FIRING employees is the job I hate the most. Not because it is their failure, but because I regard it as mine. Most of the time, I had either hired them or had a part in bringing them on board.

I had clearly failed to judge them correctly, to motivate them successfully or to offer them a job that was so fulfilling that they wanted to give back their best to the organisation.

In situations where the employee was let go due to a downturn in the economy or because the company was not doing too well, I still felt awful. Couldn’t I have foreseen the situation and avoided it or handled it better?

I have shed many a tear over a departing employee. I worry about their family, the loss of face and the pain they will feel. However, it is never kinder to keep a failing employee. Their expectations will never be fulfilled in this position, and nor will the company’s expectations of them. It is the right thing to let them go — but painfully difficult all the same.

Of course, I am only talking about firing individuals due to poor performance. In situations where it is necessary to fire someone for dishonesty, check with your lawyer first. What you say and don’t say has serious legal implications. You may also consider reporting them to the police.

When firing someone because they are not up to standard or because the job they have been doing has disappeared, what is the best way to do it?


Verify the facts

Before you fire anyone, ask why it is necessary. Is the cause wholly his responsibility? Is it fair to fire this person? Is he due compensation? If so, can you be generous, without wasting shareholders’ money? Does your organisation have a standard procedure for firing employees?

Many companies require that low-performance employees first receive a verbal warning, then a written warning which details what they need to achieve. And only if they are not able to meet these expectations within the stipulated time can they be fired.


Prepare for the meeting

Schedule the time and make sure there will be no interruptions. It is best to fix this meeting soon after you have made the decision to fire the individual. This reduces unnecessary anxiety for the employee about an uncertain situation.

Make sure this meeting is held in a closed-door office, so it is private. Have the necessary paperwork on hand, such as the termination letter or information on compensation. Check whether anyone else should be in the meeting, including Human Resource (HR) staff or senior management. Block all phone calls, including those from your boss or spouse.


Keep it simple

Explain the situation clearly and keep to the point. Make sure the employee knows he has been fired and on what terms. Ideally, being fired should never come as a complete surprise to the individual, especially if suitable warnings have been given beforehand.

However, I once saw a man fired in such a confusing and delicate manner, he thought he had been promoted. Poor man, he had to be fired all over again — a double whammy.


Try to be both honest and merciful

Your employee will feel let down and possibly bitter. Leave him with as much self-respect as possible. Remember the way you treat any employee affects the rest of the team’s morale.

When telling the truth on why you are firing this individual, be professional and focus the discussion on performance-related issues, never on personal issues.

For example, show how sales targets were not met rather than discuss the employee’s incompetence. Ask him questions about his view of how he has been doing his job. Find out what unhappiness led to his less-than-satisfactory performance.

Ask the employee about his career aspirations. Often these responses will make it clear to the affected individual that it is also in his best interest to leave the company. If the person being fired ends up thinking it was the right thing for you to do, you have won.


Where appropriate, give support

Check with your HR department whether the company provides career guidance services to help terminated employees find another job.

In some cases, you may want to offer the individual another less well-paid job within the company. If so, conclude the termination, then make him the other job offer separately. Don’t fall into the trap of your other job offer becoming a bargaining point.

For employees who have been made redundant through no fault of their own, you may feel it is appropriate to have a leaving party (if they would like it), or to invite them back to participate in company social events.

No matter how much you prepare yourself to make a termination less painful, firing employees is a horrid business. However, it is necessary for most organisations at some point. Done in the right way, it results in minimum disruption for the company, and minimum emotional hardship for the employee.


Article by John Bittleston, chairman, chief executive officer and founder mentor of Terrific Mentors International, a group of skilled mentors with significant management experience, who share a passion for reviving balance sheets by restoring human spirits. For more information, visit