What's Your Problem?

One of my first managerial tasks is to fire an ex-colleague...

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: I have recently been promoted to manager, and one of the first things I have to do is fire a colleague who has been underperforming for a long time. He has received warnings from the previous manager. I have never fired anyone before, and I have known this person for some years. Needless to say, I am uncomfortable about the task ahead. How should I handle it?

A: I do feel for you - it's a horrible moment. When I had to fire someone for the first time, I was so anxious to do it compassionately that I greatly overdid the tact and reassurance. As a result, he left the room happily, having totally failed to get what I'd been trying to say. A month later, I had to start all over again - this time rather more forcefully.

Procedural things first. Double-check with HR or your company lawyer that every obligation to do with verbal and written warnings has been observed: the last thing you'll need is a justifiable challenge to the legality of it. Be sure you know his precise contractual entitlement, when exactly you want him to leave and what his final settlement will be. Be prepared for any questions he might put to you about references.

Then consider having another person with you. I know it seems cold and impersonal, but it might be comforting for you and avoid any later dispute about what was actually said. Follow up the meeting by sending him a written summary.

Now a couple of stern warnings. Please don't be tempted to say how painful this conversation is for you. It is, of course; but don't expect sympathy from someone you're firing. And under no circumstances be tempted to imply that the decision wasn't yours, that it all stems from his previous manager, that you're only carrying out instructions from above ... and so on. Even if partly true, it sounds pretty cowardly. If you'd profoundly disagreed with the decision to fire him, you'd presumably have declined to do so.

And finally - though you don't have to carry thoughtfulness to the extreme that I once displayed - do all you can to let him retain some self-respect. Remember that he'll have to tell his family what's happened. There are different ways of telling the truth - and even underperformers deserve consideration.

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