How to Lay Someone Off with Care, Compassion and Dignity

UPDATED: May 17, 2023
PUBLISHED: March 28, 2023
woman packing personal items after being fired

A few days after being let go, a Philadelphia-based content marketing professional posted on LinkedIn: “Here’s what getting laid off feels like: You just got hit by a bus. And now, before you’ve had a chance to assess your injuries or even collect your stuff that’s scattered all over the street, you have to catch another bus. But do you really want to get back on a thing that just hit you? Are you even capable of walking to the bus stop? Do you have bus fare? Do you still have a wallet? You don’t know.” They go on to explain that the following period after being fired is spent in a daze, wherein “you don’t even know where you’re supposed to go or where you even want to go.”

For some HR managers, knowing they have to fire someone brings an awareness that they are creating this disorienting and upsetting confusion for someone else, and that can be difficult. For others, they aren’t aware or concerned about those feelings; they’re just moving through their pile of tasks without much care. Either way, laying someone off can be downright devastating. But there’s a right way to do it, for the dignity of the former employee and yourself.

The American Psychological Association addresses the potential severity and impact losing a job can have on an employee. In the article, Carl Van Horn, Ph.D., professor of public policy at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, explains that “losing a job and being unemployed for a long period of time is a psychological trauma and a financial trauma, and the two are closely intertwined.” Since the Great Resignation, a recent Bankrate survey finds, “More than half (or 56%) of those who found a new, better-paying job say they’re worried about their job security, with 19% saying they’re ‘very worried.’” Compassionate managers are unlikely to want to impart this struggle on someone else, even though their bottom line demands it. So, having concrete guidelines to be most respectful and helpful can help reduce the potential for trauma.

How to fire someone the right way

“Before anything else, the most important thing to remember when letting someone go is that there are real people involved, with emotions, feelings and personal lives,” says HR professional Jill Aburrow, who runs heartfelt HR and specializes in redundancies and “disciplinary/grievance issues.” Here’s how to get it right, for your sake and theirs.

1. Leave a review after you fire someone.

Just because they aren’t a fit for your company doesn’t mean they wouldn’t serve their next one well. So, according to Amy Aitman, New Brunswick, Canada-based content operations executive and COO for Venture 4th Media, you can leave them a “rave” review on LinkedIn, Upwork or a similar platform. 

“Before I close a contract, I talk to the team member or contractor and ask them specific questions like, what kind of role or job are you hoping to get? What do you want to be known for? Is there a specific function, title of the job that you want to get next?” she says. “I use this information to craft a better review specific to them. If you struggle to write compelling reviews, jot down a few notes after talking to the individuals and now you have an outline.” She also utilizes ChatGPT to brainstorm reviews.

2. Use your network.

If you want to help find the former employee a better placement, Aitman recommends using your own network to help. “I know how tough it can be to find the right talent and to find great people who want to work, so it’s a huge gift if you can make a referral. I went into my Slack groups, emailed some friends and colleagues and told them I had a few people who were looking for some new opportunities,” she says. This type of network outreach could mean less time without work for the employee before finding the next right opportunity.

3. Clearly detail what went wrong when you fire someone.

There’s nothing worse for an employee than not knowing why they were let go. By being clear and honest with these facts in your conversation with them, there are fewer questions about what happened. Logan Mallory, vice president of marketing at Motivosity, says to give them opportunities to fix what you are unhappy with before terminating. 

“It’s rarely easy to let someone go, but there are a few things you can do to make it easier. Giving them an opportunity to improve is the right thing to do, but if they didn’t fulfill their side of the bargain, then that makes a termination easier,” he says. “Providing a fair severance and an extra month of health benefits is a generous approach that often puts less pressure on them as they leave.”

Document the extra opportunities, as well as the employee’s attempts (and potential failures) to meet those expectations. That way you have specific data points to use in the termination conversation.

4. Don’t jump right into it.

Profoundly impacting someone’s life and career trajectory shouldn’t be taken lightly, according to Aburrow, whose book, Redundancy With Love: Getting it right for your people and your business, was recently published. 

“Letting someone go is a process, not just a single action. Make sure you have planned for it and worked out how you will communicate with the person leaving,” she says, noting that this includes training managers if you’re not going to be the one giving the message. “It’s a hard thing to do, and how the message is delivered can make a huge difference to the person on the other end.”

5. Give them the opportunity to bring support.

Blindsiding someone in a termination conversation eliminates their ability to bring support that might make getting fired easier for them. “Allow people to be accompanied in consultation meetings if they choose, and make sure the consultation is meaningful,” Aburrow says. She recommends the following checklist to make sure the conversation goes well when you fire someone:

  • Listen to what the employee has to say rather than doing all the talking.
  • Keep an open mind about whether there is any way their redundancy can be mitigated. 
  • Make sure they understand why they are in this position, why the business is making redundancies and how their job is the one that must go.
  • Make sure they understand the financial implications and what redundancy pay they will get.
  • Be clear about what help and support you can offer (and there is always something you can offer, no matter how small the organization or how limited the budget).

Finally, do your homework after to see what changes your HR or redundancy department might need to make to improve the process. And keep in mind that it should be handled with care, thought and dignity for everyone involved. 

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