What we're talking about

Having a strong team around you is essential. Bringing the right people on board at the right time and letting go of those who are no longer adding the value you expect or need are two very important aspects of running a business. While hiring might be seen as a positive, firing is often viewed as a negative, or something to be avoided at all costs – but it shouldn't be. Letting go of people who aren't thriving at your organization or contributing positively to your team can make room for new talent and improve your culture and productivity. You need to approach this aspect of people management with as much intention as you'd approach recruiting – and have the right processes in place, to avoid confusion and to make sure you're fair.

Why it's important

The way that you let someone go has huge implications for the culture at your company. If handled well, it could leave your former employee feeling positive about their time with you, and give your remaining employees confidence that they will be treated fairly and respectfully if they make a mistake or their performance suffers. If handled poorly, you may be left with disgruntled ex-employees and an internal culture of fear or confusion. 

Also, remember that hiring and firing practices may have legal implications if not done right, so it's important to take the time to put processes and systems in place that will help you deal with employee situations smoothly, empathetically and in line with the law.

More: A founder's most difficult job – firing someone

Things to note

There's a difference between laying someone off and letting someone go. When someone is asked to leave a business through no fault of their own, but rather due to a reorganization, changing business needs or downsizing, that's a layoff. When someone is asked to leave a business because of poor performance or a violation of company's policies, that's letting them go. Though this guide focuses on the latter, some of the principles outlined will apply to making layoffs as well.

The news shouldn't come as a complete surprise. The conversation where you let someone go shouldn't be the first time that they hear something is wrong with their performance. Unless you're letting someone go immediately for a gross violation or glaring event, the person should have previously received feedback about their poor performance and – ideally – support to improve. This might have come in the form of a written warning or performance improvement plan (PIP), which is a document outlining exact, time-bound expectations for a satisfactory performance that will let them keep their job. If your business doesn't have a policy for providing formal feedback to poor performers, get one in place as soon as you can.

The way you handle things might have legal consequences. Depending on employment law in the country in which you operate, there may be reasons for when you can and can't let someone go. Make sure you run your policies by a lawyer and, if you have a dedicated HR team or professional within your company, loop them into decision-making and all interactions with the person you're letting go.

How to let someone go with care and empathy

1. Check your policies and procedures. Make sure you know exactly what your company's process is for letting someone go and that you've followed the required steps for feedback and improvement. If there isn't a documented process, put one in place and hold off on your move, if possible, until you have followed it. 

2. Put a plan in place. Decide how you'll manage the departing employee's workload once they've left, whether it's allocating parts of their role to other employees or hiring a replacement. If you're planning on bringing in someone new, prepare to kick off the hiring process soon after you notify the person being let go – but don't actively recruit before then.

3. Gather answers to all expected questions. Make sure you know exactly what you'll be offering (or not offering) in terms of severance, paying out unused sick days or vacation days, and benefits. You'll want all the details on hand so you can clearly communicate exactly what's going to happen once the person leaves.

4. Set up a meeting. Decide on the best time to let them know. Companies take varying approaches here, but it's important to be intentional. If you're working in a physical office, think about sending an invite for the morning or towards the end of the day, when fewer people will be around and they can leave the workspace without drawing too much attention.

5. Articulate yourself clearly. When having the conversation, keep things short and specific. Lead with the news and be transparent about the reasons for it, without going into too much detail. Your decision isn't up for discussion – though you can and should create space for the employee to react. Make sure someone else (ideally from HR, if you have it) is across this conversation as well. 

6. Recover your property. It's common practice for organizations to have employees who have been let go leave the office immediately. Make sure you have a plan for returning your employee's belongings, and make sure to collect any of the technology or information they may have, such as login information for software or social media accounts. You'll also need to block their access to company email, shared servers and other similar accounts.

7. Communicate the transition. Tell the rest of your team. Recognize that some people might fear their jobs are at risk, too, on hearing this kind of news, so provide reassurance that the news won't have been a surprise and outline any policies for feedback and improvement you have in place. For confidentiality reasons, don't share too much about the reasons for letting them go and instead focus on what your decision means for their workload and the future of their team. 

Key takeaways

• Letting someone go is when someone leaves your organization due to poor performance or a violation of company's policies, rather than for business reasons.

• You should have processes in place so that anyone at risk of being let go has feedback on their performance and is given a chance to improve. Your decision shouldn't come as a complete surprise.

• It's important to plan for the conversation. Make sure you're prepared to give both the departing employee and the remaining team all the information they need. 

Learn more

Perspective. Business advice website First Round Review makes a case for preparation and process when it comes to letting people go.

Example. The University of Central Arkansas' HR team has a publicly available performance improvement plan template.

Tool. Culture Amp is a platform that helps you provide structured feedback, so you can better keep track of employee performance and be proactive about those who aren't meeting expectations.

A version of this article was published in the Courier Workshop newsletter. For more deep dives into essential business concepts, sign up here.

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