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Crucial Conversations QA

How to Handle the Fallout of Letting Someone Go

Dear Emily,

What is the best way to announce that someone has been let go? We’ve had five departures in the past eighteen months that weren’t handled well. Communications ranged from non-existent—the person just wasn’t there anymore; to confusing—a new org structure was presented and someone who should’ve been in the meeting wasn’t there. Nor was there a box for that position on the new chart. This is a group in which people care for each other and there are hurt emotions when someone leaves. Is there a better way to handle this while respecting the rules of confidentiality?

Regards,
Looking for Closure

Dear Looking,

Some years ago, I let an employee go. I’ll call him Sam. Sam had been with us for many years and was a well-integrated part of the team. Even more, he had social relationships with several other people on our team. I knew that letting him go was going to raise concerns.

I met with Sam late Tuesday afternoon and we worked through the details of his termination. Early Wednesday morning I sent an e-mail out to the team announcing Sam’s departure and wishing him well in his future endeavors. I made sure people knew who to work with on the team with regards to Sam’s projects. And I invited people who had questions to come by and discuss them with me.

One of Sam’s close colleagues took me up on the offer. As we talked, she commented, “this was just so out of the blue.” I responded, “I am so glad to hear that!” I could see she was a bit taken aback by that so I quickly explained. “We have a process for working with employees when we have identified performance concerns. It is a process we follow with every employee and is focused on coaching and improvement. Unfortunately, sometimes even with coaching and other support strategies, we aren’t able to close the gap and we have to let someone go. And I am always glad to know that it seemed ‘out of the blue’ because this means that we were appropriately confidential about these performance gaps as we worked through the process. I want people on our team to know that if there are ever performance concerns with them, we will address them and work through them. And we will do so without letting other people know.”

I’m sure it’s clear from this example that I am not the perfect manager. There is plenty to dissect in the way I approached this. But I am a concerned people-manager who deeply cares about those who report to me and the culture of caring we have on our team. I’ve learned that helping your team transition through the unexpected departure of a coworker is a crucial moment for a leader. It is a moment that has a disproportionate impact on how people see and relate to you as a leader. You can talk a lot about respect and caring and the importance of the team, but if you handle this moment poorly, it won’t matter how many other, lesser moments you have handled well.

So, here is my advice: live your values. At VitalSmarts, we value respect and candor. Balancing these two values is the key to navigating the aftermath of an employee termination. You need to demonstrate respect for the person who has left while balancing that with the candor your employees need from you.

Demonstrate respect for the person you have fired by keeping confidential matters confidential. In an effort to reassure employees that they are not at risk, it may be tempting to give too many details and explain what performance gaps led to termination. Don’t do this. Instead, help people understand that you respect confidentiality, even when an employee has left.

Balance this respect with candor. People will always be able to tell when you are playing the confidentiality card as a way to get out of difficult conversations. Be forthright and proactive. Your team should hear from you that someone was let go, not from an org chart. Communicate early and often. If your team is large, consider sending an e-mail to make the first announcement rather than telling people one by one as your schedule permits. Make sure you block time on your calendar to be available after the announcement for people to ask questions. And if they aren’t coming to you with questions, go to them and check in.

Finally, I am not an HR professional. I don’t even play one on TV. There are, however, many HR professionals who read this newsletter and I hope they will join this discussion on our blog. Consulting with your HR partner is a critical part of handling all aspects of employee termination, including announcing to others. Your HR business partner can give you guidance as to what you can and cannot share with others. From there, it is up to you how to frame it in a way that is congruent with your values.

