How to:

Fire somebody (if you have to)

Firing somebody is one of the hardest things you can do as a manager and leader. Here's how to do it properly.

Firing someone sucks. In my experience, even more than you anticipate it will, if it's your first time. But the important thing, and I speak having been on both sides of the conversation, is that it never sucks as much as getting fired yourself. So, cognizant of that, we have a huge responsibility—our biggest as managers—to do it properly. First and foremost, "properly" here means "with full preparation".

It's nothing short of managerial malpractice to be anything less than completely prepared for a conversation like this. We owe it to the person we're firing and everyone who relies on them (like their family), and to our company, too, the legal and reputational liability of which is very sensitive to how a firing is handled.

Firing an employee is one of the most challenging tasks a manager can face. It requires a delicate balance of various mindsets: empathy for the coworker, legal understanding, and care for the company. Here are some best practices to consider when you find yourself in the position of needing to let an employee go:

First and foremost, a quick list of things to never do, in case they're not obvious:

  • Never fire someone over text message, email, or any other kind of impersonal (non-face-to-face) communication. We owe it to our employee to give them the news in person, or at least over a video call (if, because of distance, that's the only option). And when we do this we dramatically reduce the likelihood of legal complications, too.
  • With very rare exceptions, never fire someone immediately after realizing you should (such as after poor performance or a policy infraction). Preparation is half the battle, and by acting immediately, you can't be prepared. If an employee's behavior is outrageously objectionable, consider suspending them instead. This gives cooler heads time to prevail and time to fully investigate and even if firing is clearly in order, it gives you time to prepare to do it right. An acute problem doesn't make preparation less necessary; on the contrary, it's more important in these cases.
  • When firing someone, stick to a pre-prepared script. Don't get sucked into debates or arguments.

That said, what should you do?

Step 1: Assess

Do you actually need to fire this person? How do you know? Where is this issue documented? If the answer is nowhere and we're talking about a performance issue, you haven't done enough pre-firing to resolve the issue.

Get HR involved now, this early. Don't wait to the point where you've already concluded they need to be fired.

Questions to ask yourself include:

  • Have I instituted a formalized (documented) performance improvement plan that was given the full time and resources needed to be successful?
  • Is there any way this might be construed as discriminatory? Even if such factors truly aren't influencing the decision, might it inadvertently have or appear to have a discriminatory effect?
  • Is there another role on this team or at this company that is clearly a better fit instead?
  • Are there specific external, temporal, situational, etc. factors that are having an outsized effect on this employee? Could I address those instead?
  • How will I resource against this need if this employee weren't here?
  • Knowing what I know now, would I have made the same decision to hire back then? What do I know now that has changed my mind? Could I have known it then?
  • Why is now the right time for this employee to be terminated?

Step 2: Prepare and plan

Once you've decided to move forward, you can begin planning. At this point, you're mostly committed. While something really compelling might convince you to not move forward or delay to learn more, particularly in a lengthy process, you should avoid second-guessing the decision after deciding.

Planning can be a complicated process. Here are key things to do:

  • Compile your documentation (notes, emails, messages, etc.) that supports your conclusion that this is the only path forward.
  • Whip the votes: get buy-in from all relevant stakeholders. The net here might need to be broader than you might think. It doesn't matter if it's your decision alone: just as you should hire with other feedback, you should never fire without others' input as well. HR doesn't count here—get insight from those who work directly with this employee. Obviously, in most cases, these people should be peers of the employee who also report to you (some exceptions may exist for very senior employees where their peers are other leaders).
  • Ensure you're solid from a legal and policy standpoint. If needed, consult Legal yourself. Depending on your org structure, don't assume HR has done this. Check yourself.

Planning details

General considerations
  • There are better and worse days to fire someone. Avoid firing someone immediately before or after a company offsite, long weekend, holiday, school holiday (if different and if they have kids), marriage or engagement, paternity or maternity leave, announcement of pregnancy or that they're trying/intending to have a child, planned vacation, health insurance change like open enrollment, major illness, major purchase (like a house), stock earnings call or other major financial or legal company news, or immediately before an equity vesting cliff (if you must do this last one, waive the cliff). These apply to you and to them. Be attentive to other inadvertent correlations, too, like if they've just filed a grievance of some sort. And just like pushing code, it's best to not leave this to EOD Friday.
  • Choose a quiet, private place you won't be disturbed. If you're doing it over a video call, ensure they're in a private place and don't use Slack Hangouts or similar even if it's the main way you normally communicate. Use a one-off Zoom, Google Meet, or another similar tool so it's completely private.
  • Ensure the time is held on their calendar, but don't communicate what the meeting is for ahead of time, even if they guess or circumstances make it seem obvious. If you're meeting in an unusual place or in an unusual way, change the location close to the meeting time (to a place they can easily switch to even at the last minute).
  • It's best practice to bring another person (equivalently or more senior to you is ideal) so it's two-on-one. This person can help you manage the conversation and also act as a witness if there's a future legal issue. Usually, this person will be someone in an HR role, or the equivalent at smaller startups (like a head of ops).
  • It's a good idea to rehearse and review the plan the night prior. Include any partners you'll have on the call. Obviously do so entirely confidentially.
  • Take ownership for the decision in the conversation. Avoid abdicating responsibility by saying "we" to mean the company. It was your decision—say so and take responsibility for it. Also, don't phrase things passively ("the decision was made").
  • Fired people can act erratically and aggressively. Even if you don't think this is a risk, plan for it. In most cases, plan to remove their access to company systems immediately even if you don't end up deciding to or needing to.
  • Plan the full process, not just up to the conversation. That includes everything in this article, in advance.
  • If they're unavailable or unresponsive, have a pre-scripted email with the information you'll send as a fallback. Don't allow more than a day to have the conversation. Be decisive (one way or the other it'll be communicated today).
The content of the conversation

