How to Fire Someone Nicely [With Scripts]
Would you rather have to speak in front of a stadium full of people or tell a person one-on-one that they no longer have their job?
Probably neither, right? But as a small business owner, you’re unfortunately in a situation where an employee isn’t working out, and you’re feeling anxious and stressed about firing them.
This won’t be an easy conversation to have, and you’d like to get through it without hurting them. Here’s how to have that talk while allowing your (former) employee to keep their dignity.
DISCLAIMER: This content is for informational purposes only and shouldn’t be considered legal advice. To make sure you’re abiding by your area’s legislation, talk to an employment lawyer, speak with a local labor standards representative, or read up on termination laws in your country (including Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom).
What to know about firing an employee:
Firing someone means ending their employment with your business because of their actions or their performance.
Letting someone go, on the other hand, means you’re terminating the employee because they aren’t a good fit, you don’t have enough work, or you’re getting rid of their role.
The difference between these terms is based on whether or not the employee can control the reason they’re being terminated. For this article, though, we’ll use the term “fired” to keep things simple.
Either way, whether they’re part-time or full-time, an employee or a subcontractor, your working relationship is coming to an end.
Getting fired shouldn’t be a surprise. Both of you should see it coming because you’ve talked about the situation before in the employee’s performance review.
Whatever your reason is for firing someone, make sure you can articulate it clearly, because you’re going to have to explain it to your former employee.
IMPORTANT: Just like when you’re hiring an employee, you can’t discriminate when you’re firing. This includes ethnicity, origin, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, family or marital status, health, or appearance.
Here’s what some possible reasons for firing an employee might be—and how to fire someone nicely for those reasons:
1. Low performance
A low-performing employee can take many forms. Maybe they’re always late for work, taking long breaks, not following standard operating procedures, or not completing tasks properly.
Sometimes you can address these problems, and you should always try. Quality walkthroughs after visits, alternative training methods, accommodations, and performance bonuses and incentives can help.
But other times, the employee just isn’t improving. You can’t keep spending the time and effort managing their performance, so it’s time to say goodbye.
Use this script to do it:
How to fire someone nicely for poor performance:
“I’m sorry to say this, but I have to fire you. Some of our clients have raised concerns about your attention to detail during visits. You and I have already spoken about ways to improve, and your crew leader provided work checklists and extra training to ensure everything gets done, but I haven’t seen the changes needed. Today is your last day.”
2. Poor conduct
Your employee isn’t acting like a professional. They might have a bad attitude, be disrespectful to you and your clients, or generally behave badly.
Whatever they’re doing, your clients or other employees might have reported their behavior. It’s bringing down productivity, and it’s damaging the business reputation you worked hard to build.
If this behavior is rare, you might be able to work with them on it. But if it keeps happening, you can’t risk your business—you need to fire them.
What to say when firing someone for poor conduct:
“I hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but I have to fire you. Your attitude toward me, your team, and your clients has been disrespectful, and I’ve gotten too many complaints about the way you conduct yourself. I can’t have that behavior associated with my business anymore. Today is your last day.”
Pro Tip: Create an employee handbook to lay out expectations around performance, attendance, and conduct. If an employee reads it and still isn’t meeting those expectations, it’s much easier to end the working relationship.
3. Legal issues
You might run into a situation where you have to fire an employee for violence, harassment, theft, forgery, sharing proprietary information, lying on their job application, or even more serious illegal activity.
This type of behavior goes beyond poor conduct and could involve law enforcement. You’ll need proof of their actions, so make sure to document everything before terminating the employee.
When you’re firing someone for legal issues, the last thing you want to be is nice.
Still, it’s a good idea to keep a cool head and not say anything that could get you into trouble later. Try this:
What to say when firing someone for legal issues:
“I’m firing you for your personal use of the company credit card. I have a statement from the card company showing that you used it at a clothing store. We have a policy about personal use of company equipment in our handbook, and you signed the paperwork saying you read this policy when I hired you.