Good Luck,
Emily

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Emily Hoffman

Emily has consulted and trained with non profit, start-up ventures, and major national corporations such as Eli Lily and The Chicago Board of Trade. Additionally, Emily has taught finance courses at Brigham Young University and trained corporate clients in Crucial Conversations. read more

28 thoughts on “How to Handle the Fallout of Letting Someone Go”

  1. Every place I have ever worked had the policy that you could not tell anyone that an employee was let go for poor performance, even after they left. I believe this came from the legal department, and was probably the same reason we couldn’t provide a letter of reference for an outstanding ex-employee, as a representative of the company, only personally. I had to fire three employees for conspiracy in covering up a violation. They were escorted out under armed guard. Not being able to discuss the reason with the rest of the staff did make for an awkward converstation. HR told me to say “I am not at liberty to discuss the reason for the employees’ termination.” I could not even confirm when someone knew and stated the reason for they were fired. But we did have a meeting to discuss what would happen as a result of personnel no longer being there.

    1. I echo Wanda’s comments. Acknowledging someone left due to performance reasons is a disclosure of that person’s “personal information” and can damage their future prospects for other positions where they might excel. In our litigious society, most employers simply say the person “left to pursue other interests” and then discuss org changes that allow the work to continue uninterrupted. This may change. There might be future laws that compel certain employers to disclose reasons for termination in certain circumstances or provide legal immunity for disclosure — example might be airlines who terminate pilots with mental illness. But in today’s environment, it is generally expected to simply state the person has separated. Sometimes there are reasons it is to the benefit of both the company and the employee to sign a non-disclosure agreement where neither party is allowed to say anything other than acknowledge the separation. In the absence of such agreement, the departed employee might choose to disclose to friends they were terminated for performance reasons. But then they take the risk how that might go viral and become distorted. The employer would be “clean”.

    2. Just like I am not an HR professional, I am also not a lawyer. But here is what I understand about the law in this regard. There is no law that says you can’t talk about why an employee was let go, even if the reason was poor performance. There are lots of laws that say you can’t defame, slander, or discriminate against people. As a risk mitigation strategy, many organizations have policies in place that prohibit people from talking about why an employee left or giving a reference (good or bad) about a former employee. Again, not because it is illegal (if what you are saying is true) but because there is a lot of room for differing perceptions and interpretations and therefore opens an organization up to risk.

      So, for me, it is a matter of judgement, knowing an organization’s policy, and if you are in a position to influence that policy deciding what level of risk you are comfortable with.

      Thanks for the great comment.

  2. I’m also not an HR professional, but I am surprised that you could identify why the reason “Sam” was fired. That’s a no-no at my company. When people are terminated it leads to lots of whispers in the “cubicle farm” (and possibly some paranoia), but managers simply cannot give a reason for a termination.

  3. Emily, you said that you were glad to hear that Sam’s letting go came out of the blue to his colleagues because it was a manifestation of the discretion that was maintained during the attempts to manage Sam’s poor performance. I find it hard to understand that colleagues would not know that a co-worker’s performance was so lacking that he was dismissed. If they really did not know, there clearly was a wide gap between your and his colleagues opinion on Sam’s performance and that, I think, would be a problem.
    Frank

    1. From the wording it sounded like you assumed Sam’s colleague was surprised that he was let go BECAUSE she didn’t know about his poor performance and the process he was going through to recorrect that was successful. I would not be surprised that the colleague didn’t know about the coaching, etc. as most people are embarassed about that and wouldn’t share, but I would be surprised and a bit concerned if a the colleague worked closedly with Sam and wasn’t aware of his pooor performance. If the colleague didn’t have much interactive with Sam this would not be the case. The colleague may have been aware of the performance issue, just surprised that Sam was fired because of it. I have seen this happen when other poor performers were kept on due to personal relationships with higher level managers.

    2. My thoughts exactly. It should not be out of the blue as others ought to know that performance is lacking, not because someone told them, but they saw the lacking performance.

  4. Nice info and I took your info and morphed it into my own w/o performance, because it could be policy or behavior also and no one needs to know exactly what the issue was:
    “We have a process for working with employees when we have identified concerns.
    It is a process we follow with every employee and is focused on coaching and improvement.

    Sometimes even with coaching and other support strategies, we aren’t able to close the gap and hard decisions need to be made.
    I am always glad to know that it seemed ‘out of the blue’ because this means that we were appropriately confidential about these gaps as we worked through the process. I want people on our team to know that if there are ever concerns with them, we will address them and work through them. And we will do so without letting other people know.”