There are a few things your conversation should cover. Here's a basic script:

  • Introduce what the conversation is about: "I've made the decision" to separate. Include a clear sentence up front on what day is their last day at the company. Key points here are that the decision has been made (it's final), by you, and the timeline.
  • Agenda: "I have some things to cover, then <HR person> has a few administrative details, and then I'd be happy to answer any questions you may have for me."
  • Bulk of your script about the decision
  • HR person talks about separation details like severance payment, last day of pay, health insurance, etc. It's important that they mention any legal agreements you may ask the separated employee to sign.
  • Back to you to ask if they have any questions. Field those questions with direct, contained, brief answers. Don't guess any answers—if you don't know or are at all unsure, say you'll get back to them with the answer in an email.

The time may drag on longer than you've planned. If that happens, feel free to wrap up the meeting. You don't have to get to everything in that first meeting.

Plan beyond the transition

How will you manage this person's work? Even an underperforming employee may leave a significant gap. Confirm explicitly that you have headcount to backfill the hire, or plan to continue without that resource. Consider if an agency, freelancer, contractor, etc. might be a better way to resource the role's need going forward, too.

Pro tips

Measure twice and cut once

As the saying goes, measure twice and cut once. It's critical that the team not worry that a firing might be a signal of instability which might threaten their own jobs. It's natural for employees to ask themselves (and sometimes you, explicitly), "could I be next?" The only way to mitigate this potential for panic is to assure the team, robustly, that this is the only firing that's planned (and then mean it). Nothing is more damaging to morale than one after another firings in close succession. If you've fired one person, you can't do it again for a while (unless your team is very, very big and even then it's not great).

Firing is a trauma to the team; minimize it by being decisive and clear, like a surgeon. Never hack away like you don't know what you're doing.

Be attentive to leaks

It's surprisingly easy for employees on a tight-knit team to have an intuition that something is up. They might notice that while there was strong criticism of an employee, it's now gone away (a sort of calm before the storm as managers effectively give up that things will improve). When you're getting stakeholder buy-in, those stakeholders, some of whom may not be accustomed to this, might start acting weird. Or worst still, the document(s) you use to plan this decision may be visible or accessible to team members in highly interconnected technology environments, particularly in remote work. As an IC, I once discovered I had access to an executive channel with such communications I definitely should not have had access to. It's really hard to be airtight so keep it simple: few docs, few people.

You could also inadvertently screen-share an article like this one, so don't keep this article open in your tabs even, or especially, if you don't have any intention of firing someone now. Be very cautious—more than you think you should be—about how, where, and when you discuss such matters.

Step 3: Execute the plan

Day of, here's what you'll do:

  1. Schedule the meeting
  2. Have the meeting (and follow a script)
  3. Send a (pre-scripted) follow-up email to the separated employee
  4. Gather the team to message what happened
  5. Debrief with your partners

Pro tips

Stay emotionally present but neutral; never make the conversation angry, ambiguous, or apathetic

There's a human tendency to emotionally withdraw or to lean into negative emotions as a way to manage difficult conversations. Particularly if you notice that you tend to be conflict-averse, you may have noticed this tendency already. If so, firing someone is going to be particularly hard for you because it is fundamentally a conflict. Be sure to manage these tendencies if firing someone. Don't act aggressive or angry as a way to communicate your conflict aversion, sadness, or frustration. Be neutral, but that doesn't mean be dead inside; remain emotionally present. A mantra that can help is to say to yourself, "It's unfortunate that this final decision was necessary and I care deeply about supporting this employee through this." That can help keep you in the right headspace.

Never improvise

Never improvise during a firing. Even if you've done them before and even if they're well planned, these are always stressful. Don't rely on your real-time judgement to determine what to do or say. Follow a pre-prepared script closely. This has the added advantage of serving as a record of exactly what was said in case there are legal issues afterward. When you improvise, you don't have a record of what was said, weakening your legal defensibility.

It's not a performance review; don't use the time to get deep into performance (it makes it seem less like a final decision)

Be wary of the inclination in many subjects of firing to engage you in a nuanced discussion about why this is occurring. To the maximum extent your organization permits it, it's always good to give feedback, but it can help to segment most of this into a separate conversation. This keeps the firing conversation about operational concerns—on the decision and next steps—not on the inherently nuanced and changing nature of performance assessment. When you discuss these in depth, it's easy to get into a situation where you have to concede a point, which makes the firing sound unprincipled, unreasonable, or unplanned, and therefore, not final. Everything you do and say should reinforce that the decision has already occurred and we're now discussing what happens next.

