Firing is about being committed to having great employees. You can do everything else right--setting clear goals and expectations, delegating effectively, giving feedback, striking the right balance between being hands-on without micromanaging, and so forth--but if you aren't willing to transition out people who aren't performing in the way you need, you'll never accomplish what you otherwise could. If you're serious about running a high-performing department or organization, you will have to fire people.
Most managers, however, get little training in how to fire someone. I have needed to fire more times than I would have liked, and here's some advice about how to make it go smoothly: (Disclaimer: This post doesn't address the legal issues surrounding firings, but obviously you should ensure that any termination you're contemplating doesn't violate federal or state laws. And if there are potentially sticky issues in play, you should speak to a lawyer in advance.)
1. A firing should (almost) never come as a surprise. Ideally, a firing should be the final installment of an ongoing conversation. The employee has been clearly told about the problems and what needs to change, warned that the progress isn't what it needs to be, and explicitly told that her job is in jeopardy if specific changes don't occur. When the termination conversation happens, it's more of a wrap-up than anything else, not a surprise. Of course, some offenses are so egregious that they warrant firing on the spot--like, say, punching someone. But that's not the case for the vast majority of terminations.
2. Be compassionate. Acknowledge that it's hard and that you're sorry this is the outcome, and don't be afraid to allow your tone and body language to convey compassion. Even if you've been incredibly frustrated with the employee, now that the decision has been made, there's no reason not to allow yourself to feel and express genuine compassion for what's inescapably a horrible outcome for the person.
And when at all feasible, try to truly believe this is a case of a bad fit, rather than that the employee is lazy, obstinate, or difficult. If you go into the meeting with this mindset, it will change the way you come across, helping to defuse the situation and helping the employee keep her dignity.
3. Be direct. Start the conversation off with your decision. Some managers try to ease into the news, thinking that will soften the blow. But then you'll have the employee sitting there thinking they're supposed to be defending themselves, when in fact you're past that point. It's unkind to make the employee think they can sway your opinion if they can't, so let them know up front what decision you've made.
4. Don't misrepresent the reason for the firing. Sometimes a manager will come up with a "cover story" for the firing, thinking the real reason will hurt the employee's feelings. Sometimes a manager will use a cover story because he or she hasn't been direct enough with the employee about the problems earlier and has avoided tough conversations about performance issues; now that the person needs to be fired, the manager is in the position of explaining a decision about which the person had no warning. (See no. 1 and don't put yourself in this position, which is tremendously unfair to the employee. If a manager has problems with an employee that the employee doesn't know about, the problem is with the manager.)
5. Keep the conversation relatively short. Don't enter into a debate. Your decision is final, and while you hope the employee understands it, the time for back-and-forth is over. Let the employee know your decision and then cover logistics, like returning keys and other property, the final paycheck, COBRA, etc.
6. Know you're going to be emotionally drained afterward. There have been firings I've found easier than others--firing someone found to have chronically falsified timesheets wasn't especially hard--but in general, firing someone is always emotionally difficult. It's terrible news to deliver to someone. But being compassionate and treating the employee with respect, fairness, and dignity and knowing that you gave the employee ample warning and opportunity to improve will at least let you know that the meeting was better in your hands than it might have been in someone else's. Alison Green is chief of staff for a medium-sized nonprofit where she oversees day-to-day management of the staff as well as hiring, firing, and staff development. She is working with the Management Center to coauthor a book on nonprofit management. Her writings have been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Maxim, and dozens of other newspapers. She blogs at Ask a Manager.