  5. Interesting and timely topic; I will be following comments and dialogue. Thank you for the post and all the comments so far.

  6. Thanks for discussing this topic, Emily. It’s triggered a thought process!

    As far as I’m concerned, unless there is a risk that I could make the same mistakes as the one who is terminated, I don’t need to know the reason. I’m confident my manager would coach me away from similar behavior if there was that risk. The problem I have is whether or not someone is fired individually or as part of a larger reduction in force (RIF), the rest of the company is never, and I do mean NEVER, informed of who is taking over the departed person’s/peoples’ responsibilities. It’s extremely frustrating to me when I have an urgent issue and I go to a now former coworker for help, find that coworker is gone, and I don’t know whom to go to in their place. I can eventually learn this, but in the heat of the moment, it’s a huge roadblock. Rather than simply complaining about it, I have a plan I hadn’t really considered prior to today.

    My company is focused on continuous improvement and has a mechanism through which I can address this problem and offer solutions. Those ideas may not be implemented. In fact, HR may come back and say there’s nothing they can or will do about it, but at least my concern will be aired. Perhaps my submission will at least get the ball rolling through the process and a new notification system will be put in place!

    1. Have had the same problems with large reductions in force. Very poor communications on who was leaving and who was going to get tagged with the work that person was doing.

    2. Great point, Gregg. Especially with large RIFs, I think part of the problem may be that decision-makers don’t always know everything involved in an employee’s role and don’t have a plan in place yet to cover those responsibilities. Again, I vote for transparency – just say you don’t yet know who will be covering all of this but you are working on a plan (which hopefully they are!).

  7. Thank you for the explanation that confidentiality is needed. Even some managers with the best potential for management skills do not follow that one, basic rule. Just after I became a manager, a well-respected senior manager in my department informed me that she had begun the process with HR to monitor the performance of one of her employees. The employee was finally terminated and it turned out to be in the best interest of the team. However, I felt that the employee had a right to privacy and to maintain self respect during the process. That is not always respected, even by the people who have the greatest potential to lead and to set an example.

  8. I love reading these blurbs. I fully support living the values, open communication and respecting your employees. The red flag in this convo is disclosing the reason for termination was poor performance. Legally you can’t and shouldn’t disclose a reason for termination. The employee (or ex exploree) can choose to share, but not the manager.

    1. Would love to know more about this. My understanding of the law is that you can’t defame, slander, or discriminate. Thus, as a risk mitigation strategy, most organization’s legal counsel will set policies against disclosure. I haven’t ever seen anything about it actually being against the law. Is that state law or federal law?

      Thanks!

  9. Almost all separations result in an emotional impact to the team. These emotions need to be addressed with compassionate understanding on the part of the manager.

    Many will react with shock. Some will react with fear for either their own employment or for the success of their project.

    If you think through the announcement with consideration only on the logistics — where to go for resources, how to get work re-assigned, who reports to whom now — you will be unprepared for the emotional responses of the team.

    My personal recommendation is to stop after making the announcement that “Sam is no longer on the team” and give everyone a minute to digest the news. This is an uncomfortable silence that requires preparation. Look across your team as you deliver this news and be prepared with your answer to the “why?” question which invariably gets asked aloud. Also be prepared to reassure the team for their next question “What is going to happen to me?” that rarely gets asked directly but is implied in many of the questions that do get asked next.

    Remember that the way you treat “Sam” during this moment demonstrates to the rest of the team how you value them.

    If you are in a peer position to the firing manager, or if you manage the firing manager, go out of your way to support that firing manager. Counseling the manager on what to expect and how to prepare for their announcement is part of this discussion but they also need emotional support. It’s my personal approach to ensure that the manager has an opportunity to discuss the situation and decompress with another manager – outside the office if at all possible such as at a restaurant – after they talk to the team. The responsibility of letting someone go can be very taxing on the manager – especially their first time – even if they have had experience in the past. Do not ignore the emotional toll on the manager.

