The Firing Squad

The Firing Squad

Whether it’s due to a bad apple or the troubled economy, terminating an employee is something many managers dread. Here’s how to do it with dignity.

By Lori Johnston

J.T. O’Donnell was in an uncomfortable and, in some ways, awful situation. Her promotion at an IT staffing firm placed her above a manager who wasn’t meeting goals. She tried to help him improve his performance, with no success. “His attitude was, ‘If you want me to leave, you’re going to have to fire me,'” she recalls. “As a woman executive in charge of this man who underperformed, that’s what I had to do. I absolutely dreaded it.”

When the time came, the man went ballistic. His face turned dark red and he began to yell. Not looking her in the eye, he accused the company of setting him up for failure. He told O’Donnell that it was only a matter of time before she failed too.

It was her worst nightmare. “I had to keep reminding myself that this was his way to feel better for a moment – to let it out rather than let it stew,” says O’Donnell, now a career and workplace expert based in New Hampshire. The man eventually ran out of steam and left the office cursing under his breath.

Whew. Terminating employees is a responsibility that few, if any, women managers relish – and some actually fear it. Beth Johnston, senior vice president of human resources for Delta Air Lines, compares the task to having stage fright. “It’s a difficult thing to do because women are nurturers,” she says, “but it’s important for the business that we make sure we have the right team players.”

Conservative estimates place the cost of firing an employee at $10,000, including the expense of severance, interviewing and hiring a replacement, and down time during training, says Adrianne Ahern, Ph.D., a performance psychologist, author and speaker. But the dangers of not terminating problem workers are numerous and costly, too, with sagging productivity and damage to workforce morale topping the list.

As a result, Ahern believes businesses have become much more conscious of how they hire and fire – with many following the motto, “Hire slow, fire fast.” In fact, being more deliberative on the front end usually means not having to fire 90 percent of the time, adds Christine Owens, senior vice president of communications and brand management at UPS.

Conducting extensive searches, background checks and even psychological tests are among the steps some companies take, though even well-chosen employees don’t always work out. “Once we recognize someone is not going to work for us,” Ahern says, “we should get rid of them.”

The Party’s Over

Keeping poor-performing employees around for too long is a mistake even experienced managers make. “Far too often managers spend months and even years working with underperformers,” O’Donnell says.

Yet, ironically, some unproductive and unhappy employees don’t mind a shove out the door. That happened when Jacqueline M. Welch fired a female employee four years ago. “She had been wanting a change, and by her own admission her performance hadn’t been the best it could be, primarily because she wasn’t content,” says Welch, vice president of employee and organizational effectiveness at packaging manufacturer Rock-Tenn Co. “She just didn’t know how to pull the plug.”

At some companies, problem employees even receive a paid day off to determine if they want to remain on board. “That’s kind of a soft landing,” says Louellen Essex, co-author of the Manager’s Desktop Consultant: Just-in-Time Solutions to the Top People Problems That Keep You Up at Night (Davies-Black, 2007). “I think a lot of people will choose that, what I call a graceful exit. It’s the way to preserve the dignity of some one who’s been with you for a long time.”

Getting It Done

So when the moment arrives to let someone go, what’s the best way to go about it? The nuts and bolts of firing vary with executive and office dynamics, but “the best time of the week is early in the week,” says Kathy Desmond, vice president of human resources and customer service for 1-800-Mattress. That gives management the opportunity to ensure a transition and co-workers the chance to voice any concerns.

Helene Wasserman, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Ford & Harrison, a national labor and employment law firm, says the day of the week isn’t as important as the time of day. She advises having the conversation at the end of the day to keep the situation as confidential as possible, since fewer people will be in the office.

Finally, terminating an employee is one management task where women can embrace their nurturing nature – and preserve the employee’s dignity. It’s often like a marriage coming to an end, says Donna Flagg, president of The Krysalis Group, a business and management consulting firm in New York City. “The best divorces are when they say, ‘This is not working out,’ as opposed to divorces that end with, ‘You did this, you did that, it’s your fault,'” she says. But, as with some divorces, can you end up as friends? That may be too grand of an objective, Essex says. “To have people respect you for how you handled it,” she says, “is an admirable goal.”

Time to Let Someone Go?


1. Have a third person present. It helps avoid the risk of lawsuits, verbal abuse or even more serious situations, such as workplace violence.

2. Make yourself clear. Provide a specific reason for why the employee is being terminated.

3. Avoid a scene. Some managers allow people to return to their desks or offices to gather belongings; others arrange a time for a terminated employee to return at the end of the day.

4. Coordinate the exit. Plan to have someone escort the person out.

5. Keep the door open – slightly. Give the fired employee the chance to contact someone with the company if she has questions.


1. Make it personal. Instead, keep the focus on how the employee’s actions are impacting the business.

2. Keep the employee out of the loop. Make sure previous conversations have been held and you can document steps taken to avoid termination.

3. Forget to plan for the worst case. Consult an attorney or hire extra security beforehand if you’re concerned about a lawsuit or violence.

4. Be defensive. Let them vent, but don’t respond to complaints.

5. Lose confidence. Be satisfied that you have provided the employee every opportunity to succeed.

This article originally appeared in the May.June 2008 issue of PINK Magazine.

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