you suck at firing people

Firing an employee s one of the hardest parts of a manager’s job … but it’s also one of the most important, because having the right people – and only the right people – on your staff will make a huge difference in how effective you are and how much you’re able to accomplish. In fact, even if you do every other part of management right (setting clear goals, delegating effectively, giving useful feedback, etc.), if you aren’t willing to fire people when they need to go, you’ll never accomplish what you otherwise could.

But it’s tough to tell someone that they’re falling short of your expectations, and even tougher to let them go, so most managers wait far too long to take action when it’s clear that someone needs to be replaced. Instead of addressing the problem, they put it off, or send coded messages rather than being clear, or just hope the person leaves on their own.

Over at the Intuit QuickBase blog today, I talk about how to fire someone, and key elements of the process not to forget (such as getting your manager in the loop ahead of time, not winging it, and being nice). You can read it here.

{ 44 comments… read them below }

  1. Just a Reader*

    I had to sit in on a firing my last week at my former job. My boss was firing one of my employees at my recommendation.

    When we arrived at the office he had forgotten that we were going to pull this employee in first thing.

    The employee wasn’t surprised, but my boss spent about 30 minutes browbeating him for all the various ways that he sucked and failed at his job. The employee started crying and my boss kept hammering him.

    Brutal. I wish managers would keep this checklist handy–it’s clear cut and thorough.

    1. Ivy*

      Wow that’s brutal… and totally unnecessary. I mean mention his shortfalls in a concise manner so he can improve, sure. But what’s the point of browbeating? He doesn’t even work for you anymore. Just… unnecessary.

      1. some1*

        “But what’s the point of browbeating? He doesn’t even work for you anymore. ”

        Maybe it was for Just A Reader’s benefit. Either to create fear, show off, or punish her?

    2. Omne*

      Thoroughly uneccesary. Your boss needs some serious coaching before someone shows up after one of his firings wearing camo….

      I’ve fired/non-certed quite a few people over the years and I don’t remember any that took more than 15-20 minutes. I meet regularly with my direct reports so only the misconduct ones were a surprise and even they had an idea it was coming. There is never an excuse for not treating them respectfully and politely for those few minutes no matter why they are being let go.

      I hate doing them but I’ve had to clean up enough messes left by prior managers to know how essential it is for everyone, including the person being fired in many cases.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      Crying. Really. Every employee’s nightmare. This is a memory that the fired employee will carry around for a while… if not the rest of his/her life.
      I hope the person can pull themselves together to move on to the next job. Some people remained scarred by such events for such along time. The boss’s behavior was so unethical.
      OP, glad you got away from that clueless boss.

  2. Jamie*

    Eight simple steps to ensure someone can get through a difficult situation with dignity. This should be required reading for anyone with the authority to fire an employee.

  3. Esra*

    I wish management in my office had read this before their last firing. It was about a year ago and it was so out of the blue and poorly handled that people are still worried they’re going to be next and not see it coming at all. Needless to say, morale is not great.

  4. Risa*

    Great advice! I just had to fire two of my four supervisors – bad fit and poor performance. I had put both on a 60 day improvement plan and had regular one on ones during that period. Neither was surprised by the final decision – but the ongoing conversations made the final conversation much easier to have for both sides. These steps are the responsibility of any good manager to treat their employees with dignity, especially during circumstances that warrant firing them.

  5. SJ*

    Alison, I think you should do your readers a solid and have anything you link set to open in a new tab, not in the same window.

      1. Josh S*

        Add target=”_blank” to your link code (you might have to edit the html directly rather than use the built in link-maker with the WordPress software.

        So basically, your post above looks like this:
        You can <a href=””> read it here</a>.

        To make the link open in a new tab, you should change it so it reads:
        You can <a href=”” target=”_blank”> read it here</a>.

        (And hopefully all those brackets show up properly.)

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          I think there are plug-ins you can use so that you don’t have to code it like that every time. But while looking, I read a bunch of articles about how it’s considered rude to force the links to open in a new window, so now I’m reconsidering!

          1. SJ*


            I *hate* having to hit the back button – sometimes I open multiple links on a page, in all new tabs (not windows – windows are annoying, I agree) so I can read them in whatever order I want, at whatever pace.