“I made it clear what the consequences of breaking that policy would be. You need to collect your belongings and leave.”
When an employee no-shows, they don’t arrive for work and often don’t call, either. This leaves you wondering what’s going on—and scrambling to cover their assigned tasks for the day.
Unless there’s a good reason for a no-show (like an emergency), you can’t allow an employee to get away with a no-show. It affects your business and tells your team that they can do it, too.
READ MORE: How to attract employees who stick around
It’s ideal to fire an employee in person, but this can be hard to do if the employee isn’t showing up for work.
After confirming they don’t have a legitimate emergency, like a sudden illness or accident, you can send a text message or email like this to end their employment:
What to say when firing someone who no-shows:
“I’m firing you for non-attendance. Today is now the second day you haven’t shown up for work. You haven’t answered any of my calls, texts, or emails, and I don’t know where you are or when you intend to come back.
“This tells me that I can’t depend on you to do your job. You’re no longer employed by Plum Landscaping, so I’m sending your last paycheck.”
5. Not the right fit
Sometimes employees just aren’t the right fit. Their skills don’t match up with what you need, their performance is fine but could be better, or you know they have potential but can’t reach it with you.
In this case, you aren’t firing someone for not meeting the needs of the role. You’re letting them go because they don’t align with the company—and you don’t align with them.
It’s better for both sides if you part ways now and each find an opportunity that will better fit your needs. Here’s how to fire someone who is not a good fit:
What to say when firing someone who is not a good fit:
“This isn’t working out, so I’m letting you go. I understand you have questions and are likely surprised, but we’re ending this employment relationship because it isn’t a good fit. The decision that we have made, while tough, is final. So the most productive thing to do today is not to discuss why, as it won’t change the circumstances.”
6. Not enough work
You might find yourself in the tough situation of not having enough work or cash flow for the number of employees on staff. As a result, you need to let someone go.
This employee may not have done anything wrong. They were just the newest or lowest-performing member of your team, and you have to prioritize which employees you’re keeping.
Because the reason for termination is outside the employee’s control, a little kindness goes a long way. Here’s how to fire someone nicely when you’re downsizing:
How to let someone go when downsizing:
“This is hard to say, but I have to let you go. We’ve had less and less work to do over the last several months. The company’s financial situation isn’t what it used to be and we can’t afford to keep operating with our current team. I can only keep a few of our highest-performing employees, so I’m letting several people go, including you.”
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It’s important to fire someone with kindness. They have feelings, too, and you can imagine how much it hurts to be fired. And in some circumstances, they may not have done anything wrong.
You also don’t want to risk your company’s reputation. Sites like Glassdoor allow employees to leave company reviews, and negative reviews can affect whether future candidates will apply for your job postings.
You can fire someone nicely using these best practices:
- Raise concerns early. With performance and behavior issues, give the employee time to change before you fire them (except for extreme situations, of course!). Discuss the problem, give them feedback and the tools to fix it, and resort to firing when there’s no sign of change.
- Give yourself time. Set aside 15 minutes to tell the employee about their termination in person. Some people prefer to fire at the end of the day on Friday for extra privacy. Others prefer Monday morning so they don’t have to stress about the conversation all day, and the former employee can start job searching right away.
- Practice. Rehearse what you’re going to say ahead of time, especially the reason why you’re firing the employee. This isn’t a conversation you can ad lib, especially when saying the wrong thing could put your company at risk. Practicing will also help cut down on your anxiety going into the meeting and keep you from freezing up.
- Bring a witness. Don’t fire your employee in front of the entire team, but bring one employee into the meeting. This gives you a neutral third party, which is important if the conversation gets heated or the fired employee takes legal action later on.
- Be clear. Right off the bat, tell the employee that you’re firing them and why, without using a lot of extra words or small talk. Make it clear that the working relationship is over, explain next steps, and provide the necessary paperwork. The worst thing you can do is leave the person wondering if they still have a job or not.
