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?

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,