How to Let an Employee Go

Up in the Air, the multi-Oscar-nominated 2009 film, features George Clooney as corporate “hit man” Ryan Bingham, whose purpose is to travel around the country and fire people.  Employers hire his company to do the dirty work of letting employees go.

At times, watching the film is painful. The director used real, recently-laid off people to portray Bingham’s victims—and their disappointment, sense of loss, anger, and disbelief are as palpable as Bingham’s cool detachment. He doesn’t know the people whose world he just rocked. Their responses to the news, like “I’ve given this company everything,” “What am I supposed to do now?” or “How can I go home and tell my wife I’ve been fired?” appear to have absolutely no affect on him.

Most employers occasionally have to let employees go. And most do it themselves. The full-scale layoffs depicted in Up in the Air are global corporations, shutting down entire divisions—not small businesses firing a single employee. While it might seem attractive to turn this unpleasant job over to a professional hatchet man, it’s just not possible for most employers.

Most supervisors and business owners say that firing people is one of the worst aspects of their job. So, how does an employer fire someone while treating them well and protecting the company from liability?

Here are some ideas you might consider:

  1. Don’t go it alone. A witness is necessary to protect your company from possible discrimination claims.  Have them document what happens.
  2. Allow enough time to gather all the necessary paperwork, such as evaluations, warnings and any company separation forms the employee will need to complete. Don’t make the employee squirm while you shuffle through a folder looking for something you need.
  3. Be completely professional. This means not getting personal. Don’t say “I’m sorry,” since that can confuse the issue. Your feelings and opinions should not come into the conversation. Keep your voice even, especially if the employee becomes agitated or raises his. And no matter what, don’t argue.
  4. Make it quick. Remember the advice about removing a bandage—the quicker, the better? It’s the same when telling an employee she’s laid off or fired. Just give her the bad news, stay calm, and listen to her reaction. Don’t place the blame on “the boss” or “corporate.” It’s easier to assuage your guilt by blaming others, but it’s confusing to the recipient.

Until your company is large enough to hire a professional, be prepared and be kind—but be professional—when laying off or firing your employees. Done correctly, it can have little effect on the organization. Done badly, it can be devastating to both employee and employer!

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