Male manager having serious discussion with male employee

The toughest of tough conversations: layoffs and terminations

Uncomfortable conversations in our personal or professional life are never easy, but they are important. Avoiding them almost always makes things worse. At work, letting someone go is one of the most emotionally and professionally difficult aspects of a manager’s job. Whether it’s a layoff due to organizational restructuring or downsizing or termination for cause, the news you’re delivering is life-changing for the employee. How do you balance empathy for the employee and meet the needs of the organization?  

Here are a few strategies to ensure your conversation is both legally sound and delivered with heart. 

Layoffs

  • Be ready. Being prepared will help ease your nervousness and ensure you deliver the news professionally and respectfully. In many ways, laying off a productive member of your team is harder than terminating someone for poor performance or violation of policy. The latter is easier because while the employee may still take the news hard, it’s usually not a surprise. Hearing news of a layoff, on the other hand, is often unexpected and your employee will likely have an emotional response. Thinking through what you want to say before you meet with the employee will help you navigate the uncertainty of the conversation.
    • Familiarize yourself with the reasons that led to the decision to eliminate the employee’s position. Plan on providing context about the reason for the layoff.
    • Prepare for an emotional response. You know your team. Anticipate potential reactions. Have a box of tissues available.
    • If you are meeting with an employee virtually, provide the same level of respect as you would in-person. Send a calendar invite and plan on using cameras so you can speak face-to-face
    • Collect information and resources to help your employee during the transition (information about applying for unemployment, outplacement services, benefits coordinator, etc.).
  • Go into the conversation with empathy and compassion. While you shouldn’t give platitudes, make promises you can’t keep, or sugarcoat the situation, you can deliver the news in a way that maintains your employee’s dignity and respect.

    If you are speaking virtually, keep in mind that your employee is seeing their face and their emotions as you speak. If your employee gets emotional, be prepared to offer them a break: “Would you like to take a moment before we continue?”
  • Prepare the employee for what’s coming and then get to the point quickly. Make sure you choose a private space for your conversation and step into the conversation gently but forthright.
    DO:
    • Prepare them. “I have some difficult news to share with you.”
    • Explain. “After a long and careful deliberation, a decision was made to eliminate your position. It was a difficult decision, and not easily made. The leadership team has gone through all possible options for restructuring, and this is their final decision.”
    DON'T:
    • Don’t begin with small talk. Avoid opening the conversation as if it’s an ordinary meeting. It’s not. Avoid chit-chat and pleasantries.
    • Don’t sugarcoat. Softening the blow may make it easier for you, but unclear language can create confusion and uncertainty. Be clear and concise.
  • More Layoff Discussion Tips

    • Give your employee time to process. Don’t ramble or try to fill in silence. After you’ve delivered the news, pause for a moment or two so your employee has time to absorb the news.
      DO
      • Speak slowly and clearly and give your employee time to process what you are saying.
      • Ask if they have any questions. Answer questions honestly and respectfully.
      • Acknowledge their positive attributes and accomplishments as you explain that the reason for the layoff has nothing to do with their performance.
      DON’T
      • Don’t try to lighten the moment. There’s nothing comfortable about a layoff. Avoid cliches, unsolicited advice, or superficial words of encouragement like “I’m sure you’ll land somewhere better.” The last thing someone in emotional pain wants to hear is a rosy platitude.
    • Keep your emotions in check. If your employee has an emotional reaction, stay calm and don’t take it personally.
      DO
      • Redirect the conversation, if necessary. “I know this is difficult news. As I said, the decision was not made lightly.” Avoid getting pulled into the details of why the decision was made.
      • Watch for emotions. If your employee has an emotional reaction, stay calm and don’t take it personally. If your employee’s emotions make it impossible to continue the meeting, ask “Is there someone I can call for you?” or “Would you like to take a short break before we continue?”
    • Be patient. Although you just want to get the conversation over, your employee is trying to mentally keep up. Don’t rush the meeting. Give your employee the time and attention they need to come to terms with the organization’s decision. Then, transition to practical details.
      • Say something like, “I’m sure this is hard but if you’re ready, I’d like to explain what happens next.” Discuss transitioning their work, their severance package, benefits, and resources available to them.
    • End on a positive note. Make sure your words are genuine and respectful and avoid making any promises.

    Before your meeting, your employee was likely having an ordinary workday. In a matter of minutes, your employee’s life changed dramatically. While it’s important to deliver the news honestly and directly, showing kindness and compassion with your words and tone will help ensure your employee leaves with dignity.

For a helpful resource on how to layoff an employee, download the complete Uncomfortable Conversations: Layoffs Tips Sheet  below.

