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How to Fire Someone Nicely (With Scripts)

November 10, 2021 12 min. read

Would you rather have to speak in front of a stadium full of people or tell a person one-on-one that they no longer have their job?

Probably neither, right? But as a small business owner, you’re unfortunately in a situation where an employee isn’t working out, and you’re feeling anxious and stressed about firing them.

This won’t be an easy conversation to have, and you’d like to get through it without hurting them. Here’s how to have that talk while allowing your (former) employee to keep their dignity.

What it means to fire someone

Firing someone means ending their employment with your business because of their actions or their performance.

Letting someone go, on the other hand, means you’re terminating the employee because they aren’t a good fit, you don’t have enough work, or you’re getting rid of their role.

The difference between these terms is based on whether or not the employee can control the reason they’re being terminated. For this article, though, we’ll use the term “fired” to keep things simple.

Either way, whether they’re part-time or full-time, an employee or a subcontractor, your working relationship is coming to an end.

How to know it’s time to fire someone (and what to say)

Getting fired shouldn’t be a surprise. Both of you should see it coming because you’ve talked about the situation before in the employee’s performance review.

Whatever your reason is for firing someone, make sure you can articulate it clearly, because you’re going to have to explain it to your former employee.

Here’s what some possible reasons for firing an employee might be—and how to fire someone nicely for those reasons:

1. Low performance

A low-performing employee can take many forms. Maybe they’re always late for work, taking long breaks, not following standard operating procedures, or not completing tasks properly.

Sometimes you can address these problems, and you should always try. Quality walkthroughs after visits, alternative training methods, accommodations, and performance bonuses and incentives can help.

But other times, the employee just isn’t improving. You can’t keep spending the time and effort managing their performance, so it’s time to say goodbye.

Use this script to do it:

2. Poor conduct

Your employee isn’t acting like a professional. They might have a bad attitude, be disrespectful to you and your clients, or generally behave badly.

Whatever they’re doing, your clients or other employees might have reported their behavior. It’s bringing down productivity, and it’s damaging the business reputation you worked hard to build.

READ MORE: Hire better team members with an employee referral program

If this behavior is rare, you might be able to work with them on it. But if it keeps happening, you can’t risk your business—you need to fire them.

Pro Tip: Create an employee handbook to lay out expectations around performance, attendance, and conduct. If an employee reads it and still isn’t meeting those expectations, it’s much easier to end the working relationship.

You might run into a situation where you have to fire an employee for violence, harassment, theft, forgery, sharing proprietary information, lying on their job application, or even more serious illegal activity.

This type of behavior goes beyond poor conduct and could involve law enforcement. You’ll need proof of their actions, so make sure to document everything before terminating the employee.

When you’re firing someone for legal issues, the last thing you want to be is nice.

Still, it’s a good idea to keep a cool head and not say anything that could get you into trouble later. Try this:

4. No-showing

When an employee no-shows, they don’t arrive for work and often don’t call, either. This leaves you wondering what’s going on—and scrambling to cover their assigned tasks for the day.

Unless there’s a good reason for a no-show (like an emergency), you can’t allow an employee to get away with a no-show. It affects your business and tells your team that they can do it, too.

READ MORE: How to attract employees who stick around

It’s ideal to fire an employee in person, but this can be hard to do if the employee isn’t showing up for work.

After confirming they don’t have a legitimate emergency, like a sudden illness or accident, you can send a text message or email like this to end their employment:

5. Not the right fit

Sometimes employees just aren’t the right fit. Their skills don’t match up with what you need, their performance is fine but could be better, or you know they have potential but can’t reach it with you.

In this case, you aren’t firing someone for not meeting the needs of the role. You’re letting them go because they don’t align with the company—and you don’t align with them.

It’s better for both sides if you part ways now and each find an opportunity that will better fit your needs. Here’s how to fire someone who is not a good fit:

6. Not enough work

You might find yourself in the tough situation of not having enough work or cash flow for the number of employees on staff. As a result, you need to let someone go.

This employee may not have done anything wrong. They were just the newest or lowest-performing member of your team, and you have to prioritize which employees you’re keeping.

Because the reason for termination is outside the employee’s control, a little kindness goes a long way. Here’s how to fire someone nicely when you’re downsizing:

How to fire someone nicely: 10 best practices

It’s important to fire someone with kindness. They have feelings, too, and you can imagine how much it hurts to be fired. And in some circumstances, they may not have done anything wrong.