- Be firm. The employee might get upset or ask for another chance—after all, nobody thinks they should be fired. Don’t let yourself be swayed in your decision. It’s what’s best for your business and your team. Just repeat that the decision is final, and keep doing it for as long as it takes for the message to sink in.
- Don’t get emotional. Listen and allow the terminated employee to feel what they feel, but don’t get swept up in the emotion. And avoid saying platitudes like, “I’ve been in your shoes before and I know how you feel.” Those words only help the people saying them and aren’t very comforting to someone who’s suddenly having a terrible day.
- Give them time. You’ve had the chance to practice this conversation, but the employee hasn’t. Tell them they have 48 hours to think things over and reach out with any questions. That way they can go home and process the information instead of having to clarify every detail in their exit interview. It can also help defuse any anger.
- Allow a goodbye. You can decide if you want to give the former employee the chance to say goodbye to their coworkers, depending on how the termination meeting went. (If it went badly, they might see this as an opportunity to bad-mouth you to the rest of the team.) They may or may not take that opportunity, and that’s okay.
- Reflect on the termination. Ask yourself why the employee didn’t work out. Is it time to reassess your interview process? Do you need better policies or training? Or you might find you made the best choice based on the information you had, and it just didn’t work out. It happens, so don’t be too hard on yourself.
Pro Tip: Was the person a good employee, but you had to fire them due to lack of work or other reasons outside their control? You can soften the blow by offering a severance package, letters of recommendation, or an introduction to other business owners who might be hiring.
After you fire an employee, the rest of your team might be worried they’re next. This can affect morale and productivity. And depending on who you fired and why, other employees may leave on their own.
Your team will ask questions. There’s no way around it. So it’s best to call a quick meeting or send out an email to provide answers instead of letting them wonder what happened.
Be transparent and stick to the facts, but don’t get into too much detail. Reassure your team that they still have jobs and that this decision was made with them and the business in mind.
What to say to your team after firing a problem employee:
“Unfortunately, I need to share with you all that Jane will no longer be part of our team. Her work was not up to company standards, and it’s important to keep our clients happy, which I know the rest of you excel at.
“None of your jobs are in danger and the business is continuing to do well. I value your contributions and hope you’ll continue working here. If you have any questions, I’m happy to answer them now.”
You might be worried about how a termination will affect your team, but it’s better to fire a problem employee than to keep them around—which could still affect your team in the long run.
When you fire an employee nicely, the rest of your team will see that you’re a fair employer who values good work, sets reasonable expectations, and treats them with respect.
If you had to fire an employee due to lack of work, though, you might not be able to reassure your team about future work.
Be extra transparent about how you’ll keep them employed—and understand if they decide to leave, too.
What to say to your team after layoffs:
“I had to make the difficult decision to lay off Jane, John, and Alan. As I’ve mentioned in past team meetings, we’ve had less and less work to do over the last several months. The company’s financial situation isn’t what it used to be and I could only keep a few of our highest-performing employees.
“This has given us some extra breathing room in the budget, so I’m confident we can keep you on staff for the time being. I’ve also dedicated some of that budget toward marketing so we can get more money coming in. I understand if this still feels very uncertain to you, so I can answer any questions you might have.”
Pro Tip: Tell your clients about the change in staffing if it affects them—for example, if someone new will be cleaning their home each week. Just say, “John is no longer with the company, so Steven will be cleaning your home. I’m confident you’ll be happy with his work.”
READ MORE: Try these expert tips for engaging employees
Terminating an employee isn’t easy, but it’s a reality of running a business. Knowing how to fire someone nicely can at least help you handle this uncomfortable task in a compassionate way.
This is what’s best for your company and for the rest of your team. When you feel anxious or uncertain, remind yourself that your former employee will be okay—and you will be, too.
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Originally published March 2017. Last updated on November 10, 2021.