Terminations

  • Be ready. With the exception of terminating an employee for an egregious policy violation, firing an employee should come after you’ve counseled your employee about their unacceptable conduct or poor performance and the employee is still failing to meet expectations. To be deemed a fair and lawful termination, you must be able to show that you offered your employee opportunities to improve and meet the job standards. In other words, the termination should never come as a surprise. (But, that doesn’t make the conversation any easier.)
    DO
    • Speak with HR or your legal team. They should be aware of the problem and the discussions you’ve had with your employee to help them improve. They can also ensure your process is legally sound.
    • Keep detailed documentation. Review performance improvement discussion notes you’ve taken.
    • Consider work schedules, breaks, and high-traffic periods. Choose a time of day that will be the least visible to the rest of the team so that your employee can clear out their workspace with few co-workers around.
    • Be prepared to inform the rest of the team. A simple acknowledgement that the employee is no longer with the company is enough. You’re letting one person go, but it impacts the whole team – and that goes for remote employees too.
  • Get to the point quickly. Don’t sugar coat your words to soften the blow. Soft language creates uncertainty.
    Focus on the performance standard that wasn’t met: “We agreed that you would submit payroll by 9 am. It was sent at noon on Friday.”
    DO:
    • Begin with the words “We agreed that…” Opening the conversation with a statement of fact about a broken promise minimizes the likelihood that the employee will get defensive.

    DON'T:
    • Don’t open with pleasantries or small talk.It’s tempting to start a difficult conversation with small talk especially if you’re feeling uncomfortable or nervous. Your first words set the tone. Beginning the conversation as you would any other conversation is disingenuous and sets up your employee to be blind-sided by what’s coming.
    • Don’t tell your employee how awful you feel about it. They feel worse.
    • Don’t apologize. It’s not your fault.
  • Stay on track. Although the termination is warranted and best for the organization (and perhaps beneficial for the employee in the long-run), the person in front of you is a fellow human being with personal and financial obligations – just like you. While that understanding can help you approach the conversation with empathy, it can also derail the conversation. When your employee responds with an explanation or sidetrack, it’s important to listen and then get back on track.
    DO:
    • Redirect and continue the conversation. Use the word, “Well…” to refocus and continue the conversation.
          “We agreed that you would submit payroll by 9 am. It was sent at noon on Friday.”
          “I know. My morning was so busy. Time got away from me. I’ll do better next time.”
          “Well… payroll was processed late which impacted everyone’s direct deposit.”
  • More Termination Discussion Tips

    • Stay focused on the performance issue. Keeping your words centered on the performance problem helps you from getting off track and keeps you on strong legal ground.
      DO:
      • Frame your thinking around the problem. Your employee failed to meet the requirements of the job, performance expectations, or standards. That doesn’t mean your employee is a failure. Focus on the behavior instead of labeling the person.

      DON’T:
      • Don’t focus on the person. Your employee may plead with you to change your mind. Talking about family, finances or other personal issues is an appeal to your heart and directs your attention away from the performance problem. As difficult as it may be, refocus the conversation on the performance problem: “Well… payroll was processed late which impacted everyone’s direct deposit.”
    • Connect the termination to the performance problem. Use the phrase, “As a result…” to clearly communicate what is happening and why.
      “We agreed that you would submit payroll by 9 am. It was sent at noon on Friday.”
      “I know. My morning was so busy. Time got away from me. I’ll do better next time.”
      “Well… payroll was processed late which impacted everyone’s direct deposit. As a result, termination of your employment is effective today.”
    • Maintain your employee’s dignity. While the first part of the meeting is all business and focused on the performance problem, your ending comments should affirm your employee’s worth and maintain your employee’s dignity. Explain next steps; then stand to signal the end of the meeting and say something like, “I’m sure this is difficult. I feel confident though that you will find a position somewhere else where you can be successful.”

      If you are terminating someone virtually, there is no way to respectfully signal the end of the meeting. Instead, affirm your employee’s worth and then add, “Before we end our call, do you have any questions about your final paycheck or benefits?” Be patient and stay focused on next steps; don’t let the employee sidetrack you back to the reasons for the termination.
      DO:
      • Speak sincerely. Just because your employee wasn’t successful at your organization doesn’t mean they won’t find success elsewhere. Use this opportunity to speak with hope and confidence about their future.

      DON’T:
      • Don’t overdo it. Be genuine. Make sure you mean what you say and say it with respect and kindness – but keep it simple and to the point.
      • Don’t say, “I know…” Avoid saying “I know how hard this is” or “I know how you feel” because you don’t.

    Other considerations:

    Observers. Some managers appreciate a third person in the room during terminations and some organizations require it. If a misunderstanding occurs, a third person can provide an additional account of what was said. However, some employees react negatively, feeling a lack of trust and respect. If you choose to have someone from HR, legal, or security in the room, make sure to acknowledge their presence.

    While it can be helpful to have a witness to the termination, it could be intimidating. Have them sit quietly off to the side and acknowledge their presence by saying something like, “I’ve asked Angela to join us.” or “Jackson is joining us.”

    Timing. Consider the timing of your discussion. Unless the termination is due to egregious misconduct and needs to be done immediately, avoid firing on a Friday or any day that you know your employee has something special planned.

For a helpful resource on how to terminate an employee, download the complete Uncomfortable Conversations: Terminations Tips Sheet  below.


Recommended Training - Uncomfortable Conversations

As this clip shows, Uncomfortable Conversation uses relatable examples, practical instruction and a touch of humor to help managers learn to navigate difficult conversations with direct reports.


The suggestions and recommendations in these tips sheet are presented to provide guidance; they do not constitute legal advice. If you need advice on how to terminate employment for any reason, consult Human Resources or legal counsel. In summary, these documents are not a substitute for legal and/or professional advice.