Step 4: Message and manage the team

Though I'm listing this separately, this (like everything) should also be part of your planning process and execution of the plan day-of. A communication to the team needs to come from you immediately after the conversation with the employee has ended. Be prepared that they may have already heard from the employee directly, or they may have suspected something like this was coming.

Like the firing conversation, it's usually best to have this conversation in-person or as close to it as you can. But usually, having the conversation quickly is more important than doing it ideally. This is one of the rare cases where I'll insist on overriding most existing meetings that may be a conflict with the time.

Key talking points for this part of the process include:

  • This happened for a specific reason and here's what it is.
  • We tried hard to avoid it, and here's what we did specifically (read: what you can expect were this to happen to you).
  • Your jobs are not at risk (only say this if this is true, of course).
  • This is a hard time and I'm here to support you however I can. We'll get through this and be a stronger team on the other side.
  • Feel free to take the rest of the day off and schedule time with me anytime—my calendar is wide open for the rest of the day.
  • Are there any questions anyone would like to ask now, as a group?

Keep it brief and moving. Wrap up the conversation when there are no more questions. Don't allow extended awkward pauses.

Step 5: Debrief and learn

Good HR orgs will already have this as part of their process. If so, be prepared for it. If not, you should initiate it. It's okay if the bulk of this happens a little while after the termination—you sometimes can benefit from some perspective—but I find it helpful to get immediate debriefing right after the dust settles the same day, especially if the conversation went anything other than 100% according to plan.

In addition to learning from the experience, you may need to take action in response to what the (now former) employee said or did.

Approach this conversation with a humble, growth mindset. Even if it went great, this is not a day of success, but an unfortunate conclusion to a regrettable process. As with a formal retro, it can help to document what you learned, both in how to conduct firing conversations and how you would make a future employee successful.

Step 5: Support the employee post-termination

As mentioned, fired people can behave very unpredictably, particularly immediately after and within a few days of being fired. This is when they're reacting (often without having thought about this situation beforehand) and when the real concerns of reality sink in, respectively. Most people become much more stable at least several days later.

A few points of guidance:

  • Don't be surprised if the employee takes things personally. However much you may anticipate the interpersonal shock, it can still be surprisingly jarring when an employee you had a great relationship with now doesn't talk to you, even though you understand why. Give them time and space.
  • Don't assume how the employee would like to communicate this news to the public, their family, etc. Never post about the employee or firing, even anonymously. The employee may wish, for various legitimate reasons, to delay communicating this news. With the exception of communication to your own team and company, it's their news to communicate to others.
  • Don't assume what kind of role they'll next be looking for. Let them drive how they'd like you to help.

Step 6: Take care of yourself

Firing people is really hard. Once the day is done, try to get some rest. You'll know how you best recover: maybe it's  calling a close friend to talk or maybe it's having alone time. Do what you need to to be able to come back to work okay because your remaining team deserves your full self and the confidence they'll get by seeing you continue forward.

Again, however, it's critical that you not allow your feelings or exhaustion to become public- or team-facing. Never post on social media about the experience. Ever. It's a really bad look.

So that's it. I hope it's helpful. Did I get something wrong? Have a question? Let me know

How to

How to: Fire somebody (if you have to)

Firing someone sucks. In my experience, even more than you anticipate it will, if it's your first time. But the important thing, and I speak having been on both sides of the conversation, is that it never sucks as much as getting fired yourself. So, cognizant of that, we have a huge responsibility—our biggest as managers—to do it properly. First and foremost, "properly" here means "with full preparation".

It's nothing short of managerial malpractice to be anything less than completely prepared for a conversation like this. We owe it to the person we're firing and everyone who relies on them (like their family), and to our company, too, the legal and reputational liability of which is very sensitive to how a firing is handled.

Firing an employee is one of the most challenging tasks a manager can face. It requires a delicate balance of various mindsets: empathy for the coworker, legal understanding, and care for the company. Here are some best practices to consider when you find yourself in the position of needing to let an employee go:

First and foremost, a quick list of things to never do, in case they're not obvious:

  • Never fire someone over text message, email, or any other kind of impersonal (non-face-to-face) communication. We owe it to our employee to give them the news in person, or at least over a video call (if, because of distance, that's the only option). And when we do this we dramatically reduce the likelihood of legal complications, too.
  • With very rare exceptions, never fire someone immediately after realizing you should (such as after poor performance or a policy infraction). Preparation is half the battle, and by acting immediately, you can't be prepared. If an employee's behavior is outrageously objectionable, consider suspending them instead. This gives cooler heads time to prevail and time to fully investigate and even if firing is clearly in order, it gives you time to prepare to do it right. An acute problem doesn't make preparation less necessary; on the contrary, it's more important in these cases.
  • When firing someone, stick to a pre-prepared script. Don't get sucked into debates or arguments.

That said, what should you do?

