The Hardest Part


I believe it is safe to say that there is no more unpleasant responsibility than termination of employees. Most of us would rather do anything else.

Unfortunately, this part of our job is a critical component of successful managerial leadership and will never go away. We will always have to deal with employees who, for whatever reason, simply do not perform to company standards and expectations.

This article is intended to offer recommendations to help make this process a little more bearable for everyone involved. Let’s assume that discharge is unavoidable and no other option is viable.

Recommendation 1: Don’t wait

Once you make the decision to terminate an employee, stop second-guessing and move forward as quickly as possible. There is never a “perfect” time to terminate an employee. Just because you are uncomfortable with the process does not mean that you can put it off. Doing so is not fair to the employee being terminated, to other employees, or to the company as a whole.

While there is much debate regarding the best time and day, my personal preference is to conduct termination meetings first thing in the morning, regardless of the day of the week. Both parties tend to be more alert and less stressed than at the end of a workday.

Recommendation 2: Plan ahead

Carefully plan exactly what you will say to the employee. Lou Lehane, principle of the Thompson Group in Leesburg, VA, says the failure to plan by making an outline or by thinking through what you intend to say is the main cause of disastrous terminations. If you fail to prepare, you may say too much or too little, either of which can come back to haunt you later. Preparing beforehand also allows you to control your overall tone. Keep in mind this is not the time to be overly nice nor cold and harsh.

Recommendation 3: Avoid distractions

The actual termination meeting should only last 10-15 minutes. Avoid opening the meeting with small talk; get right to the point to keep it as brief as possible.

In this meeting you will need to be firm and confident in your decision. Do not allow the employee to engage you in all sorts of excuses as to why they could not perform or who’s to blame for their lack of performance. Additionally, never allow the employee to convince you to give them a second chance. I personally allowed this on one occasion and still ended up terminating the employee a few months later.

Recommendation 4: Be upfront

I strongly believe that you are obligated to inform the employee of the exact nature of the misconduct and/or performance failures that have resulted in their termination. Being vague and ambiguous is going to cause you and your company problems both during the meeting and possibly in the future. However, the employee in question should be the only one given such details. Ensure that the meeting is held in private and that everything possible is done to respect the privacy rights of the individual being terminated.

Recommendation 5: Answer questions

Be prepared to answer some of the basic questions that the terminated employee may have. A few questions that have been asked of me in the past include:

  • When should I leave?
  • Will I get severance pay?
  • Am I eligible for unemployment?
  • What about my commission check and/or vacation pay?
  • Can I say goodbye to my co-workers?
  • Will you give me a reference?

As you prepare what you will say to your employee during the termination meeting, take time to anticipate their questions and formulate your answers. I am intentionally not offering suggestions on how you should respond, as every situation is different. Use your knowledge of the circumstances and individuals involved to formulate your answers.

Additional thoughts

While confidentiality is still a top priority, I suggest that you always have a witness present. Be prepared for anything. Over the years I have seen the full range of emotions take place during a termination meeting.

Ensure that all documentation is completed immediately after the meeting. Keep in mind that when it comes to employment issues, one simple rule exists: If you didn’t document it, it didn’t happen.

If the terminated individual threatens legal action, do not respond.

In cases where the employee has had access to confidential company information, be sure to have a brief discussion with them in regards to keeping that information confidential. You will also want to revoke their access to this information immediately after the termination.

By following these recommendations will the responsibility of terminating an employee become easier? The answer to that question is an unequivocal “no.” If it ever gets easy for you to terminate an employee, then you may need to get out of business.

Following these recommendations will help you do the best possible job that you can in remaining in control and protecting both yourself and the company. More importantly, you will have allowed the employee to maintain their self-respect and dignity in a very stressful and uncomfortable time.

Scott Tackett, a facilitator, business trainer, and adjunct professor, has a background of over 30 years in manufacturing, human resource management and organizational leadership. He is currently a business development advisor for Violand Management Associates (VMA) where he works closely with business owners and their management staff as both a business consultant and an executive coach. To reach him, visit or call (330)966-0700.

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