10 Dumb Things Bosses Say When They Fire People

For a boss, 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 person doing the firing—is something of a cottage industry.

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

So forget about your feelings. Whenever you have to fire an employee, clearly you must protect your business from any legal ramifications. 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. “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 lead off by saying, “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 NFL team firing an unsuccessful coach. And you’re not holding a press conference either. So 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, “John, I have to let you go.”

3. “We’ll 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. “Compared to Joe, you just aren’t cutting it.”

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. “I disagree, and 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 this happened.”

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, “John, go ahead and gather up your personal belongings and I’ll meet you back here in 10 minutes.”

If John 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 after trying to seem generous, 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.

  • J.F. Patterson

    I agree with all the above. What is sad in current times is companies who do not train and support new employees into their culture and delineate performance expectations. Employees should have an experienced employee who enjoys bringing someone on board and seeing that person succeed. Too often, inadequate training, vague standards and absent senior managers see new hires up for failure. Spending some extra time up front ensures a better transition and reduces turnover in the long run.

    • Poro

      I must mention this scrubby company called Amdatex, only 1 month training? plus with a slow computer? you got to be FUCKING KIDDING ME!

    • Myke

      I totally agree with this statement. I have not seen adequate training on a job for over a decade. I work in health care. But the co workers or management have had very little motivation to train me appropriately. Another issue, throwing it on co workers to train. I just had to bear down and figure it out. Then deal with the attitudes if I was not doing something as expected. I have a supervisor position now. A whole new set of responsibilities.The only way I train is to review the work of the last supervisor.

  • Jared

    “If there’s anything I can do…”. I could use help paying my rent and feeding my kids? Will you help with that?

  • Marlon

    As an employer, when you terminate someone in many cases you have either direct or indirect culpability. Perhaps it was a bad hire from the get go, or you were unable to redirect their efforts well, or they were improperly motivated or incentivized. Maybe they just didn’t possess the relevant skills to do the work. These are all things with which the employer has some input. From what I’ve experienced, it is extremely rare when someone just goes off the rails and does something illegal or otherwise requiring immediate dismissal. Even then, due process is important to insure that there is a control to prevent such a thing from happening in the future. By and large, most dismissals are for low performance, and there are things employers do that impact the performance they receive from their hires. Hire carefully and train to maintain your team’s edge.

  • http://lindagalindo.com/blog Linda Galindo

    Terrific list and even better are the suggested options you provide Jeff. I recently facilitated a senior leadership group that has kept dead weight in their ranks because they just could not bring themselves to do the hard thing individually and collectively. Worse, they did not know the process or parameters as to what they could or could not say. Mostly they hid behind a comment I hear a lot at the top of organizations – “HR won’t let us let them go.” #9 is where I start with leaders – Take Responsibility! The relief and progress that has followed is astonishing. I experience leaders learning that the truth does set them free and creates a much needed C-Suite partnership with HR.

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