Step 1: Assess

Do you actually need to fire this person? How do you know? Where is this issue documented? If the answer is nowhere and we're talking about a performance issue, you haven't done enough pre-firing to resolve the issue.

Get HR involved now, this early. Don't wait to the point where you've already concluded they need to be fired.

Questions to ask yourself include:

  • Have I instituted a formalized (documented) performance improvement plan that was given the full time and resources needed to be successful?
  • Is there any way this might be construed as discriminatory? Even if such factors truly aren't influencing the decision, might it inadvertently have or appear to have a discriminatory effect?
  • Is there another role on this team or at this company that is clearly a better fit instead?
  • Are there specific external, temporal, situational, etc. factors that are having an outsized effect on this employee? Could I address those instead?
  • How will I resource against this need if this employee weren't here?
  • Knowing what I know now, would I have made the same decision to hire back then? What do I know now that has changed my mind? Could I have known it then?
  • Why is now the right time for this employee to be terminated?

Step 2: Prepare and plan

Once you've decided to move forward, you can begin planning. At this point, you're mostly committed. While something really compelling might convince you to not move forward or delay to learn more, particularly in a lengthy process, you should avoid second-guessing the decision after deciding.

Planning can be a complicated process. Here are key things to do:

  • Compile your documentation (notes, emails, messages, etc.) that supports your conclusion that this is the only path forward.
  • Whip the votes: get buy-in from all relevant stakeholders. The net here might need to be broader than you might think. It doesn't matter if it's your decision alone: just as you should hire with other feedback, you should never fire without others' input as well. HR doesn't count here—get insight from those who work directly with this employee. Obviously, in most cases, these people should be peers of the employee who also report to you (some exceptions may exist for very senior employees where their peers are other leaders).
  • Ensure you're solid from a legal and policy standpoint. If needed, consult Legal yourself. Depending on your org structure, don't assume HR has done this. Check yourself.

Planning details

General considerations
  • There are better and worse days to fire someone. Avoid firing someone immediately before or after a company offsite, long weekend, holiday, school holiday (if different and if they have kids), marriage or engagement, paternity or maternity leave, announcement of pregnancy or that they're trying/intending to have a child, planned vacation, health insurance change like open enrollment, major illness, major purchase (like a house), stock earnings call or other major financial or legal company news, or immediately before an equity vesting cliff (if you must do this last one, waive the cliff). These apply to you and to them. Be attentive to other inadvertent correlations, too, like if they've just filed a grievance of some sort. And just like pushing code, it's best to not leave this to EOD Friday.
  • Choose a quiet, private place you won't be disturbed. If you're doing it over a video call, ensure they're in a private place and don't use Slack Hangouts or similar even if it's the main way you normally communicate. Use a one-off Zoom, Google Meet, or another similar tool so it's completely private.
  • Ensure the time is held on their calendar, but don't communicate what the meeting is for ahead of time, even if they guess or circumstances make it seem obvious. If you're meeting in an unusual place or in an unusual way, change the location close to the meeting time (to a place they can easily switch to even at the last minute).
  • It's best practice to bring another person (equivalently or more senior to you is ideal) so it's two-on-one. This person can help you manage the conversation and also act as a witness if there's a future legal issue. Usually, this person will be someone in an HR role, or the equivalent at smaller startups (like a head of ops).
  • It's a good idea to rehearse and review the plan the night prior. Include any partners you'll have on the call. Obviously do so entirely confidentially.
  • Take ownership for the decision in the conversation. Avoid abdicating responsibility by saying "we" to mean the company. It was your decision—say so and take responsibility for it. Also, don't phrase things passively ("the decision was made").
  • Fired people can act erratically and aggressively. Even if you don't think this is a risk, plan for it. In most cases, plan to remove their access to company systems immediately even if you don't end up deciding to or needing to.
  • Plan the full process, not just up to the conversation. That includes everything in this article, in advance.
  • If they're unavailable or unresponsive, have a pre-scripted email with the information you'll send as a fallback. Don't allow more than a day to have the conversation. Be decisive (one way or the other it'll be communicated today).
The content of the conversation

There are a few things your conversation should cover. Here's a basic script:

  • Introduce what the conversation is about: "I've made the decision" to separate. Include a clear sentence up front on what day is their last day at the company. Key points here are that the decision has been made (it's final), by you, and the timeline.
  • Agenda: "I have some things to cover, then <HR person> has a few administrative details, and then I'd be happy to answer any questions you may have for me."
  • Bulk of your script about the decision
  • HR person talks about separation details like severance payment, last day of pay, health insurance, etc. It's important that they mention any legal agreements you may ask the separated employee to sign.
  • Back to you to ask if they have any questions. Field those questions with direct, contained, brief answers. Don't guess any answers—if you don't know or are at all unsure, say you'll get back to them with the answer in an email.

The time may drag on longer than you've planned. If that happens, feel free to wrap up the meeting. You don't have to get to everything in that first meeting.

