I hope you don’t need to read this. It’s a checklist for when you’re preparing to let someone go. But between the stories on LinkedIn and the messages in private, a lot of folks are being fired poorly. So why a checklist?
Because firing someone is stressful, and stressful times are terrible times to make plans. You’re rushed for time. Your brain isn’t working right. Checklists are great tools for shifting thinking and planning from stressful times to chill times. I’ve assembled this one over the years to help myself not screw things up. Think of every checkbox and bullet as another time I screwed up my attempt to do better the next time.
Hopefully, this isn’t anything you need. But if you do? Learn from me. Take a few extra minutes to write out a plan, and make sure you don’t skip any steps. The hour or so it’ll take will be an hour well spent.
1. Check with Legal and HR
As the manager or exec, you need to own the termination process. But your Legal and HR departments are there to protect you from the things you don’t know.
Consult HR and Legal: Before initiating the termination process, consult with your HR and Legal departments. It’s their job to protect you from potential risks and ensure compliance with labor laws. They have special training, distinct knowledge, and experience you lack. You’ll want to ask, “What risk am I creating for the company and myself?”
Understand Protected Classes: Pay special attention if the employee belongs to a protected class to avoid potential discrimination claims.
2. Sweat the Details
Good news: you’re already ahead of the game by working a checklist like this. But this is when you want to start writing all the details down. Putting your plan down on paper makes it less likely you’ll forget a critical step, and it means collaboration and assistance from others is much more likely.
Determine Last Day and Account Access: Decide on the employee's last day and schedule the termination of their access to company accounts and systems. If you don’t have a continually updated list of all company systems, this will be the day to start.
Practice the Process: If unfamiliar with the process for shutting off access, rehearse the steps to ensure a smooth execution. As in: visit all the correct pages, make sure you have administrative access or know the person who does, and confirm nothing is down.
Communicate to the Team: You’ll need to let their coworkers know, so plan how and when colleagues will be informed, ensuring the message is respectful and maintaining the individual's privacy. This could be an email, a Slack message, an in-person meeting, or a Zoom call. Be explicit about what you’ll say and won’t say.
Outline Severance and Benefits: Clearly define any severance package and explain the continuation of benefits, such as health insurance, if applicable. This is another place where you’ll want to work with HR, and if you don’t already have a policy, consider this your first draft.
3. Prepare Communication Scripts
As Mark Twain (may not have) said, “If I’d had twice as long, I would have written half as much.” Write out the words you’ll use to ensure precision, concision, and empathy.
Craft Two Scripts: Develop one script for the individual being terminated and another for the remaining team members, focusing on clarity and compassion.
Explain the Reasoning: Whether due to performance, fit, or organizational changes, be transparent about the reasons for the termination in a respectful manner.
Be brief: No perfect language will make a hard conversation easy. But you sure can screw it up with inappropriate apologies, false promises, sharing private or sensitive information, or any number of ways if you ramble because you’re uncomfortable.
Practice Delivery: Practice enough so it sounds genuine. Rehearse delivering these messages out loud and seek feedback from a trusted colleague or advisor to refine your approach. And when you do deliver it? Stick to the script.
4. Engage Key Stakeholders
What arrives faster than an email? Chains of confused DMs between panicking employees.
Inform Leadership and Peers: Ensure that your manager, the employee's manager, and relevant peers are briefed on the situation and understand the reasons behind the decision. They’re going to get questions.
Align on Communication: Guarantee that these insiders are prepared to reinforce the official message and provide consistent information to the team. All of your work is for nothing if the remaining colleagues hear differing answers to their questions. And it’s equally important to align on tone. Many companies try to be nice with phrases like: “Not every great person is a great fit for every great company.” Other companies aim for firm, yet fair: “
5. Schedule Critical Meetings
It’s 2024. Everyone knows what the dreaded 15-minute “Quick check-in” means. Don’t be cute, and also don’t be unprofessionally casual.
Arrange Two Meetings: Set up a meeting with the individual for early in the day and another with the team immediately following to minimize uncertainty. Early in the day minimizes wasted work as well as the awkwardness of everyone knowing about the termination except the person heading out the door.
Be professional: For both meetings, make sure you’re someplace private where the critical conversation can have your full attention. Don’t be a LinkedIn horror story of accidentally screen sharing your shopping or revealing your YouTube videos in reflection from your glasses. Everyone deserves respect, and that means attention and professionalism.
Prepare Email Announcements: If applicable, write an email announcement (or Slack post) about the departure to be sent to the team, focusing on maintaining confidence and proactively addressing potential concerns. For example, if the person is being let go for performance reasons, you can explain that the company has plenty of cash by sharing things like burn rate and bank balances.
6. Importance of Progressive Discipline
This is an issue I see crop up all the time at startups: Surprise at being fired. If this is the case at your company, it’s your wake-up call. Progressive discipline (telling people they’re underperforming long before they’re likely to be fired) is a key part of any organization’s performance management process.
Implement Feedback Mechanisms: Ensure the team is aware that the individual received fair feedback and opportunities for improvement, reducing anxiety about their own job security.
Review your processes: Did someone provide feedback? Was this a known issue? Had it been brought up by peers? Could an earlier intervention have been productive? Should the individual have been let go earlier? If you think Termination was a failure, take the time to do a retro on when and where the failure happened.
7. Handle Reactions with Care
Everyone in your organization is on edge, worried about layoffs, their own performance, and their own job. How you treat the folks who remain is at least as important as how you handle the person leaving.
Anticipate Questions: Be prepared for inquiries, especially if the individual played a significant role within the company or had been a long-term employee. You need to decide in advance what you’ll say, and you’ll do well to tie what you say to values: both your own and those of the company.
Be present: Open up some office hours. Make it easy to schedule 1:1s. If you’re in the office, sit in the kitchen or linger by the coffee. If you’re remote, hang out on Slack. And you’ll want to actively check in with key employees to make sure they have a chance to share what’s on their minds. One signal that you’re doing OK as a manager and leader is when people approach you to ask questions. They’re feeling anxious.
That’s it. Seven things to do reflecting at least seven ways I screwed up. This likely won’t be the last time you need to let someone go, so once the dust has settled, turn this into your own learning opportunity: what went well? What was a surprise? What would you like to handle differently? What do you want to add to your own list?