The 10 worst things to say when you fire someone

Radhika Sivadi

4 min read ·


Firing someone is hard — but getting fired is always harder. Don't make it worse by putting your foot in your mouth.

Letting an employee go can be a stressful and even painful experience. Possibly that’s why making the firing process as easy as possible—for the boss—is something of a cottage industry.

That’s too bad, because while terminating an employee is hard for you, getting fired is way harder for the employee.

So forget about your feelings. Whenever you have to fire an employee you must protect your business from a legal aspect.

After that, your only goal is to treat the employee as compassionately and respectfully as possible.

Your feelings are irrelevant.

Which is why you should never say any of the following:

1. "Look, this is really hard for me." Who cares if it’s hard for you? The employee certainly doesn’t. Any time you talk about how difficult the situation is for you the employee thinks, "Oh yeah? What about me? How hard do you think this is on me?" If you feel bad—and you will—talk through your feelings later with someone else.

And also never say, “Look, I’m not sure how to say this…” You’re sure what to say. You’re just uncomfortable saying it.

Never even hint that the employee should somehow feel your pain; that’s just selfish.

2. "We've decided we need to make a change." You're not an NBA team firing an unsuccessful coach. And you're not holding a press conference either. Skip the platitudes. If you've done your job right the employee already knows why he's being fired.

State the reason for your action as clearly and concisely as possible. Or just say, "Mark, I have to let you go."

3. "We will work out some of the details later." For the employee, getting fired is both the end and the start of another process: Collecting personal items, returning company property, learning about benefits status, etc.

It's your job to know how all that works—ahead of time. Getting fired is bad enough; sitting in limbo while you figure out the next steps is humiliating for an employee who wants nothing more than to leave. Never make an employee wait to meet with others who are part of the process. Once you let them go, the employee is on their time, not yours.

4. "You just aren't cutting it compared to Mary." Never compare the fired employee to someone else as justification. Employees should be fired because they fail to meet standards, targets, or behavioral expectations.

Plus, drawing comparisons between employees makes it possible for what should be an objective decision to veer into the “personality zone.” That’s a conversational black hole you will struggle to escape.

5. "Okay, let’s talk about that. Here’s why…" Most employees sit quietly, but a few will want to argue. Never let yourself be dragged into a back-and-forth discussion. Just say, "Mark, we can talk about this as long as you like, but you should understand that nothing we discuss will change the decision." Arguments almost always make the employee feel worse.

Be professional, be empathetic, and stick to the facts. Don't feel the need to respond if an employee starts to vent.

Just listen—that’s the least you can do. And the most you can do.

6. "You’ve been a solid employee but we simply have to cut staffing." If you truly are downsizing, leave performance out and just say so.

But if you're not actually downsizing, and you're hiding behind that excuse so the conversation is easier for you, then you do the employee a disservice—and you open your business up to potential problems, especially if you later hire someone to fill the open slot.

Never play games to try to protect the employee's feelings—or, worse, to protect your own. Just be straightforward.

7. "We both know you aren't happy here, so down the road you’ll be glad." Whether or not the employee will someday be glad you let them go is not for you to judge. Employees can’t find a silver lining in the fired cloud, at least not at first. Let them find their own glimmers of possibility.

8. "I need to walk you to the door." I worked for a company where the policy was to immediately escort terminated employees out of the building.

An employee you fire is not a criminal. Don’t put them through a walk of shame. Just set simple parameters. Say, "Mark, go ahead and gather up your personal belongings and I'll meet you back here in 10 minutes."

If Mark doesn't come back, go get him. He won't argue.

9. "We have decided to let you go." The word "we" is appropriate in almost every setting, but not this one.

Say, "I." At this moment, you are the company (even if, in fact, you’re just an employee.) Take responsibility.

10. "If there is anything I can do for you, just let me know." Like what? Write a glowing letter of recommendation? Call your connections and put in a good word for him? (Of course, if you are laying off good employees due to lack of work you should do anything you can to help them land on their feet.)

Absolutely say, "If you have any questions about benefits, final paychecks, or other details, call me. I'll make sure you get the answers you need." But never offer to do things you can't do. You might feel a little better because you made an offer, but the employee won't.

Remember, when you fire an employee it's all about the employee, not about you—and especially not about what makes you feel better.

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Radhika Sivadi