            If you’re using WordPress, when you highlight the word to add in a hyperlink, there should be an option to click to open the link in a new tab. WP is the only one I use so that’s the extent of my knowledge.

            1. Laura*

              I will change your life….

              you hold down control button and click on any link. I hate losing my spot and hitting the back arrow, and there is no reason for it.

              It is so useful for research. At any given time i have 20+ tabs open on my browser though because of this though.

              1. SJ*

                Yes, exactly, it’s just so disruptive. Or, if you’re reading a blog, you want to click on the link but keep reading any other new posts first without having to hunt back through to find the link. Innumerable reasons to make this the default, few to not.

                1. Ask a Manager* Post author

                  No, what Laura is saying is that you can make links open in new tabs on your own by simply holding down the control key when you click the link. That’s what I do too.

                2. SJ*

                  I understand what she meant, I was just listing another reason things opening in the same window is a pain in the ass.

                3. Ellie H.*

                  Isn’t it basically the default now though? My impression is that there are extremely, extremely few websites I come across where the default is *not* to open the link in a new tab . . . or maybe I’ve just sublimated ctrl-clicking into an unconscious behavior.

              2. Sophia*

                Was just going to suggest this

                CTL+click is pretty much all I do since I strongly prefer everything to open in a new tab.

                1. Anonadog*

                  I work in Web usability. If you want links to open in a new window (which many people do prefer), you can reduce the annoyance factor by adding the wording “(opens in a new window)” after the link. This helps set the user’s expectation about what is going to happen.

                2. Rana*

                  I use this all the time normally. Unfortunately, I’ve found this doesnt work on a mobile device. There it becomes a rather labor- intensive process of copy link-open new page-paste link.

                  That said, I don’t think there’s a way to please everybody.

      2. JT*

        Please please don’t change the way links work on this site. They are basic and correct.

        Visitors can make links open in new tabs or new windows if they want that (by right/context clicking), but for those of us who do use “back buttons” if you set it up to open new windows or tabs we have little say in the matter. We can’t click “back” from the new page to get back.

        And it is rude to force people into new windows or tabs unless they want it. If they want it, they can do it themselves.

        1. SJ*

          All you have to do to get back is close the tab/window (and, to be clear, tabs are far less disruptive than windows). If something were to open in a new tab, it still takes the same amount of clicks to get back to where you were – i.e., one, to close the tab, vs. one, to hit the back button. What you’re suggesting – which is what I currently do – is ultimately more work for the reader. I wouldn’t request it if it weren’t a pain in the ass, which it is when you use the internet as much as I do.

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Yeah, what JT is saying is what the majority of the articles I just read said too — apparently it’s considered a rude element of web design to program links to open in a new window or tab, so I’m going to go with that verdict!

          1. SJ*

            Okay, but I’ll just point out that 75% of the people who commented on this (at this point) favor links opening automatically in new tabs.

            1. Esra*

              Nerd from a web team here: Generally it’s better to leave the links as they are here, and leave it to the user to ctrl+click, right click + open in new tab, or set their browser to open links in a new tab, rather than set the link to _blank or _new. That way you aren’t forcing a new tab or window on the users who don’t want it, and the ones who do can use one of the above methods.

              1. Josh S*

                FWIW, I don’t know the first thing about best practices or standards when it comes to coding/web design.

                Alls I knows is that’s how ya does it if that’s whatcha wants done.

              2. Kelly L.*


                I right-click pretty much everything, because the way my brain works is that I see something I’m interested in, but I want to save it for after I’m done reading the main thing, so I want it in another tab. I get irrationally annoyed when a link opens a whole other window. I right click in part to avoid being forced to another window and in part to keep from losing my place in the first site that I was on to begin with.

              3. Jen in RO*

                I hate hate hate when websites decide to open new tabs for me. If I want a new tab, I’ll wheel-click the link. If I don’t, it means I’m ready to leave the original site, not open a new tab. Please don’t change it.

