’t enough work, you should do what you can to help them land another job. Contact your network, write a recommendation, and help connect them to other businesses. But otherwise…?
You should say,
“Call me if you have questions about your final paycheck, health benefits, or other details.”
Leave it at that. Don’t offer to do things you don’t feel comfortable doing. You might feel better because of the gesture, but your employee definitely won’t.
Wrap things up by saying something like,
“I wish you all the best.” Shake hands and let them leave.
Then accept the fact that you’ll feel terrible, regardless of how much you think your employee deserved to be fired. There’s no way around it.
Feeling bad about playing a role in changing someone’s life for the worse (even for a short amount of time) is something that will never get easy.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent Gusto’s views.