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How to fire someone while preserving dignity

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No one expects to have to let go of their employees when building a team.

Start-ups pivot, go through periods of rapid growth, and sometimes must quickly downside.  Despite our best efforts, some employees who were stars in an earlier stage of the company may struggle to scale as the business grows and evolves.  Or we find out quickly that the person we hired was not who we thought she/he was.

Once we decide we need to let someone go, how should we go about actually firing them?

Angry fired employees can cause havoc within the organization or even go to clients and create trouble.  It is not worth it to act like this guy:








Here are some guidelines for how to fire someone while preserving their dignity:

1. Don’t surprise the employee. People react badly to being surprised with bad news. Give the employee some time to prepare, perhaps by mentioning in an earlier meeting that “Things have been difficult for a while.  I’m not sure if this is going to work out.”

2. Before meeting with the employee, clearly articulate your objectives. Be as clear and detailed as possible, for example “My objective is for Fred to leave in two weeks and effectively transition all of his work to Barbara.  I want him to feel that the exit process was transparent and that he has asked all of his questions.”

3. Anticipate how the employee will react and their core concerns. Spend a few minutes thinking from the employee’s perspective.  Are they expecting this discussion?  Is medical insurance extremely important?  If so, is there a way for the company to pay for his/her insurance for an extra 1-2 months?

4. Practice. Whether it’s just running through what you think will happen in your heard or verbalizing out loud your opening statements and responses to the employees questions, practice will ease your own nerves and make you better prepared.

5. In the meeting, be clear and upfront.  Don’t start the meeting with causal talk and drop the bad news in the middle of the conversation.

6. Give the employee time and space to react.  After delivering the news, stop talking and let the employee speak.  This will allow the employee to express his/her emotion and hopefully eventually cool down.

7. Actively listen, paraphrase, and be aware of your body language and emotional response.  If the employee becomes extremely angry, try not to mirror his/her anger.  The more calm you can be the more likely the discussion will go the way you intend.

8. Don’t be afraid to have follow-on meetings.  It may be that the employee needed the entire meeting to cool down and there is no time to discuss severance, transition, etc.  Have another meeting.  At that point the employee will have collected his/her thoughts and the discussion will hopefully be more efficient and effective.


Firing employees is difficult but is often unavoidable in the chaotic, fast-paced start-up environment.  Hopefully these guidelines will help.



4 thoughts on “How to fire someone while preserving dignity

  1. Angela,

    Thank you for your very interesting post and advice.

    According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, startups fire c. 25% of their employees during the first year compared to c. 7% of employees per year for at an established company (defined as been active for >18 years). This is no surprise considering the newfound startup mantra: “hire slow, fire fast”.

    A WSJ article suggests this shift is due to the fact that:
    1. A startup’s needs change rapidly
    2. Few founders have team-building experience and don’t know what they should be looking for
    3. Employees shifting from the corporate world are unable to adjust rapidly
    4. Getting fired is no longer such a big deal

    It will be interesting to see, with time, what the implications of “hire slow, fire fast” will be for founders/ leaders and employees.

  2. I’d like to emphasize principle 1: Don’t surprise the employee.
    I was surprise-fired during a class simulation. Even though the exercise was a simulation, my stress response was triggered. I was upset and irritated at the unexpected turn of events. When the ’employer’ then asked for my help in handing off the position to a new person, my response was a definite NO.

    Firing someone in real life would trigger a much intense response, so thank you for your post. I hope it helps a leader fire while preserving dignity.

  3. I would also like to add on the “surprising the employee” point by mentioning that open communication should be key and adequate and timely feedback should be more of a process than one-time events.

    So why then do most of us tend to give performance reviews only once or twice a year? I believe in most cases, we are just trying to avoid having tough conversations with employees, either consciously or unconsciously. However, there shouldn´t be any tough conversations in the first place if issues are brought up and discussed regularly. This informal feedback should be more of a habit, and be given if not every week, at least every two weeks. Having good open communication is not only easier to do, but can even avoid us firing in the first place. It is also cheaper than spending our valuable money and time in hiring replacements.

  4. I really liked how your post touched on the human side to scaling a startup. Unfortunately, firing people is a necessary part of running a startup but it should always be approached thoughtfully and with kindness. I liked that your post was about preserving the dignity of the person. I would add one final guideline to your list though. I would argue that this is not the time to penny wise but pound foolish (aka cheap). Being generous with someone during this time period can go a long way to smoothing over bad feelings and make the former employee feel that they were treated fairly by you. Your reputation is extremely critical in the startup field and it pays in the long run to preserve it.

    One idea for a follow-up post could be to explore why this is so critical (beyond the fact that it is the right thing to do). I would argue that there are numerous business reasons for firing well:

    1) Industries are small – even if you are angry at this person, do not burn the bridge. Just because you are in the position of authority now, it doesn’t mean that this person might not be a potential customer, partner, or employer down the road. It is critical to maintain good relationships with people in your field.
    2) People talk and a horrible firing experience is a piece of gossip that is discussed. Don’t let a moment of unpreparedness or impulse prevent you from recruiting new employees in the future. Good employees do their research about how you have dealt with people in the past. This can actually hinder growth in the future.
    3) You alluded to this but discussing the lawsuits that a former employee can file is an important consideration into how you fire someone. Unfortunately, we live in a litigious society and this is a fact that needs to be evaluated.

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