You also don’t want to risk your company’s reputation. Sites like Glassdoor allow employees to leave company reviews, and negative reviews can affect whether future candidates will apply for your job postings.

You can fire someone nicely using these best practices:

  1. Raise concerns early. With performance and behavior issues, give the employee time to change before you fire them (except for extreme situations, of course!). Discuss the problem, give them feedback and the tools to fix it, and resort to firing when there’s no sign of change.
  2. Give yourself time. Set aside 15 minutes to tell the employee about their termination in person. Some people prefer to fire at the end of the day on Friday for extra privacy. Others prefer Monday morning so they don’t have to stress about the conversation all day, and the former employee can start job searching right away.
  3. Practice. Rehearse what you’re going to say ahead of time, especially the reason why you’re firing the employee. This isn’t a conversation you can ad lib, especially when saying the wrong thing could put your company at risk. Practicing will also help cut down on your anxiety going into the meeting and keep you from freezing up.
  4. Bring a witness. Don’t fire your employee in front of the entire team, but bring one employee into the meeting. This gives you a neutral third party, which is important if the conversation gets heated or the fired employee takes legal action later on.
  5. Be clear. Right off the bat, tell the employee that you’re firing them and why, without using a lot of extra words or small talk. Make it clear that the working relationship is over, explain next steps, and provide the necessary paperwork. The worst thing you can do is leave the person wondering if they still have a job or not.
  6. Be firm. The employee might get upset or ask for another chance—after all, nobody thinks they should be fired. Don’t let yourself be swayed in your decision. It’s what’s best for your business and your team. Just repeat that the decision is final, and keep doing it for as long as it takes for the message to sink in.
  7. Don’t get emotional. Listen and allow the terminated employee to feel what they feel, but don’t get swept up in the emotion. And avoid saying platitudes like, “I’ve been in your shoes before and I know how you feel.” Those words only help the people saying them and aren’t very comforting to someone who’s suddenly having a terrible day.
  8. Give them time. You’ve had the chance to practice this conversation, but the employee hasn’t. Tell them they have 48 hours to think things over and reach out with any questions. That way they can go home and process the information instead of having to clarify every detail in their exit interview. It can also help defuse any anger.
  9. Allow a goodbye. You can decide if you want to give the former employee the chance to say goodbye to their coworkers, depending on how the termination meeting went. (If it went badly, they might see this as an opportunity to bad-mouth you to the rest of the team.) They may or may not take that opportunity, and that’s okay.
  10. Reflect on the termination. Ask yourself why the employee didn’t work out. Is it time to reassess your interview process? Do you need better policies or training? Or you might find you made the best choice based on the information you had, and it just didn’t work out. It happens, so don’t be too hard on yourself.

Pro Tip: Was the person a good employee, but you had to fire them due to lack of work or other reasons outside their control? You can soften the blow by offering a severance package, letters of recommendation, or an introduction to other business owners who might be hiring.

What to tell your team after a termination

After you fire an employee, the rest of your team might be worried they’re next. This can affect morale and productivity. And depending on who you fired and why, other employees may leave on their own.

Your team will ask questions. There’s no way around it. So it’s best to call a quick meeting or send out an email to provide answers instead of letting them wonder what happened.

Be transparent and stick to the facts, but don’t get into too much detail. Reassure your team that they still have jobs and that this decision was made with them and the business in mind.

You might be worried about how a termination will affect your team, but it’s better to fire a problem employee than to keep them around—which could still affect your team in the long run.

When you fire an employee nicely, the rest of your team will see that you’re a fair employer who values good work, sets reasonable expectations, and treats them with respect.

READ MORE: How to build a business where employees want to work

If you had to fire an employee due to lack of work, though, you might not be able to reassure your team about future work.

Be extra transparent about how you’ll keep them employed—and understand if they decide to leave, too.

Pro Tip: Tell your clients about the change in staffing if it affects them—for example, if someone new will be cleaning their home each week. Just say, “John is no longer with the company, so Steven will be cleaning your home. I’m confident you’ll be happy with his work.”

READ MORE: Try these expert tips for engaging employees

Terminating an employee isn’t easy, but it’s a reality of running a business. Knowing how to fire someone nicely can at least help you handle this uncomfortable task in a compassionate way.

This is what’s best for your company and for the rest of your team. When you feel anxious or uncertain, remind yourself that your former employee will be okay—and you will be, too.

Originally published March 2017. Last updated on November 10, 2021.

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