Firing poor performers is one of the hardest things managers do -- and also one of the most important.
I'll write in the future about how to make the decision to fire someone in the first place, but for now, here are six rules for the termination conversation itself.
Disclaimer: This post doesn't address the legal issues surrounding firings, but obviously you should ensure that any termination you're contemplating doesn't violate federal or state laws ... and if there are sticky issues potentially in play, you should speak to a lawyer in advance.
1. A firing should (almost) never come as a surprise.
Ideally, a firing should be the final installment in a conversation that has been ongoing. The employee has been clearly told about the problems and what needs to change, warned that the progress isn't what it needs to be, and explicitly told that his or her job is in jeopardy if specific changes don't occur. When the termination conversation happens, it's more of a wrap-up than anything else; it shouldn't be a surprise.
There are some offenses so egregious that they warrant firing on the spot, like, say, punching someone. But that's not the case for the vast majority of terminations.
2. Be compassionate.
Acknowledge that this is hard and that you're sorry this is the outcome. Allow your tone and body language to convey compassion. Even if you've been incredibly frustrated with the employee, now that the decision has been made, there's no reason not to allow yourself to feel and express genuine compassion for what's inescapably a horrible outcome for the person.
When at all feasible, try to truly believe this is a case of a bad fit, rather than that the employee is lazy, stupid, obstinate, or difficult. If you go into the meeting with this mindset, it will change the way you come across, helping to defuse the situation and helping the employee keep his or her dignity.
3. Be direct.
Start the conversation off with your decision. Some managers try to ease into the news, thinking it will soften the blow. But then you'll have the employee sitting there thinking they're supposed to be defending themselves, when in fact you're past that point. It's unkind to make the employee think they can sway your opinion if they can't, so let them know up front what decision you've made.
Lead off with something like: "This is a tough conversation to have. When we met several weeks ago, we discussed the fact that if you didn't meet the benchmarks we laid out, we wouldn't be able to keep you on. Unfortunately, although I know you have been trying, we're now at that point and have decided to let you go. I know this is hard, and I want to do whatever I can to make it as easy as possible on you."
4. Don't lie about the reason for the firing.
Sometimes a manager will come up with a "cover story" for the firing, thinking the real reason will hurt the employee's feelings. Sometimes a manager will use a cover story because he or she hasn't been direct enough with the employee about the problems earlier and has avoided tough conversations about performance issues. Now that the person needs to be fired, the manager is in the position of explaining a decision the person had no warning of. (See #1 and don't put yourself in this position, which is tremendously unfair to the employee. If a manager has problems with an employee that the employee doesn't know about, the problem is with the manager.)
Do not under any circumstances lie. You may need to speak about the reason for the firing in the paperwork for the employee's future unemployment claim or even in litigation -- and if what you say doesn't match what the employee was told, it will cause big problems.
5. Keep the conversation relatively short.
Don't enter into a debate. Your decision is final, and while you hope the employee understands it, the time for back-and-forth is over. Let the employee know your decision and then cover logistics, like returning keys and other property, the final paycheck, COBRA, etc.
6. Know you're going to be emotionally drained afterward.
There have been firings I've found easier than others -- firing someone found to have chronically falsified timesheets wasn't especially hard -- but in general, firing someone is always emotionally difficult. It's terrible news to deliver to someone. But being compassionate and treating the employee with respect, fairness, and dignity and knowing that you gave the employee ample warning and opportunity to improve will at least let you know that the meeting was better in your hands than it might have been in someone else's.