Plan beyond the transition

How will you manage this person's work? Even an underperforming employee may leave a significant gap. Confirm explicitly that you have headcount to backfill the hire, or plan to continue without that resource. Consider if an agency, freelancer, contractor, etc. might be a better way to resource the role's need going forward, too.

Pro tips

Measure twice and cut once

As the saying goes, measure twice and cut once. It's critical that the team not worry that a firing might be a signal of instability which might threaten their own jobs. It's natural for employees to ask themselves (and sometimes you, explicitly), "could I be next?" The only way to mitigate this potential for panic is to assure the team, robustly, that this is the only firing that's planned (and then mean it). Nothing is more damaging to morale than one after another firings in close succession. If you've fired one person, you can't do it again for a while (unless your team is very, very big and even then it's not great).

Firing is a trauma to the team; minimize it by being decisive and clear, like a surgeon. Never hack away like you don't know what you're doing.

Be attentive to leaks

It's surprisingly easy for employees on a tight-knit team to have an intuition that something is up. They might notice that while there was strong criticism of an employee, it's now gone away (a sort of calm before the storm as managers effectively give up that things will improve). When you're getting stakeholder buy-in, those stakeholders, some of whom may not be accustomed to this, might start acting weird. Or worst still, the document(s) you use to plan this decision may be visible or accessible to team members in highly interconnected technology environments, particularly in remote work. As an IC, I once discovered I had access to an executive channel with such communications I definitely should not have had access to. It's really hard to be airtight so keep it simple: few docs, few people.

You could also inadvertently screen-share an article like this one, so don't keep this article open in your tabs even, or especially, if you don't have any intention of firing someone now. Be very cautious—more than you think you should be—about how, where, and when you discuss such matters.

Step 3: Execute the plan

Day of, here's what you'll do:

  1. Schedule the meeting
  2. Have the meeting (and follow a script)
  3. Send a (pre-scripted) follow-up email to the separated employee
  4. Gather the team to message what happened
  5. Debrief with your partners

Pro tips

Stay emotionally present but neutral; never make the conversation angry, ambiguous, or apathetic

There's a human tendency to emotionally withdraw or to lean into negative emotions as a way to manage difficult conversations. Particularly if you notice that you tend to be conflict-averse, you may have noticed this tendency already. If so, firing someone is going to be particularly hard for you because it is fundamentally a conflict. Be sure to manage these tendencies if firing someone. Don't act aggressive or angry as a way to communicate your conflict aversion, sadness, or frustration. Be neutral, but that doesn't mean be dead inside; remain emotionally present. A mantra that can help is to say to yourself, "It's unfortunate that this final decision was necessary and I care deeply about supporting this employee through this." That can help keep you in the right headspace.

Never improvise

Never improvise during a firing. Even if you've done them before and even if they're well planned, these are always stressful. Don't rely on your real-time judgement to determine what to do or say. Follow a pre-prepared script closely. This has the added advantage of serving as a record of exactly what was said in case there are legal issues afterward. When you improvise, you don't have a record of what was said, weakening your legal defensibility.

It's not a performance review; don't use the time to get deep into performance (it makes it seem less like a final decision)

Be wary of the inclination in many subjects of firing to engage you in a nuanced discussion about why this is occurring. To the maximum extent your organization permits it, it's always good to give feedback, but it can help to segment most of this into a separate conversation. This keeps the firing conversation about operational concerns—on the decision and next steps—not on the inherently nuanced and changing nature of performance assessment. When you discuss these in depth, it's easy to get into a situation where you have to concede a point, which makes the firing sound unprincipled, unreasonable, or unplanned, and therefore, not final. Everything you do and say should reinforce that the decision has already occurred and we're now discussing what happens next.

Step 4: Message and manage the team

Though I'm listing this separately, this (like everything) should also be part of your planning process and execution of the plan day-of. A communication to the team needs to come from you immediately after the conversation with the employee has ended. Be prepared that they may have already heard from the employee directly, or they may have suspected something like this was coming.

Like the firing conversation, it's usually best to have this conversation in-person or as close to it as you can. But usually, having the conversation quickly is more important than doing it ideally. This is one of the rare cases where I'll insist on overriding most existing meetings that may be a conflict with the time.

Key talking points for this part of the process include:

  • This happened for a specific reason and here's what it is.
  • We tried hard to avoid it, and here's what we did specifically (read: what you can expect were this to happen to you).
  • Your jobs are not at risk (only say this if this is true, of course).
  • This is a hard time and I'm here to support you however I can. We'll get through this and be a stronger team on the other side.
  • Feel free to take the rest of the day off and schedule time with me anytime—my calendar is wide open for the rest of the day.
  • Are there any questions anyone would like to ask now, as a group?

Keep it brief and moving. Wrap up the conversation when there are no more questions. Don't allow extended awkward pauses.

Step 5: Debrief and learn

Good HR orgs will already have this as part of their process. If so, be prepared for it. If not, you should initiate it. It's okay if the bulk of this happens a little while after the termination—you sometimes can benefit from some perspective—but I find it helpful to get immediate debriefing right after the dust settles the same day, especially if the conversation went anything other than 100% according to plan.

In addition to learning from the experience, you may need to take action in response to what the (now former) employee said or did.

