7 Tips for Terminating an Employee with Empathy, Dignity and Compassion

Although at the current time the hiring engine is firing on all cylinders — Canada’s jobless rate is at historic lows — terminations are still happening for a variety of reasons. And the looming threat of a recession in 2023 (although experts say it will be relatively mild) means an uptick in this area.

There is no affirmation, paradigm shift, or self-talk that makes the task of firing an employee easy; especially if an employee is being let go as a result of budget cutbacks or customer losses, rather than due to any personal transgression. However, there are things that employers should and can do to mitigate the stress and suffering.

Below, we highlight seven tips for terminating and employee with empathy, dignity, and compassion:

  1. Don’t make it about you. The object lesson for this is a CEO who, after announcing a layoff at his company, posted a weeping selfie on LinkedIn. The global backlash was fast and furious, and the CEO came under fire for allegedly exploiting the situation in order to generate social media capital. Alas, rather than backing down and admitting the mistake, he has doubled-down on his (idiotic at best and cruel at worst) behavior, and been immortalized in the meme kingdom as “the crying CEO”.
  2. Don’t take anyone by surprise. Termination is not a small matter, and should only be the very last step in a careful, deliberate, and fully-documented process of progressive discipline. Basically, by the time an employee is terminated, they should not be surprised (obviously, this does not apply in times of sudden financial hardship when layoffs are unavoidable, which is a scenario that many companies experienced in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic).
  3. Be fair and respectful — never cruel. There is a line between being direct, and being mean. Even if an employee is being terminated for-cause, resist the opportunity (and possibly the temptation if relations with that employee have been strained for some time) to lose sight of the fact that someone’s life is being altered for the worse. Even if the firing is 100 percent justified or necessary, it is still a painful, scary, and humiliating experience. Don’t make things worse than they already are. Take the high road.
  4. Give terminated employees time and space to react. Employees react to getting fired in various ways. Even those who expected or suspected being terminated can, the moment it happens, react quite differently than they had anticipated. Give employees the opportunity to grasp the news (and frankly, absorb the blow), and ask questions. And don’t expect employees to necessarily be on their best (i.e. interview) behavior. As long as they are not making threats or being abusive — which rarely happens — allow them to react emotionally. Remember: they are not just losing their income, but they may be losing a big part of their social network, and a major component of their identity as well.
  5. Be prepared. Don’t just casually stroll into a meeting (or have a phone or video call) when terminating an employee. Spend time getting prepared, which helps ensure that you clearly and fully communicate the reasons for termination. And absolutely do not — repeat — do not borrow a page from Bell’s playbook (which has hopefully since been incinerated) and announce layoffs through social media, or terse two minute phone calls.
  6. Offer support for the transition. Unless an employee is being fired for-cause and the action(s) in question are egregious (e.g. theft, sexual harassment, etc.), then offer to help make the transition to their next job as fast and effective as possible. This could mean making introductions, writing LinkedIn recommendations, and having monthly check-ins to see if there is anything that can be done to provide additional job searching help.
  7. If necessary, delegate. Last but certainly not least, some people are so uncomfortable terminating employees, that they cannot do it in a manner that is empathetic and compassionate. This is not necessarily because these people are callous and uncaring. Rather, it is because they dread having “the conversation,” and in order to cope with that aversion they put up an emotional and psychological shield instead to protect themselves (typically this happens automatically and not consciously). If you have this tendency, and as long as it is appropriate to do so, then delegate the task to a colleague who will handle things better. Ultimately, this will benefit the affected employee, who deserves to be treated with respect and dignity — not be given the cold shoulder (even if that is not the intention).

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