Team Management

I Fired an Employee and Then They Threw a Chair—Here’s What I Did Next

Jeff Haden Inc. columnist and small business management expert 
How to Fire an Angry Employee the Right Way (+ What to Say to Employees Who Ask Why Someone Was Fired)

Things were going okay—not great, but okay—until he threw a chair.

The day before, when I needed to ask my employee an urgent shipment status question, he wasn’t at his workstation. So I paged him over the loudspeaker.

He didn’t answer. I paged him again. He didn’t answer. I went hunting. I couldn’t find him. No one had seen him for hours.

Long story short, he had slipped out three hours before the end of his shift. Yet he turned in a timesheet that showed he worked a full shift—for the third time in less than a year.

Which, according to company policy, meant I had to let him go.

As I was escorting him from the building, he waved his arms a little, yelled a lot, and busted up a chair in full view of dozens of employees.  

Yep, it was that bad.

Here’s what to do immediately after a firing gone wrong.

1. Make sure the employee you just fired is gone.

Building security was there to ensure my employee couldn’t re-enter the building if he wanted to. But that is rarely the case as not every business or building has access to security. Take a few minutes to ensure your employee doesn’t come back. Rarely will they… but you never know.

Here are some more tips you can follow to ensure your business’ safety.

2. Gather everyone together to explain the situation. (But accept that you won’t be able to share the details your team wants.)

My employees heard (John) yell, “This is BS!” They heard him yell, “You wouldn’t treat anyone else this way!” They heard him yell, “You’ve always had it in for me!”

So naturally, they had questions.

But no matter why John had been fired, that was his business. No one else’s.

And it definitely wasn’t my place to speak poorly of him.

So I said,

“Unfortunately, that’s not something I can share. All I can say is that (John) was terminated for repeated violations of company policy, that we followed disciplinary guidelines to the letter, and that we would have made the same decision regardless of the employee. And that I’m sorry you had to see that.”

Did my answer make people happy? Not really. They already figured John deserved to be let go. What they wanted was the inside scoop.

Which is precisely what I couldn’t give them.

And neither can you.

Maintaining employee confidentiality shouldn’t just be a goal. It should be a basic expectation—even if the person in question is a former employee.

Don’t assume an employee will keep sensitive information to themselves.

And keep in mind that it’s a lot harder to maintain confidentiality when your lips were loose in the past. Once you’ve set the expectation that you will share, it’s a lot harder to refuse to share.

That’s especially true when you’ve just endured a stressful situation. Not only is it nice to have someone to talk to, sharing also builds a stronger relationship and bond, which makes running a business a little less lonely.

But that “openness” also makes saying “I really can’t tell you” much more difficult—and leaves your employee feeling shut out.

That’s why you should never share information with a few employees that you can’t share with all employees.

3. Prep for when individual employees come to you with questions

An employee stepped into my office a few hours after the firing incident. He wanted to know why we fired John.

And suddenly I had a problem. I had worked to build a solid rapport with my team, always answering questions, and giving honest feedback. How could I respond without breaking confidentiality… yet also without breaking the sense of trust I had built?

My only option was to repeat a version of what I had said to the entire team.

“Again, what happened was (John’s) business.”

Keep in mind that kind of situation extends well beyond questions that arise after an employee gets fired. Later in my career, sales at our facility were down significantly and financial results were poor. Employees naturally had questions.

Hard as it was, I wasn’t able to say what I knew, at least not until the announcement (and the preparations) for layoffs were announced publicly.

But I also couldn’t just say, “I’m sorry, I can’t tell you.” That non-answer would go out on the floor as, “I asked him and he said he couldn’t tell me. If there weren’t going to be any layoffs, he would have just said so. That means some of us are definitely going to be laid off.”

In that case, a short answer doesn’t work. You have to go a little deeper. Here’s what I said instead:

“You know we’ve been struggling. We’ve had a lot of meetings to look at options. I wish I could, but I really can’t tell you anything at this point. It’s not fair to others if I tell you things I don’t share with everyone.”

Then offer reassurance.

“Here’s what I can tell you: Whenever decisions are made, and I can share those decisions, I will tell you and everyone else immediately. You’ll be the first to know, and you’ll hear it directly from me. I promise. For now, just know that we’re doing everything we can to make a bad situation as good as possible.”

Does that mean my employee went away happy? No. He might have even felt angry or betrayed.

That’s especially true if you’ve shared things in the past you weren’t allowed to share. (We’ve all spilled a few secrets from time to time, especially with employees we trust.)

But still: Sometimes you can’t say anything. Especially where employee confidentiality is concerned.

4. Take care of paperwork and other administrative details.

Before the termination happens, make sure you understand the laws on firing an employee. Document the conversation you had, and the events that occurred leading up to the termination. (In some states, you may have to provide a termination of employment letter.)

Once your employee is gone, deal with administrative matters right away. Document what happened afterward. If threats were made, tell your HR person. If that’s you, document it.

Notify the people in your business who need to know so that you can do things like suspending key cards or other ways of access. Plus, make sure that your employee’s job duties are covered by someone else, at least in the short term.

I’ve found that most angry employees cool off fairly quickly. (In fact, I ran into John weeks later, and he apologized for how he acted.)

But some may not. Consider escorting employees to their cars at the end of the day, or at the very least having people leave in pairs. And if you have a genuine concern, act on that concern. Talk to building security, or if that’s not applicable, let the police know you’re worried.

I’ve done that. A police officer came by and hung around for a few hours. Nothing happened, but our employees were glad to know we took that extra step to keep them safe.

Firing someone is an emotional experience—and sometimes, emotions can get the best of people.

Sure, dealing with an angry employee will make your job harder in the short term. But if you stay calm, and stay confidential, it will make these types of situations much easier down the road.

Updated: January 5, 2021

Jeff Haden
Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.


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