    It is in the trying moments of fulfilling our roles that a leader shows their commitment to values. Your team will see your actions as a display of your values in action. Let the high emotional intensity of the situation of letting someone go to reconfirm your commitment to your core values and the success of your team members.

  10. I have been in this situation and also been warned by my HR and Legal team to not talk about the situation or reasons. What I did to respond to the other employee who was concerned and made a similar ‘out of the blue’ comment was to simply state that I needed that person to trust me. I said that I couldn’t discuss anything but I hoped they would trust that I was doing the right thing for everyone involved. I then went on to talk about the exciting work that employee was doing to reassure them that I recognized their good work.

  11. Many valid points have been made about communications when a team member’s employment has ended involuntarily. It may be performance, a one-time incident, or even a layoff situation. All posts reflect the conflict between two seemingly opposite viewpoints ie–tell too much or not say anything to remaining employees. My suggestion is that both can be honored, along the lines of: “I know there are lots of people with questions about why Sam left in a way that seemed sudden to you. I hope you can respect that I am unable to discuss any of the reasons related to Sam’s departure. I know it’s hard for the team. However, I hope you know that these decisions are not made lightly or in a vacuum.” For a work team that is close & has reasonable trust with their manager, typically the group members understand it was not a glib or easy decision. They may not agree with it, but they do recognize the truth of it. It also reinforces that you don’t talk about people after they have left employment. Many managers are so uncomfortable with silence gaps that they fill in the silence with information that really should not or cannot be shared. This conversation–handled appropriately with HR coaching–meets the needs of the organization from a risk standpoint and also hopefully provides the remaining employees with acknowledgement that the manager is aware of the impact on them. As an HR leader, one of our important roles is as an internal consultant and coach for a variety of situations.

  12. If my former supervisor said to a colleague, “We have a process for working with employees when we have identified performance concerns. It is a process we follow with every employee and is focused on coaching and improvement. Unfortunately, sometimes even with coaching and other support strategies, we aren’t able to close the gap and we have to let someone go.” I’d call it slanderous. It is not always just the player who needs coaching, it is the coach who needs it and has room for improvement. They have the upper hand is all.

  13. Excellent post Emily. I understand all the comments here about legal concerns and not discussing the reason why someone was fired. That is definitely the least risky route to take.

    However, the least risky route may not always be the best.

    In my view, a crucial part of our jobs as managers and leaders is to be stewards of our desired organizational culture. That requires us to recognize, reward and appreciate others who are exhibiting desired behaviors.

    It also requires us to do the more difficult part of being a steward of our culture, which is to let people go when they are clearly violating our cultural norms.

    Let’s say that one of your company’s stated values is “treating others with respect” and you have an employee that is clearly and continuously disrespectful. If we don’t address it, we condone the behavior, and our stated values become meaningless words on the wall.

    It would be ideal if we could actually say, “As you know, we value respect in the workplace, and for that reason, Sam was let go…” I understand that doing that opens the company up to legal risks. However, we would be communicating with candor and publicly standing by our culture in a way that sends a clear message to our staff about what we value.

    Do you have any thoughts about how we can simultaneously communicate our commitment to our culture and still protect ourselves legally?

  14. I once had an employee who was on vacation when some against-policy behavior was discovered. I knew we would be letting him go when he returned but could not comment to anyone else. This made it difficult to plan because as I was trying to figure out who would do what another member of the team would say “Let’s just have ‘Bob’ do that when he’s back next week.”

    When “Bob” returned we let him go before he even got to his desk. Then I held a meeting with the team right afterwards. I told them that Bob was no longer with the company and that we wished him well. My second statement was something like, “I know this was a shock to everyone because we all liked Bob and it’s hard to see the team without him on it. I cannot discuss any details of what happened or why. However, I can say that this was not the beginning of any lay-offs. Your jobs are safe. If you’d like to discuss this here’s when I’m available. Now, let’s review our projects and action items to discuss who can take some of Bob’s responsibilities until we hire someone new.”

