What to Say When Terminating an Employee

Natasha Serafimovska

Career Coach, Professional Resume Writer, Freelance Writer

Terminating an employee is an inevitable part of doing business. Whether you’re re-structuring your department or you’ve identified a few employees who’re not living up to your expectations, letting people go is necessary for keeping your workforce healthy and thriving. 

That said, terminating someone’s employment is never a pleasant experience. It can be incredibly traumatizing for the employee who, all of a sudden, doesn’t have income. On the other hand, it could also have a profound effect on your employee retention rate, if not handled with care.

Being well prepared for these conversations is key to make sure you cover all grounds and protect your business from future litigation. So, here we look at what to say when terminating an employee and offer a few sample scripts on how to handle the situation gently.

Why Do You Need to Care?

It’s very likely that you won’t see this employee again, but it’s still important how you handle the last conversation you have with them. First, letting someone go influences other aspects of their life, like family relationships and healthcare benefits. Showing sensitivity towards how this decision affects their lives is important if you want to part ways on good terms. 

Second, it’s important to analyze what to say when terminating an employee because bad news travels fast. You don’t want to be like the CEO of who fired 900 people on a single Zoom call. While this might be an extreme example, being rude or insensitive towards their predicament can adversely affect your standing with existing employees and prospective talent. It’s very easy to leave a company where it’s common knowledge that employees are disrespected, badmouthed or being taken an advantage of. 

How to Go about the Process of Firing?

Just like you have a clear procedure for hiring someone, you also need a clear step-by-step process when firing someone. Having this documented in the employee handbook is a good idea as it makes sure you follow a standardized procedure without the risk of preferential treatment between employees. In creating and reviewing this standardized process, there are some aspects of professionalism that you should keep in mind.

Terminations Shouldn’t Be a Surprise

An employee who’s getting fired should be aware that this is coming. Termination tends to happen due to poor performance, unprofessionalism, misconduct, and other reasons. So if termination is due to poor performance, then the employee should already be aware that they are not meeting expectations. They may even be on a development plan. Another example would be if an employee is being unprofessional. In this instance, there should have already been warnings or disciplinary actions in place.

Make HR Your Ally

Talk to HR before the meeting and communicate your intention. You may not need to seek HR’s approval for firing someone. However, you do need to inform them of any related extraneous circumstances that may arise during the meeting.

Ideally, you’d like to have this HR representative present at the meeting. Even though you’d be doing most of the talking, having an HR person can be useful to diffuse the tension and answer any legal questions that might come up. 

Explain Your Reasoning

Termination meetings are unpleasant as it is, so it’s best to keep them short. First start by stating that you are letting the employee go. Then, give a clear reason why. For example, you can say

“we have to let you go based on your poor sales performance in the past year.”

From there, you can review the specific steps you’ve taken to help them improve, and demonstrate how their performance hasn’t changed. 

On the other hand, if you’re letting them go because of budget cuts, then make that known. They’d still feel bad for being out of a job, but knowing that it isn’t their fault can make the whole experience a bit less confrontational.

Follow Your Employee Handbook

The employee handbook is your employee’s guide on what to expect when working for you. This should also cover things like disciplinary measures for poor performance, the termination process and other related topics.

Before you schedule that meeting, make sure you have all this information on hand so you can reference

  • how the process should go
  • what the employee should expect moving forward
  • whether or not the employee is entitled to anything (ie. pay for unused PTO)

Show Compassion, Answer Their Queries

The meeting isn’t a space for negotiation. When you decide to fire someone, that decision is final, and you should communicate that at the very beginning. However, the employee should feel like they have the space to ask questions and get all the support they need through the transition. Even if you don’t think highly of them as an employee, try to put yourself in their shoes. Understand that this is can be hard to accept, and they may be going through a very difficult phase in their life.

Show Gratitude for Their Service

In the end, don’t forget to express your gratitude for their service. However long they’ve been with you, they were committed to your business and tried to do their best. It’s common courtesy to thank them for their effort and time.

If you really liked them, then don’t be shy about offering to act as a reference. This is one of the greatest way to show that you appreciated them while they were with you.