Approach this conversation with a humble, growth mindset. Even if it went great, this is not a day of success, but an unfortunate conclusion to a regrettable process. As with a formal retro, it can help to document what you learned, both in how to conduct firing conversations and how you would make a future employee successful.

Step 5: Support the employee post-termination

As mentioned, fired people can behave very unpredictably, particularly immediately after and within a few days of being fired. This is when they're reacting (often without having thought about this situation beforehand) and when the real concerns of reality sink in, respectively. Most people become much more stable at least several days later.

A few points of guidance:

  • Don't be surprised if the employee takes things personally. However much you may anticipate the interpersonal shock, it can still be surprisingly jarring when an employee you had a great relationship with now doesn't talk to you, even though you understand why. Give them time and space.
  • Don't assume how the employee would like to communicate this news to the public, their family, etc. Never post about the employee or firing, even anonymously. The employee may wish, for various legitimate reasons, to delay communicating this news. With the exception of communication to your own team and company, it's their news to communicate to others.
  • Don't assume what kind of role they'll next be looking for. Let them drive how they'd like you to help.

Step 6: Take care of yourself

Firing people is really hard. Once the day is done, try to get some rest. You'll know how you best recover: maybe it's  calling a close friend to talk or maybe it's having alone time. Do what you need to to be able to come back to work okay because your remaining team deserves your full self and the confidence they'll get by seeing you continue forward.

Again, however, it's critical that you not allow your feelings or exhaustion to become public- or team-facing. Never post on social media about the experience. Ever. It's a really bad look.

So that's it. I hope it's helpful. Did I get something wrong? Have a question? Let me know

Updated continuously • Last edited on
1.17.24
No items found.
How to

How to: Fire somebody (if you have to)

No items found.
Updated continuously •
Last edited on
1.17.24

Firing someone sucks. In my experience, even more than you anticipate it will, if it's your first time. But the important thing, and I speak having been on both sides of the conversation, is that it never sucks as much as getting fired yourself. So, cognizant of that, we have a huge responsibility—our biggest as managers—to do it properly. First and foremost, "properly" here means "with full preparation".

It's nothing short of managerial malpractice to be anything less than completely prepared for a conversation like this. We owe it to the person we're firing and everyone who relies on them (like their family), and to our company, too, the legal and reputational liability of which is very sensitive to how a firing is handled.

Firing an employee is one of the most challenging tasks a manager can face. It requires a delicate balance of various mindsets: empathy for the coworker, legal understanding, and care for the company. Here are some best practices to consider when you find yourself in the position of needing to let an employee go:

First and foremost, a quick list of things to never do, in case they're not obvious:

  • Never fire someone over text message, email, or any other kind of impersonal (non-face-to-face) communication. We owe it to our employee to give them the news in person, or at least over a video call (if, because of distance, that's the only option). And when we do this we dramatically reduce the likelihood of legal complications, too.
  • With very rare exceptions, never fire someone immediately after realizing you should (such as after poor performance or a policy infraction). Preparation is half the battle, and by acting immediately, you can't be prepared. If an employee's behavior is outrageously objectionable, consider suspending them instead. This gives cooler heads time to prevail and time to fully investigate and even if firing is clearly in order, it gives you time to prepare to do it right. An acute problem doesn't make preparation less necessary; on the contrary, it's more important in these cases.
  • When firing someone, stick to a pre-prepared script. Don't get sucked into debates or arguments.

That said, what should you do?

Step 1: Assess

Do you actually need to fire this person? How do you know? Where is this issue documented? If the answer is nowhere and we're talking about a performance issue, you haven't done enough pre-firing to resolve the issue.

Get HR involved now, this early. Don't wait to the point where you've already concluded they need to be fired.

Questions to ask yourself include:

  • Have I instituted a formalized (documented) performance improvement plan that was given the full time and resources needed to be successful?
  • Is there any way this might be construed as discriminatory? Even if such factors truly aren't influencing the decision, might it inadvertently have or appear to have a discriminatory effect?
  • Is there another role on this team or at this company that is clearly a better fit instead?
  • Are there specific external, temporal, situational, etc. factors that are having an outsized effect on this employee? Could I address those instead?
  • How will I resource against this need if this employee weren't here?
  • Knowing what I know now, would I have made the same decision to hire back then? What do I know now that has changed my mind? Could I have known it then?
  • Why is now the right time for this employee to be terminated?

Step 2: Prepare and plan

Once you've decided to move forward, you can begin planning. At this point, you're mostly committed. While something really compelling might convince you to not move forward or delay to learn more, particularly in a lengthy process, you should avoid second-guessing the decision after deciding.

Planning can be a complicated process. Here are key things to do:

  • Compile your documentation (notes, emails, messages, etc.) that supports your conclusion that this is the only path forward.
  • Whip the votes: get buy-in from all relevant stakeholders. The net here might need to be broader than you might think. It doesn't matter if it's your decision alone: just as you should hire with other feedback, you should never fire without others' input as well. HR doesn't count here—get insight from those who work directly with this employee. Obviously, in most cases, these people should be peers of the employee who also report to you (some exceptions may exist for very senior employees where their peers are other leaders).
  • Ensure you're solid from a legal and policy standpoint. If needed, consult Legal yourself. Depending on your org structure, don't assume HR has done this. Check yourself.

