The Proper Way to Compassionately Let Someone Go

Firing someone is never pleasant; in fact, it’s downright difficult. And if you are a manager, odds are good you will have to do it someday.

It’s impossible to hire with 100-percent accuracy. There are times when you simply won’t put the right person in a role, and they won’t perform as expected. Plus, roles change, possibly causing an employee’s performance to change for the worse.

And the above examples apply only to performance-related termination. Downsizing can force a manager to lay off an employee who is performing well, which can be even harder.

You will never enjoy letting someone go. Nor will you get to the point where you don’t dread having to do it. But an effective leader, despite such reservations, must be able to do it with compassion.

What to consider before deciding to fire someone

Two very important things to consider before firing an employee are whether the action is justified and whether it will come as a surprise.

Be sure you have a solid reason for terminating an employee—even if you are a manager in an at-will state, where employers can legally dismiss employees for any reason unless they have an agreement stating otherwise. Additionally, be sure you have evidence that supports your reason, and have it prior to firing the employee. This protects you from claims of improper termination, and helps your employee understand why this is happening to them.

Further to that matter, a firing should never take an employee by surprise. Even if it’s a matter that calls for immediate dismissal—harassment, assault, embezzling, etc.—orientation materials and company policies should have already spelled these matters out explicitly as cause for immediate termination. If so, the firing passes the “no surprise” test.

If a firing is performance-related, it should also not come as a surprise. If an employee is doing something wrong and/or not performing up to expectation, it is incumbent on you as manager to give them a fair warning. Provide them with early feedback, put them on an action plan, and help them find a way to correct any negative issues. Give them specific examples of what needs to be corrected, and provide a timeline.

A fair warning can also help you avoid the perception of being unfair, as well as possibly avoiding an angry reaction from the employee. Additionally, it will help you document the first point—that the firing is justified. And let’s face it, it’s just the right thing to do if your employee is neither a brain surgeon nor an air traffic controller. If your employee’s poor performance does not put anyone at risk, you should go through a careful process before firing them.

Both points—justification and lack of surprise—should exist even in the case of layoffs, when termination is not performance-related. These usually occur as a result of the company’s financial problems, and the order to reduce headcount will likely come from someone higher in the company’s chain of command. Consider this to meet the justification requirement; you literally have no choice.

As far as the lack of surprise goes, you should try to be honest with your employees beforehand about the company’s financial issues. Sometimes you are bound by confidentiality, but barring that, let your employees know when the company is having hard times. And if the situation should cause layoffs, be compassionate about them.

The importance of compassion when letting someone go

When you have to fire or lay off an employee, understand that they will probably react emotionally. And if they don’t, know that they are internalizing a host of unpleasant emotions. They are receiving bad news; support them with empathy and listen to their concerns.

Also consider the teammates who are not being terminated; your employee was probably close with some of them. They will react to the news with a broad range of emotions and if you show compassion, it can help abate a drop in morale.

You’ll also want to keep a neutral-to-positive relationship with ex-employees, as they might be able to help your business down the line. You never know if your employee will one day work for a customer or supplier. Your reputation and relationship will become important in those situations.

How to be compassionate when the time comes

Do it yourself

Don’t leave the termination to a third party, such as an HR director or a hired gun. This is cold and cowardly. Be there in person and deliver the news personally to show you still care for the employee as a person.

Prepare ahead of time.

Rehearse if you have to. Avoid fumbling your words and communicate in a caring manner. Give your employee opportunities to respond and ask questions. Be firm, but not cruel. Be serious; attempts at humor will fall flat at best and be dehumanizing at worst.

Mind the timing

Treat your employee with respect. Tell them up front the reason for the meeting, delivering the bad news immediately. Drawing it out can cause misunderstandings and can quickly become awkward. Once you’ve delivered the message, move on to the important next steps, helping the employee with their questions about the transition. Consider timing the meeting for late in the day, when coworkers aren’t around to possibly cause awkward feelings afterward. But avoid the cliched Friday afternoon termination, as your employee will probably need to speak with payroll/benefits and possibly want to speak to a therapist—giving them an extra business day or two will help in that respect and avoid having them helplessly stew in negative emotions during the weekend.

Consider their feelings

Your employee is probably going to feel embarrassed about this. Give them a narrative they can convey that will help them save face, that you won’t contest. It will also help them in their ensuing job search. Be sure to distinguish between the employee as a person and the termination itself. Help them feel good about who they are by communicating that you are trying to correct the act, not the person. Consider allowing for a resignation letter in lieu of an official termination.

Be generous

You are about to uproot someone’s life financially; it is important to offer a generous severance package. Searching for a new job is stressful enough without the additional burden of strained finances. Not only is this fair to the employee, it can assuage your guilt and protect the company—accepting a severance package generally means waiving the right to litigate. It can also help morale when word inevitably gets back to the remaining employees. Use whatever influence you have in order to offer a severance package with generous financial recompense, outplacement service, continuing health insurance, and more. 

Lastly, commit to helping your ex-employee in the future—but leave that up to them. They might want to cut ties, in which case you should honor that. But if they want help, be sure to give it. Think about how you would want to be treated if you were in their shoes. Use empathy and express compassion, and you might make an extremely difficult situation more bearable.

Want some more? Soak in all the good stuff - Leagues of Leadership.  Crab

Have any tips of your own or experiences of blunders or successes that would be helpful to share with new managers? Please share them in the comments below!


  • As a successful manager, it is essential to be free of fear. Fear can cloud judgment and prevent someone from making decisions that could benefit a team. Instead, focus on being calm and collected so one can make the best decisions for a team. Trust your instincts, and do not be afraid to take risks - sometimes, the best rewards come from taking a chance.

  • As a successful manager, it is essential to be free of fear. Fear can cloud judgment and prevent someone from making decisions that could benefit a team. Instead, focus on being calm and collected so one can make the best decisions for a team. Trust your instincts, and do not be afraid to take risks - sometimes, the best rewards come from taking a chance.

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