Let the Team Know

Your team will quickly notice that someone is missing. Instead of letting things fester and take shape on their own, take charge by speaking to them directly. While you aren’t allowed to divulge confidential information around why someone is being let go, make sure you inform the team of the departure and give them space to ask questions. They may be concerned about their own position in the company. In this instance, just be honest. They have a right to know if budget cuts or financial issues are threatening their jobs.

What to Say When Terminating an Employee?

Before setting up the meeting, you should know exactly what to say for terminating your employee. Preparing your points in advance will help you get through having this difficult conversation. Once the meeting starts, the first thing you should say is that the company no longer needs their services.

This opening statement is crucial for setting the tone for the whole meeting. Make sure that you express gratitude for their efforts while also being clear that those efforts weren’t sufficient to keep them in the role. You can say something like

“I know this past quarter you worked really hard to hit your KPIs and I really appreciate that, but at this moment that simply isn’t enough for where this company is heading.”

If there’s any specific company equipment they need to return, ask them to do so before exiting the premises. Likewise, communicate how you’d handle any outstanding PTO and their final paycheck. Finally, if you have one, provide them with a separation agreement that they need to review and sign.

Sample Scripts

Here are some sample scripts to help you prepare for what to say when terminating an employee.

Script 1: Opening Statement

Hi Steve,

Thank you for joining me today. The reason I called this meeting is because we’ve decided to let you go, and this is your last day. As you’re aware, we’ve issued several written and verbal warnings about your performance. Unfortunately, very little improvement was made. That said, I really appreciate your efforts, and I’m sorry it has come to this. I wish you all the luck in the future. 

Script 2: Handling Objections

Hi Christine,

Manager: Thanks for coming at such short notice. As you know, we’ve worked for several months on your performance and, unfortunately, we’ve decided that it’s time to let you go. 

Employee: I’m fired?

M: Yes, and this is your last day with us. You’re not required to do any more work after this meeting and you can leave all of your equipment with HR before exiting the premises. 

E: I don’t understand. Only last week you told me you’ve seen marked improvement in my performance. I thought I was doing well. 

M: Yes, and we appreciated your commitment towards improvement. However, the company is expanding at a rapid pace, and we may need someone in your position with more experience for where we are heading. I’m sorry it has come to this, but the decision is final I’m afraid. I’d like to go over a few logistical aspects if that’s ok and then I’ll leave some space for questions. 

E: This is really unfair. I know for a fact Mark’s numbers were much worse than mine. And he was off almost all of last month when it was the busiest period for our department. 

M: I cannot discuss other employee’s performance with you, Christine. I hope you understand. I would just like to point out that this meeting is about your performance and how it fits into the future of this company. If you would like to ask questions about that, then I will be more than happy to bring clarity. If not, then I have your paycheck here and you are free to go once this meeting has concluded.

Better Phrases Than “You’re Fired”

“You’re fired” might have been the signature phrase that popularized The Apprentice, but that doesn’t mean it’s a popular phrase in the workplace. In fact, there are many other more professional terms an employer can use to let an employee know they’re being let go while also being respected. 

Here are a few examples of what you can say when terminating an employee:

  • We’ve decided to let you go.
  • We no longer require your services. 
  • This is your last day with us. 
  • We think your skills will be better used elsewhere.
  • We’re no longer a good fit. 
  • We’re discontinuing your employment with us. 
  • Your performance has been lacking and we have to go our separate ways.
  • I really appreciate your efforts as of late, but we’ve reached the end here. 

When Firing is Inevitable, Do It Nicely

Letting people go is never easy, even if it’s justified. That said, it doesn’t hurt to do it nicely and professionally. If you’ve worked with your employee on their performance and you still haven’t seen any improvement, don’t shy away from having the difficult conversation. Arrange the meeting as soon as you’ve made the decision and communicate your intentions right away. Treat your employee respectfully and let them ask questions.

You never know when you’ll come across the same person again or who that person might speak to in the future. Leaving on good terms is just as important as starting on good terms for building a strong employer brand.

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