          2. Flynn*

            Yes, it’s a really annoying thing to do to people who DON’T want that, and routinely open stuff in a new tab anyway. It’s not hard to learn to open stuff in a new window/tab, but an override can be a huge pain for some people (random windows pop up and upset the computer, you lose the back button option, you end up with dozens of extra tabs… which happens anyway, but this way they multiply out of control!, you have to switch back to the one you were reading to finish/close it)

            It does sound like a neat feature, but it’s pretty reviled after people have actually experienced it.

            Ways to open in new tab:

            Right+click and menu option
            ctrl button held down while clicking
            scroll button on mouse
            Changing your browser settings

            Ways to not open in new tab:

            hope they haven’t added target_blank and click normally

  6. some1*

    FWIW I cannot stress how big of a deal the dignity aspect is, coming from someone who was laid off. I dealt with two people when I was told, my boss & HR, & my boss left an unnecessarily negative last impression & HR the opposite, entirely because of how they handled it.

  7. Anonymous*

    I think too many bosses forget that some people are really dense and will never pick up the “clues” they’re dropping for months. It seems like most of the firings I’ve witnessed were fully expected by the co-workers but still a total shock to the employee. If anything, the co-workers are usually wondering what took so long. Because of this, I think at some point the manager should have to say point blank: we’re going to let you go if X doesn’t change by Y.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      YES! Managers nearly always think they’ve been clear enough, but if you don’t explicitly say words like “If these issues don’t improve in the next two weeks, I will have to let you go,” they are still nearly always blindsided. You have to say it explicitly.

  8. Mike C.*

    Hey, there’s an example in the news here that you should generalize and add to your list:

    In short, this fellow was hired by a cable channel to travel around the world and provide coverage for Formula 1 races to be aired in the United States. Rather than being contacted about his employer dropping Formula 1 coverage next year (and losing his job), he found out over Twitter.

    That’s right, he wasn’t ever told or emailed or called or anything. Sure, he was out of the country doing his job, but that’s no excuse.

    So yeah, if you’re going to fire someone, have the decency to tell them rather than finding out elsewhere.

  9. Sonata*

    Hi Alison, I hope you see this! Our new boss has to “fire” someone next week. It’s going to be sticky and possibly explosive. The person worked a lot of hours without pay and, overall, did a fantastic job. Unfortunately, he blew up recently (not the first time) and bad-mouthed the boss to a lot of people. We’re concerned about the safety of our boss. Dare I send her your “how-to” link, or would that be tacky and imply that I don’t have confidence in her ability to handle this? (I do have confidence in her, but I wondered if she might appreciate advice for this touchy situation.)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Depends on your relationship with your boss. If it’s pretty close, and if she’s open to taking advice (rather than having an ego and not wanting to seem like she needs help), I think you could offer it to her. But if there’s a safety concern, she should definitely involve HR (if you have an HR department); in that case, the big thing is really protecting the person’s dignity, even more than in normal cases. When people explode / potentially become violent in firing situations, it’s when they feel disrespected and treated poorly. If I were your boss, I would be very, very kind about it, stress how much the work he did was appreciated, and protect his ego as much as possible. You want it to not be a contentious, “gotcha” kind of thing — you want him to feel he was treated as well as possible under the circumstances, and that she’s regretful that it came to this. Dignity for him is key here.

  10. DJ*

    My dept. head recently said in a co. interview when she has to fire someone, dignity and respect are key. She recently fired two people in a day. She forgot to tell the second employee. Instead the employee found out she was fired when a co-worker told her how sorry she was as they entered the building. She loves to fire people via voice mail & text messages. When the former employees try to contact her, she refuses to answer and lets them go to voice mail. Next month she becomes vice president of an NPO that recently named her Employee of 2012. She has increased terminations in the dept. by at least 40% and always has a vacancy. She was quoted as saying: “Unfortunately, more hirings and firings substantially increase NPO funding and that’s our bottom line.”

  11. Grace*

    I was recently fired from a job for not attending a going-away lunch with my boss and other employees. The whole thing has moved right into litigation. I didn’t attend the lunch because I had been harassed and stalked by a creepy older co-worker starting 24-hours after my hire. Police and employment attorneys said I was 100%
    correct not to attend the lunch, and the people who are the target of
    stalkers should always go out of their way to avoid them. (This guy was so creepy – he even waited for me when I went to the ladies’

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