HR Corner: The Dreaded Termination Conversation

HR Corner: The Dreaded Termination Conversation

Laid-off, fired, terminated … just these words alone can invoke a panic attack in even the most laid-back person. But unfortunately termination is a fact of life, and sooner or later, every owner, manager and even CEO will be faced with having to release someone at some point in their professional career. Uttering these dreaded words to a once happily employed staff member is never easy, but these words don’t have to result in an internal struggle. Yes, firing someone can be uncomfortable and may even be downright embarrassing, but when done properly, it can be a reasonably satisfactory process for both parties.


Termination is as much a part of management as recruiting, hiring and retention. Learning how to handle the situation to minimize hurt or on the other hand, optimize satisfaction, is an invaluable skill and can take years to perfect. These skills can help you continue to be successful in your current role and not have to worry about saying laid-off, fired or terminated with fear again.

First and foremost, don’t just drop a bomb. The termination conversation is by far the most difficult aspect of letting someone go. It will help both parties if you spend a minute or two and give them a chance to understand what’s about to happen, regardless of whether or not the employee sees it coming – it helps to set the table for a formal discussion. When the person comes in, your first words are extremely important. Start with addressing them by name and saying something such as “[Name] … I want you to understand that we are about to have a very difficult conversation. Have a seat and allow me to explain.” Stop for a moment and allow them to understand exactly what you’ve just said. Next, tell them that they are being let go and the date it is effective. At this point, let them know your reasoning behind letting them go.1 Another helpful hint is to write down your comments and rehearse them so that you are able to keep the conversation on track and professional before entering into a termination conversation.

Don’t get into a lot of back-and-forth about the “whys” in your termination discussion. Once it has been decided that someone has to leave, there’s not a lot of benefit discussing the past. Conversations that go on too long can sometimes make the employee feel as though they are able to negotiate their termination or point out where you as the employer fell short, which can lead to further tensions or worse. If you refrain from this type of dialogue, both sides can leave the talk with dignity and respect.

For these types of situations, avoid allowing your feelings to get in the way. If this has to be done, do it as matter-of-factly as possible. During the meeting, maintain a calm and supportive tone, state facts simply and plainly, and make sure the employee has been terminated in a short meeting, no longer than 15-minutes. A meeting that takes longer is a sign that both parties are getting bogged down in a negotiation, just further stalling the inevitable.

Once the discussion has come to an end, you will need to ask the employee to hand over any establishment keys and/or other company-owned items, as well as escort them out of the building immediately following the termination. Politely stay with the employee as they gather their personal items and then walk the employee out. Refrain from making a big fuss about the event with other employees who are now witnessing what’s happening; this will only cause confusion and hurt feelings. Additionally, disable the employee’s building entry access, if applicable.

There are legal and ethical steps that must be taken into consideration when firing an employee as well. All employers need to be cognizant of possible claims that can arise from employment terminations, such as claims of discrimination or wrongful termination cases. “Terminations are easier to defend when they are justified by a legitimate business reason. Legitimate business reasons could include problems, misconduct, a reorganization resulting in elimination of the employee’s position, or financial considerations.”2 Documentation of any of these items throughout the employee’s career with your business will be useful – always be sure to document issues and problems and how you handled them. Furthermore, all employers should review their state employment laws to determine if their decisions, policies and termination practices meet the legal standards where they practice business. Review your state laws by visiting (Employment Law Information Network); this site houses multiple state employment law articles categorized alphabetically by state. You can also check out the United States Department of Labor website at or – The Official Business Link to the U.S. Government.

You should always approach firing someone with compassion, honesty and dignity. Employees who feel embarrassed, persecuted or otherwise treated unfairly during the termination process are those who are more likely to pursue a legal case. Just because this is a sensitive issue doesn’t mean it is something managers should ignore. Remember that your job is to do what’s right for the business. Firing someone with dignity takes thoughtfulness, sacrifice and skill. It’s never, ever easy, but it can be done well.

1 Villano, M. (2004). How to Fire People. Retrieved from
2 Muskovitz, M. Employment Terminations – How to Avoid Legal Problems. Retrieved from

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