How to Fire Someone Compassionately

Do’s and don’ts of giving an employee the worst news.

How to Fire Someone Compassionately
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You've probably heard the tale of Tim Armstrong and the Conference Call That Went Awry.

Just in case you haven't: On Aug. 9, AOL's CEO and Chairman Tim Armstrong scheduled a meeting with numerous on-site employees as well as up to a thousand remote workers who called in, where he explained the necessity for a spurt of layoffs within Patch, a hyperlocal news division of AOL. About two minutes into the conference call, Armstrong interrupted his own meeting to abruptly and publicly fire Patch's creative director Abel Lenz. According to news reports, the firing took place allegedly because Lenz was taking pictures – something he frequently did during conference calls in order to post the images on the company intraweb – and Armstrong was concerned about company leaks. Audio of the public ousting quickly went viral, as did bad publicity for Armstrong, who has since apologized for the incident to his staff in an internal memo (Lenz, however, remains fired).

Most people aren't terminated in such a spectacle, but there is a moral to the tale: Whether you're a manager or an employee, the dumper or the dumpee, firing is never fun. It is possible, however, to give someone the bad news while still keeping your humanity and upholding your employee's dignity. Robert Sutton, a Stanford University professor and author of "Good Boss, Bad Boss" offers four guidelines in his book for how to handle letting someone go:

"The first thing you want to do is give them as much predictability as possible. Firing someone without warning and on the spot sometimes happens, but good bosses are quicker to give people warning," he says. "Second, give them as much understanding as possible. There are studies that show that people who are told why it's necessary [to let them go] are less stressed about it. The third isn't immediately obvious, but give them as much control as possible for the way things will unfold. And the last one is to have compassion."

[See: 25 Career Mistakes to Banish for 2013.]

With that in mind, consider these pointers on what to do and what to avoid when you have to let go of staff.

DON'T fire someone on a Friday. Waiting until the dregs of the workweek might seem less awkward, but doing so actually gives the fired person Saturday and Sunday to feel miserable and simmer in a 48-hour holding pattern until most offices and network contacts start their next workweek. "If you fire them on Friday at 4 p.m., they're going to stew, and get angry and they don't have resources available to them," says Laurie Ruettimann, a human resources consultant. "That's HR 101."

DO the deed on a Tuesday. Or a Monday even – the sooner in the week the better, because then the terminated employee has a better launchpad for planning his or her next steps. "It gives them the opportunity to tap into their network and begin a job hunt, or even to decide if they want to take some legal action. Firing someone as early in the week as possible so that they can get in touch with resources that are available since they're working," Ruettimann says.

DON'T tell remaining staff by scheduling a meeting after the fact. Formally scheduling time to convene and discuss someone's termination might lead to unwanted questions about what happened, plus it's just a little morbid. "There is no good way to deliver bad news, but a swift discussion [with staff] the next morning is fine." Ruettimann says. "You don't want to make it seem overly newsworthy." You could also go around to employees individually to quickly explain that their colleague is no longer with the company, but that's all you're able to share.

DO tell some staff on a need-to-know basis before the fact. There are a handful of colleagues whom you should clue in beforehand: your direct supervisor (he or she likely has to approve the termination), human resources personnel and even the office manager, if there is one. Depending on your office culture and its level of security, you might also need to inform the information technology department.