Planning details

General considerations
  • There are better and worse days to fire someone. Avoid firing someone immediately before or after a company offsite, long weekend, holiday, school holiday (if different and if they have kids), marriage or engagement, paternity or maternity leave, announcement of pregnancy or that they're trying/intending to have a child, planned vacation, health insurance change like open enrollment, major illness, major purchase (like a house), stock earnings call or other major financial or legal company news, or immediately before an equity vesting cliff (if you must do this last one, waive the cliff). These apply to you and to them. Be attentive to other inadvertent correlations, too, like if they've just filed a grievance of some sort. And just like pushing code, it's best to not leave this to EOD Friday.
  • Choose a quiet, private place you won't be disturbed. If you're doing it over a video call, ensure they're in a private place and don't use Slack Hangouts or similar even if it's the main way you normally communicate. Use a one-off Zoom, Google Meet, or another similar tool so it's completely private.
  • Ensure the time is held on their calendar, but don't communicate what the meeting is for ahead of time, even if they guess or circumstances make it seem obvious. If you're meeting in an unusual place or in an unusual way, change the location close to the meeting time (to a place they can easily switch to even at the last minute).
  • It's best practice to bring another person (equivalently or more senior to you is ideal) so it's two-on-one. This person can help you manage the conversation and also act as a witness if there's a future legal issue. Usually, this person will be someone in an HR role, or the equivalent at smaller startups (like a head of ops).
  • It's a good idea to rehearse and review the plan the night prior. Include any partners you'll have on the call. Obviously do so entirely confidentially.
  • Take ownership for the decision in the conversation. Avoid abdicating responsibility by saying "we" to mean the company. It was your decision—say so and take responsibility for it. Also, don't phrase things passively ("the decision was made").
  • Fired people can act erratically and aggressively. Even if you don't think this is a risk, plan for it. In most cases, plan to remove their access to company systems immediately even if you don't end up deciding to or needing to.
  • Plan the full process, not just up to the conversation. That includes everything in this article, in advance.
  • If they're unavailable or unresponsive, have a pre-scripted email with the information you'll send as a fallback. Don't allow more than a day to have the conversation. Be decisive (one way or the other it'll be communicated today).
The content of the conversation

There are a few things your conversation should cover. Here's a basic script:

  • Introduce what the conversation is about: "I've made the decision" to separate. Include a clear sentence up front on what day is their last day at the company. Key points here are that the decision has been made (it's final), by you, and the timeline.
  • Agenda: "I have some things to cover, then <HR person> has a few administrative details, and then I'd be happy to answer any questions you may have for me."
  • Bulk of your script about the decision
  • HR person talks about separation details like severance payment, last day of pay, health insurance, etc. It's important that they mention any legal agreements you may ask the separated employee to sign.
  • Back to you to ask if they have any questions. Field those questions with direct, contained, brief answers. Don't guess any answers—if you don't know or are at all unsure, say you'll get back to them with the answer in an email.

The time may drag on longer than you've planned. If that happens, feel free to wrap up the meeting. You don't have to get to everything in that first meeting.

Plan beyond the transition

How will you manage this person's work? Even an underperforming employee may leave a significant gap. Confirm explicitly that you have headcount to backfill the hire, or plan to continue without that resource. Consider if an agency, freelancer, contractor, etc. might be a better way to resource the role's need going forward, too.

Pro tips

Measure twice and cut once

As the saying goes, measure twice and cut once. It's critical that the team not worry that a firing might be a signal of instability which might threaten their own jobs. It's natural for employees to ask themselves (and sometimes you, explicitly), "could I be next?" The only way to mitigate this potential for panic is to assure the team, robustly, that this is the only firing that's planned (and then mean it). Nothing is more damaging to morale than one after another firings in close succession. If you've fired one person, you can't do it again for a while (unless your team is very, very big and even then it's not great).

Firing is a trauma to the team; minimize it by being decisive and clear, like a surgeon. Never hack away like you don't know what you're doing.

Be attentive to leaks

It's surprisingly easy for employees on a tight-knit team to have an intuition that something is up. They might notice that while there was strong criticism of an employee, it's now gone away (a sort of calm before the storm as managers effectively give up that things will improve). When you're getting stakeholder buy-in, those stakeholders, some of whom may not be accustomed to this, might start acting weird. Or worst still, the document(s) you use to plan this decision may be visible or accessible to team members in highly interconnected technology environments, particularly in remote work. As an IC, I once discovered I had access to an executive channel with such communications I definitely should not have had access to. It's really hard to be airtight so keep it simple: few docs, few people.

You could also inadvertently screen-share an article like this one, so don't keep this article open in your tabs even, or especially, if you don't have any intention of firing someone now. Be very cautious—more than you think you should be—about how, where, and when you discuss such matters.

