Fired, Downsized, or Eased Out–Helping Employees Save Face

It’s awful. Letting employees go, no matter what the circumstance, is a dreaded task for respect 4621075758_6c21beb236_mmost managers.

That’s often the reason why they:

  • put the task off for too long
  • tell HR to take care of it
  • find a way to do it remotely
  • botch the conversation

Good managers understand that when they have to let one of their employees go, it’s the way they do it that will be remembered and become lore.

Be clear about why.

Employees are fired, downsized, or eased out for any number of reasons:

  • Poor performance, rule violations, improper conduct, or breaking the law
  • Company reorganization, elimination of a product or service, merger, process redesign, or technology changes
  • Inability to adapt to change, resistance to direction, or loss of performance value

In each instance there should be a valid set of circumstances to support separating the employee from the company. Whether they accept it or not, employees deserve to be told specifically what has led to the loss of their jobs.

This means the manager who delivers the message must understand and be able to articulate those facts clearly. That’s what often scares them.

No one likes to deliver bad news. In the working world, losing your job, for any reason, feels like career capital punishment.

Sure, there will be opportunities for future career steps–more than likely a job that’s a better fit in a company with a more compatible culture and a boss that you click with.

But when that hammer hits, most employees just feel the crush of it. Finding that new door that will open seems like a million light years away.

So no matter the reason for the “letting go,” the manager who must deliver the message knows that s/he will be facing a difficult conversation that may result in hurt, backlash, argument, or conflict.

Do what’s right.

When we get hired as managers, we’re expected to come to work with our big girl and big boy pants on. That means being present to do what’s right, particularly when it comes to our employees.

You can run but you can’t hide.

Any time you have to let someone go, the onus is on you. Your reputation (yes, brand) as a manager is enhanced or damaged by the way you handle the situation.

I’ve seen and heard about employees who learned they were  being let go when they:

  • came to work and found a dumpster in their offices
  • were met by HR or company security as they came to work and were immediately sent back to their cars with the news
  • called into HR and while there someone from the company was packing up their personal effects
  • got the news by phone or email, even while on vacation

I  worked with a high ranking corporate attorney who didn’t have one personal item in his office. When I asked why, he told me that’s so when he left or was asked to go, there was nothing for him to take along.

It’s about respect and humanity.

Telling employees that it’s their last day is stomach-churning and uncomfortable. You can’t predict how your employees will react and that doesn’t really matter.

What’s important is the way you treat them in their most unsettled and scary hour. That’s what they’ll remember and say about you after the dust settles.

Your respect and humanity toward your employees in those meetings are what enables them to retain a good portion of their self-esteem and self-confidence going forward.

No matter how awful their reactions may be toward you, you need to show them respect, patience, and caring.

That means you need to:

  • Prepare your conversation using respectful language and tone
  • Acknowledge their disagreement agreeably
  • Speak calmly and listen attentively
  • Encourage them to move forward

Losing one’s job can feel pretty humiliating. So anything managers can do to help employees save face and rebound is a gift. Our job is not to ruin our employees’ careers but to help them to plant their roots in the best soil and grow.

Photo by B.S. Wise via Photoree

6 thoughts on “Fired, Downsized, or Eased Out–Helping Employees Save Face

  1. This is one of the most difficult jobs a manager can have. I have seen seasoned (male and female) managers cry after eliminating half their department. You cover the most important points in the process. Being honest and kind but not patronizing is always key.

    • You’ve added some great points here about “being honest and kind but not patronizing.” There is serious manager pain in facing employees that have to be let go as you describe. I’ve had to do my share of letting employees go for the three main reasons I described. They all made me lose sleep but it was the right thing to do for the individual and the company. I always felt that it was the fair and kind thing for me to be the message deliverer, after all those employees were on my team and they mattered to me. Thanks, as always, Kate.

  2. Pingback: Week’s Best, 14 June | ChristopherinHR

    • Christopher,

      Be still my heart! Thanks for this generous comment,Christopher. Your background and experience make your affirmation here particularly significant and valued. I have had to release employees for poor performance and also twice to sit at the table where downsizing decisions were made. That experience and the meetings with affected employees afterward schooled me in the importance and impact of showing genuine empathy to those employees. The experience of job loss is painful enough. As managers we shouldn’t make it worse just because it isn’t pleasant for us. Thanks for the “fearless” descriptor. It’s what I hope will be a call to action for other. You made my day!


  3. I can totally relate to this post! I’ve had to ask 4 employees to leave over a span on a year and each case has been very hard to deal with. I was very upset after I dealt with my first case.

    It’s a long route to finally finding the correct way to deliver bad news. It’s never an easy task!

    • hr1bp,

      I hope you gave yourself a pat on the back for making your best effort each time. There is no sure fire recipe for saying the right words at the right time and in the right order when letting someone go. It’s a lot of trial and error for everyone.

      Being upset each time is a measure of your caring and empathy. Good managers try to put themselves in the employees shoes and then make their best effort.

      Some employees are truly bad actors and need to be let go. It may be hard to be empathetic to them especially if they’ve made your life miserable. But everyone has a back story, so we never really know the contributing factors. That’s why showing respect is always a good call.

      Your experience puts you in unique company since not all managers accept the challenge of letting someone go. Showing your courage will always benefit you.

      Thanks so much for your great comment and for reading the post. I hope I’ll hear from you again.

      All the best, ~Dawn

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