    1. I once had a manager call me at home on the weekend and ask if I could present some information at meeting the next day because Bob wouldn’t be available. I came in early to prep for the presentation that I wouldn’t normally have been giving and did the best I could. I heard through the grapevine that Bob had committed and attempted to cover up a serious violation of policy. Of course my manager couldn’t tell us that,only that Bob was no longer with the company and how we would handle the work load until a replacement could be hired. At our very next weekly staff meeting, one of the topics was the policy that I had heard was violated and the example was how I heard it was violated, along with a discussion on ethics and the repercussions of NOT reporting something.

  15. As a senior HR leader and former law firm executive, I have a few tips to share:
    1. Be respectful to all parties – Sam as well as the team members
    2. Inform the team briefly that Sam is no longer with the company. State that you cannot share confidential details about Sam’s departure. [Do not disclose why Sam is leaving or what was done behind the scenes – coaching, training etc.]
    3. Tell the team how Sam’s responsibilities will be handled
    4. Express your gratitude to the team for their support and their focus on the work at hand
    5. Take care of yourself following the exit conversation and team conversations
    6. Treat all parties as you want to be treated – with respect, dignity, grace and brief candor.

    Underneath team questions about departures is the urgent need to understand how they would be treated should they be asked to leave the company.

  16. This is so good to read! My entire team was decimated over the course of 6 months, and no explanation was ever given to the rest of the org. I had drinks with a highly valued colleague two months after being let go, and her first question was “What happened to you??” That was how I found out that no explanation was given. It was bizarre! Fortunately, since she asked me, I was free to tell her from my perspective, and her compassion was much appreciated.

    I’m trying to figure out a way to anonymously send this article to the GM who has been tearing the org apart. She’s young, in over her head, and has great potential. I hope she can get some decent mentoring before she solidifies her current very bad management approaches.

  17. You brought up a great question that has been posed to me from managers for years. The communication of letting someone go may always be awkward. Here are a couple tidbits learned through the years.

    Sometimes during the termination meeting, we have discussed with the employee that is being let go s/he would like to have communicated to his/her colleagues. It ‘feels better’ to be on the same page about it. A caviat to that discussion can be what information is provided when a prospective employer contacts us for a reference.

    When peers to the person that was let go have come to me to discuss concerns about it (which is usually fear of being next), I reassure them as in the example above about a process and that being let go should never be a surprise to someone. I also encourage them to continue to be a friend and supportive of the individual that was let go. This gives them a sense of ease that there were no hard feelings or ‘sides’ to be taken.

  18. Emily,

    Excellent article! You did place your disclaimer in about not being the perfect manager. Who is? HR professionals like myself would advise not to give too much detail in order to mitigate future risk to the organization. That said, the climate in each state or locale plays into what you should or should not say. In California where I work, saying nothing is the benchmark to follow.

    In your example, I would be surprised if the others in his peer group did not already have an idea of what issues were present. I would leave it up the the terrminated employee to decide how much to disclose in an effort to respect his privacy and demonstrate that I would use the same standard for anyone who has left for any reason.

    Either way, we are all human and have to follow our values with regard to the respect and dignity of the people involved. Again, excellent article and thank you for living you values!

    David

  19. This blog and this discussion is focused on the manager and loses sight of the others in the group. If they are like most people I know they will have some feelings about the person let go BUT also feelings about what this means for them. Instead of immediately putting them on the back foot and saying “I’m glad you’re surprised”, how about focusing on them and their concerns rather than turning the table on them. Maybe they want to know if there are other shoes to fall. Maybe they want to know if this is a sign of the future. Maybe they are concerned about something you didn’t know that the person let go was doing for them. I’m hard pressed to see a statement like “I’m glad you’re surprised” as living a company’s values. Yes we have to maintain confidentiality, and I’m not arguing to drop confidentiality, but confidentiality is only a piece of this puzzle. Where is empathy? How about finding out how this impacts those “left behind”? Assuming you know what’s best for them and the organization is a slippery slope. Yes you may have covered the projects and the roles you knew about. Once you ask people you may find other issues to deal with.

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