How to fire an employee and minimize backlash

by Pam Clark

Firing a person is probably the hardest thing most managers will ever have to do. It is an unpleasant and unfortunate circumstance for both parties involved, and if there's only one thing a manager doing the firing must remember is that it's a lot harder to be on the other side.


That said, as a manager there's some steps you can take that make the process less painful for you both. And by following some very simple guidelines, you can limit resentment and any potential backlash, be it violent or legal, from the former employee.

Do it in person

I can think of few things more frustrating than being a loyal employee of a company for years and years only to be let go via email. That's what happened to a group of Radio Shack employees. The ensuing PR nightmare took months to cool down. Even now (years later) it's a perfect example of how NOT to fire employees. Give your employees the respect they deserve and tell them in person. It isn't easy, but it's a necessary evil. It is one less thing they can resent you for and one less reason to seek retribution.

Do it in a private setting

Don't fire an employee in front of all of their colleagues. It's embarrassing enough to be terminated, but to have it done publicly is asking for a strong reaction. People tend to be much more defensive when they're criticized in public, so pull them aside, find an office, and close the door. Be as discreet as possible. In the end, they may even thank you for this.

Don't do it alone

While privacy is important, if you can, have just one person present, ideally an HR rep or another manager. Having a witness present will not only help prevent you from getting into a legal “their word against yours” situation, but it will also help minimize angry or violent reactions. One-on-one arguments have a tendency escalate quicker without a 3rd party present, and with the presence of another manager, the former employee will be reminded to think twice before reacting too harshly.

Avoid unnecessary delays

There's a lot of advice out there on the best day of the week to terminate an employee. The truth is, there's no best day to be jobless, so most of this advice is pointless. Traditional thinking suggested Friday as the best way to limit incident. The belief is that a person is mentally prepared for the weekend, so it will be less of a shock to not need to go into work the next day. More contemporary advice suggests Monday as the best day so the person can start looking for new work right away and have immediate access to support services.


The truth is they're both wrong. If the decision has been made to terminate an employee, the best day to do it is that day. Unless there's a specific reason to keep this person around longer, like finalizing up a project or lack of a suitable replacement, it's better to not delay. Otherwise there's nothing to gain and you only risk this person finding out, which can quickly become a nightmare scenario.


With that in mind, early to mid-afternoon is the best time of day to let someone go. Why? Having an employee come into work only to send them home immediately and not be paid for that day is a cruel trick. If it's done at the very end of the day, a person might feel that their whole day has been wasted while they're forced to stay after hours clearing their things. After lunch is optimal not only because it's neutral, but it's when people are most relaxed at work and it will limit productivity loss from the rest of your staff as the news spreads.

Be consistent

One of the most important things to remember is to be consistent. Have specific, well established company policies and strictly adhere to them. The most common reason for a terminated former employee to seek some kind of retribution is that they were made to feel like they were treated unfairly or differently from others. Consistency is not only the best way to prevent a person from feeling this way, it's the best defense against claims of discrimination as well.

Be Clear

This goes hand-in-hand with being consistent. A person will always want to know “why” they're being let go. Even if the reason is financial (like layoffs) they'll want to know why them and not 'Suzy from marketing'. Explain the them clearly and calmly the reasons for their termination as it applies to the company policies and/or needs. Details are not always necessary unless the person asks for further clarification. Even then, resist the urge to list specific negative actions. Those conversations aren't constructive in any way and will often result in defensiveness pulling you deeper into an argument. Simply remind them the decision has been made and it's final.

Be supportive

One of the simplest ways to avoid a negative reaction to firing an employee is to be supportive. Offer to write letters of recommendation and/or be a reference if necessary and be as generous as you are able. Offer a severance if you can, or even offer to pay for the full day's work even though day's not over. Even if this is the worst employee of all time and you have nothing to offer, a supportive tone can be a tremendous help in avoiding confrontation immediately and in the near future.

One last thing:

ALWAYS remember: this is going to be harder for them than it is for you.


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