Small business owners occasionally have an obligation – in the law, in good business practice, and in good faith – to fire employees. There is no simple way to fire an employee – no way to do it without emotion or lasting memories.

  1. Plan the event:  Decide where, when, and how long you will allow for the termination event. You need to plan on how you will protect the employee’s privacy, where you will conduct the interview and when.
  2. Get help:  If you have any doubts about the termination, consult with your HR advisor or lawyer. Pass the task on to them if that is your arrangement. Otherwise, advise any and all who have a “need-to-know.” In a small office, that may be no one. In a larger operation, payroll and the employee’s supervisor have a need to know. If you can help it, do not conduct this interview on your own. Appoint a witness to what is said and done.
  3. Prepare:  Have all the documents related to the termination sorted and at hand. Prepare a script and study it. I do not recommend reciting from it, but it will be there if you lose focus and will remain as part of the termination package. If you are right and confident about the termination, this will give you the confidence to control the interview and reduce emotion on your part.
  4. Surprises:  Expect the employee to resist the whole idea in any number of ways. They cry, demand, or threaten. The issue remains in your control. You rule, and the ruling is final. However, knowing that allows you to be patient and empathetic.
  5. Control:  Stay at your desk with the documents sorted and arranged in front of you. Make it clear that you are following a process.. It has a beginning, middle, and end. Leave the impression that there is nothing special or unique about the event – and nothing personal.
  6. Explain:  Tell – do not argue – the employee why s/he is being fired. For example, use the language that will be in the Notice of Termination, such as “employee was absent on 6 occasions in conflict with employer policy on attendance.” Do not review how or why you know or who told you, and so on. Provide the facts. Also, explain clearly all the materials, such as insurance forms, that the employee will be leaving with. Make sure you promise a follow-up letter that will let you reiterate the reason for termination and other related information.
  7. Tone:  Remain professional. Practice a tone that is not too far from your usual voice. Stay matter-of-fact and on the point. Prepare all forms ahead of time, number them in sequence, and tab them where signatures are required.
  8. Respect:  You are dealing with a person you have known – perhaps, for some time. Keep eye contact and use your best listening skills, including nodding, reiteration, and body language. Do not let employee dictate the tone. Do not raise your voice if s/he does. Do not become demeaning or sarcastic even if /he does.
  9. Debrief:  No termination goes perfectly. Take the time to review the documents completed. Audit the package for mistakes or missing forms. Sign where you are expected to. Then, decompress and review what was said-and-done. Make notes on what you did right and wrong and consider how you will benefit for the next time.
  10. Close:  Other staff will note the departure emotionally and psychologically.  Without violating the fired employee’s privacy, explain that you are moving forward. Invite them to speak up and enlist their input in reshaping the work assignments.

Some habits concern me as unprofessional and unproductive:

  • If you are confident there is cause to fire the employee, do not apologize.
  • Under no circumstances, tell the employee how hard this is on you.
  • Do not use adverbs, such as “deliberately,” “intentionally,” “carelessly,” or the like. Most of these “-ly” words are judgmental. If you have the facts, you do not need to sound judgmental.
  • Do not accuse or blame, simply review the facts. For instance, if you have the timecard, you do not need to blame.
  • Do not interrupt, ignore, or argue. Listen patiently and move on.

If firing employees get easier with time, there is something wrong. Every termination should remain difficult. It is a break between people. But, in time, you will find it has a system and process in which you can take some comfort.


By Steven Schlagel