Step 3: Execute the plan

Day of, here's what you'll do:

  1. Schedule the meeting
  2. Have the meeting (and follow a script)
  3. Send a (pre-scripted) follow-up email to the separated employee
  4. Gather the team to message what happened
  5. Debrief with your partners

Pro tips

Stay emotionally present but neutral; never make the conversation angry, ambiguous, or apathetic

There's a human tendency to emotionally withdraw or to lean into negative emotions as a way to manage difficult conversations. Particularly if you notice that you tend to be conflict-averse, you may have noticed this tendency already. If so, firing someone is going to be particularly hard for you because it is fundamentally a conflict. Be sure to manage these tendencies if firing someone. Don't act aggressive or angry as a way to communicate your conflict aversion, sadness, or frustration. Be neutral, but that doesn't mean be dead inside; remain emotionally present. A mantra that can help is to say to yourself, "It's unfortunate that this final decision was necessary and I care deeply about supporting this employee through this." That can help keep you in the right headspace.

Never improvise

Never improvise during a firing. Even if you've done them before and even if they're well planned, these are always stressful. Don't rely on your real-time judgement to determine what to do or say. Follow a pre-prepared script closely. This has the added advantage of serving as a record of exactly what was said in case there are legal issues afterward. When you improvise, you don't have a record of what was said, weakening your legal defensibility.

It's not a performance review; don't use the time to get deep into performance (it makes it seem less like a final decision)

Be wary of the inclination in many subjects of firing to engage you in a nuanced discussion about why this is occurring. To the maximum extent your organization permits it, it's always good to give feedback, but it can help to segment most of this into a separate conversation. This keeps the firing conversation about operational concerns—on the decision and next steps—not on the inherently nuanced and changing nature of performance assessment. When you discuss these in depth, it's easy to get into a situation where you have to concede a point, which makes the firing sound unprincipled, unreasonable, or unplanned, and therefore, not final. Everything you do and say should reinforce that the decision has already occurred and we're now discussing what happens next.

Step 4: Message and manage the team

Though I'm listing this separately, this (like everything) should also be part of your planning process and execution of the plan day-of. A communication to the team needs to come from you immediately after the conversation with the employee has ended. Be prepared that they may have already heard from the employee directly, or they may have suspected something like this was coming.

Like the firing conversation, it's usually best to have this conversation in-person or as close to it as you can. But usually, having the conversation quickly is more important than doing it ideally. This is one of the rare cases where I'll insist on overriding most existing meetings that may be a conflict with the time.

Key talking points for this part of the process include:

  • This happened for a specific reason and here's what it is.
  • We tried hard to avoid it, and here's what we did specifically (read: what you can expect were this to happen to you).
  • Your jobs are not at risk (only say this if this is true, of course).
  • This is a hard time and I'm here to support you however I can. We'll get through this and be a stronger team on the other side.
  • Feel free to take the rest of the day off and schedule time with me anytime—my calendar is wide open for the rest of the day.
  • Are there any questions anyone would like to ask now, as a group?

Keep it brief and moving. Wrap up the conversation when there are no more questions. Don't allow extended awkward pauses.

Step 5: Debrief and learn

Good HR orgs will already have this as part of their process. If so, be prepared for it. If not, you should initiate it. It's okay if the bulk of this happens a little while after the termination—you sometimes can benefit from some perspective—but I find it helpful to get immediate debriefing right after the dust settles the same day, especially if the conversation went anything other than 100% according to plan.

In addition to learning from the experience, you may need to take action in response to what the (now former) employee said or did.

Approach this conversation with a humble, growth mindset. Even if it went great, this is not a day of success, but an unfortunate conclusion to a regrettable process. As with a formal retro, it can help to document what you learned, both in how to conduct firing conversations and how you would make a future employee successful.

Step 5: Support the employee post-termination

As mentioned, fired people can behave very unpredictably, particularly immediately after and within a few days of being fired. This is when they're reacting (often without having thought about this situation beforehand) and when the real concerns of reality sink in, respectively. Most people become much more stable at least several days later.

A few points of guidance:

  • Don't be surprised if the employee takes things personally. However much you may anticipate the interpersonal shock, it can still be surprisingly jarring when an employee you had a great relationship with now doesn't talk to you, even though you understand why. Give them time and space.
  • Don't assume how the employee would like to communicate this news to the public, their family, etc. Never post about the employee or firing, even anonymously. The employee may wish, for various legitimate reasons, to delay communicating this news. With the exception of communication to your own team and company, it's their news to communicate to others.
  • Don't assume what kind of role they'll next be looking for. Let them drive how they'd like you to help.

Step 6: Take care of yourself

Firing people is really hard. Once the day is done, try to get some rest. You'll know how you best recover: maybe it's  calling a close friend to talk or maybe it's having alone time. Do what you need to to be able to come back to work okay because your remaining team deserves your full self and the confidence they'll get by seeing you continue forward.

Again, however, it's critical that you not allow your feelings or exhaustion to become public- or team-facing. Never post on social media about the experience. Ever. It's a really bad look.

So that's it. I hope it's helpful. Did I get something wrong? Have a question? Let me know

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