How to Communicate a Firing to Your Staff

Letting a staff member go is one of the most difficult things a manager has to do. And once the termination conversation is over, there’s another difficult task ahead: figuring out how to communicate the firing to the rest of your staff.

Managers often have two big worries in this situation: How transparent should you be about the circumstances surrounding the employee’s departure, and how might news of a firing impact other employees’ morale?

As for transparency, you want to balance the need to explain why the employee is suddenly no longer part of your team with protecting that person’s privacy and dignity. So you might simply let others know the most important basics:  “Today was Amanda’s last day. We wish her the best. Her projects will be temporarily handled by Luis until we hire a replacement, which we hope will happen with six weeks.”

Your staff will generally understand that you’re not going to share every detail with them in cases like this. But if people press you for more details and they don’t have a true need to know, it’s fine to say that things didn’t work out but remind them that if they were in the employee’s shoes, they wouldn’t want those details shared.

As for morale, the key here is ensuring that your staff understands how performance problems are handled. After all, you may know that you had numerous conversations with the employee before letting her go, and gave her warnings and chances to improve, but since your staff isn’t privy to that, it’s important that they know how you handle these situations in general – since otherwise they may worry that firings happen out of the blue. Make sure that you’re open with your staff about how you address performance problems in general so that they understand you don’t make arbitrary personnel decisions and so that they feel confident that they would be warned if their performance was falling short and would have a chance to improve.

As long as your staff understands how performance problems are handled, a firing shouldn’t lower morale. In fact, sometimes exactly the opposite happens – since, after all, keeping low performers on staff is typically a huge morale drain for high performers. If your staff has spotted the problems, they’ll often be relieved when those problems are resolved. And even when employees are friendly with the staff member being let go, as long as they trust that you operate in a fair and straightforward manner, most people can separate personal affection from professional assessments.

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  • Great article, Allison (as usual)! Just this week, one of my co-workers was fired, and all we were told was, “He wasn’t a good fit, and he no longer works here.” It was kind a shock because he seemed to get along great with everyone, and his work seemed fine. Through other co-workers who are closer with him, I found out the real reason (which essentially had to do with backtalking/correcting the boss a bit too much). I think the “he wasn’t a good fit” explanation was inaccurate, but I don’t know what we should have heard. It definitely decreased morale though – we all like him!

    • Thanks, Kristin!  One thing to keep in mind is that while the firing came as a shock to you guys, there’s a good chance that it didn’t come as a shock to him — it’s fairly rare (though not unheard of) for someone to be fired without any warning at all. In most cases, the person has had conversations with their manager about whatever the problem is and whatever needs to change. But people rarely go around telling their coworkers, “hey, I’m really messing up!” (and the boss isn’t broadcasting it), so the coworkers don’t know this stuff is happening behind the scenes. I’m not saying there aren’t ever cases of unfair firings — there absolutely are, of course — but a good thing to do is to look at what your own experience has been with that boss. Do they seem reasonable/fair/compassionate? Or like a crazy tyrant who you can imagine firing people without warning? Usually your own experience is going to be a pretty reliable guide.

  • JT

    Good stuff! If the person wasn’t performing, it’s useful for staff to know. Or if
    the person was a high-achiever and left for some other reason, it’s
    also important for staff to know that – otherwise people doing good
    work will think “Oh man, I’m probably next,” which can hurt morale.

    • Definitely — and I think that’s the really key thing. You’ve got to make sure your staff understands how performance problems are handled, the system for warning people before they’re fired, etc., so they don’t worry the ax will fall on them next and they’ll never see it coming.

  • Suicidal

    Alison, firings do come as surprises. I was recently fired over the phone from my telecommuting position. It came as a complete shock because I had a stellar annual review, raise and bonus 2 months ago and 1 month ago, a client gave me rave reviews after completing a project for them. 3 weeks into the next project I was assigned, the lead of that project convinced the company president that I was holding her back because I was relying on her too much. The only problem she ever told me about was 2 days prior to my firing where she said my phone line was unclear and asked me to replace my phone and to avoid speaking in conferences until this is done. It was extremely shocking and traumatizing to get fired over the phone. The president said they are spread too thin to discuss performance with individuals.Yet the 2 of them had ample time to discuss my performance and decide I needed to go ! Since that call, I have nightmares and IBS and I am forcing myself to eat but I cannot keep up with the rapid weight loss. I know my welfare is not their concern but to anyone out there with authority, please do not ever fire someone over the phone without them knowing its coming. It is just simply barbaric

    • holycrap

      wow that sounds terrible.