Career & Success

Career Advice: How to Let an Employee Go — With Respect

There’s a better way to say “you’re fired.”

October 16, 2023

Being asked to leave a job may be someone’s worst professional experience.| iStock/A-Digit

The Manager’s Handbook, writes David Dodson, MBA ’87, “is the book I wished someone had handed me when I first became a manager.”

Dodson, a lecturer in management at the GSB, describes it as a “how-to manual for people serious about getting things done.” One of those things is building great teams. That means hiring the right ­people ­— and dismissing those who don’t work out.

That’s often easier said than done: Bosses who don’t want to hurt their employees’ feelings make things worse by postponing the decision or delivering the news in a way that puts their emotions first. “If you’re committed to excellent leadership,” Dodson writes, “you’ll have to accept this unpleasant aspect of the job of manager.”

So how do you let someone go with respect and ­fairness? Dodson offers some tips:

  • Meet one-on-one. Having another manager or HR person in the room signals distrust and does little to reduce legal exposure.
  • Respect their privacy. Being asked to leave is often embarrassing, and likely someone’s worst professional experience. Meet in a space other employees won’t be able to observe. Consider leaving the room if the employee needs to collect themselves before continuing the meeting.
  • Keep it quick. “Directness is kindness,” Dodson says. The meeting should last no more than 10 minutes. Avoid ambiguous language that might leave the employee ­thinking their role is changing, not ending.
  • Look ahead. Focus on the terms of separation, not the whys behind it. Performance ­feedback may make the ­person being­ dismissed feel ­discouraged or defensive. If they want to know more, schedule a separate meeting after the initial shock wears off.
  • Be ready for questions. If you don’t have answers about logistics like unused vacation time and insurance, the other person will leave feeling unsettled and anxious. “Preparation is compassion,” Dodson writes.
  • Bring a transition agreement. Lay out the terms of the separation and give the employee time to review them.
  • It’s not about your feelings. Avoid awkward lines such as “This is so hard for me” or “I hope we can be friends.” And don’t try to pass off responsibility to your boss, your board, or anyone else. As Dodson explains, “You made the decision; you need to own it.”

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