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A tactical guide to firing well
Having to fire someone is one of the most difficult things a founder has to do. Here’s how to do it well.
1128 words • 6 min read
When someone on your team is underperforming and you no longer have confidence that they can thrive at your company, the only responsible thing to do is to part ways with them. It’s unpleasant, but it’s important. This post is about how to fire well.
Let’s clarify a few things before we begin:
Having to fire represents a process failure on your side—you either made a mistake in deciding to hire them, or you failed to successfully onboard or manage them in a way that allowed them to be productive.
That doesn’t mean you should avoid doing it—on the contrary, as soon as you know it’s not going to work, you shouldn’t drag your feet on it. It’s worse for everyone when you do.
Firing an underperformer is a very distinct thing from “having to do layoffs”. Layoffs are a completely different thing, and this playbook does not apply here.
There are a series of complex laws that vary by state about what your requirements are. This is not legal advice and you should check with your company’s lawyer.
Having said all that, here’s what you need to do to do this well:
1. Make a detailed plan in advance
If you’re going to fire someone, make sure you’ve figured out everything that needs to happen before you do the firing. Some considerations include:
When is their last day?
When are you actually going to have this conversation (what day and time)?
Who will be in the room with you when you have this conversation?
Will they be receiving a severance package? How much? Is it contingent on signing a separation agreement? (It should be.)
Who’s going to be disabling their accounts? When?
How will they return any equipment/keycards/etc?
Are there other legal requirements you have to address? (For example: in California, employees are entitled to a final paycheck at the time of termination.)
Some tactical notes:
You should have a checklist for the process above—especially the electronic access portion of it.
In an office environment, it’s most polite to do this when the employee can walk back to their desk without feeling like everyone is staring at them—so either the very beginning of the day, the very end of the day, or while folks are at a meeting.
Best practice is to have a third party suspend their account access during or immediately after their conversation with you—yes, this feels extreme, but it’s better to be paranoid here than not.
Finally: make sure that the person is actually going to show up to the meeting!
2. Be direct (and stick to the script)
When it’s time for the conversation, get to the point. Be direct and make clear that the decision is final. This is not a negotiation. I recommend having one person join you in the room (physically or virtually), with the expectation that they will sit there silently.
This is the script I’ve used in the past:
I have bad news to share with you.
We’re ending your employment with the company effective immediately.
This is not negotiable and the decision is final.
[An optional one-sentence summary of the reason. This is not an invitation for a negotiation or debate. Sample: “In brief, your performance wasn’t what it needed to be.”]
I don’t want to go into any more detail today, but I’m happy to do a call in a few days after you’ve had a chance to digest.
As I mentioned: today is your last day and the decision is final.
We have some logistics to cover:
We’re offering you a severance package of [XXXXXX], conditional on signing our separation agreement, which we’ll send to you via email after this.
You’ll also receive an email in the next few days with information about your COBRA health insurance options.
[XXXXXX] will be following up with you separately via email to mail you a prepaid box to return any equipment you have.
We’ll be disabling your systems access after this meeting, so if there’s anything we need to talk about related to that, please let me know.
Are there any questions about these logistics that we need to cover together?
Ok, those are the items I wanted to cover. If it makes sense to do a call in a few days, let me know and I’d be happy to do so. And I’m wishing you the best in whatever’s next.
3. Don’t try to make it feel better
Getting fired sucks. That’s unavoidable. It’s important to remember three things in this process:
First: don’t get into the weeds on the specific “why”s in this meeting. You should hold firm, but make clear that you’re happy to discuss in more detail on a followup call in a few days. Engaging in a debate about the exact reasons, and the validity of said reasons, is useful to no one—the decision has already been made, your mind isn’t going to be changed, and you will both be able to have a more productive discussion about it after the shock of the initial conversation has passed.
The second is: this is a much more unpleasant situation for them than it is for you. It’s insulting and offensive to talk about how bad this makes you feel or how much you didn’t want to do this.
The third: presumably this person was trying to do good work. And hopefully they will be more successful in their next role. You can be firm without being cruel.
4. Follow up with the team
Once it’s done, close the loop with the team. This can be an email to the person’s coworkers or a mention to the team at a quick huddle shortly afterwards. “XYZ is no longer at the company” and a brief blurb about your intentions for the role is usually enough: Who will do this job now? Will the role be backfilled? Etc.
It’s obvious to the person’s peers that they’ve been underperforming—in fact, it’s clear to them long before it’s clear to you—so, generally, no one is shocked when this happens. Counterintuitively, it can be a morale-positive moment: a reminder that the team’s management values performance and is in touch with reality. Your top performers want to be on a team with other top performers, and want everyone to be held to high standards. Making hard decisions like this validates that you feel the same way.
5. Address the systemic issue
As above: if you have to fire someone, it’s ultimately your fault—and ultimately it’s the result of a process issue, either in your hiring process or your management process. (It’s always a process problem.) Take this opportunity to reflect on what you’ll do differently to avoid making this same mistake in the future.
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