Can you fire an employee and get thanked by them for doing it?

The short answer is yes. But most business owners and managers seem to think that it is currently impossible to fire anyone, let alone be thanked for doing so.

Too many owners and managers hold these two beliefs about firing staff:

  1. That it is a difficult conversation
  2. Employment legislation is a minefield and best avoided

These misconceptions often mean that the business owner decides it is easier to work around the poor-performing individual rather than address the issue, and that they simply have to accept the consequential loss of productivity and lowering of team moral.

Yet both these beliefs are false.

Feedback conversations are generous conversations

Traditionally feedback conversations, certainly those serious enough to warrant dismissal, are known as difficult conversations. In fact often this is the title I choose for the workshops I run as participants then know what we will be covering. However, they are not. Yes, they take time to plan and the manager will be sharing information that can be hard to hear. But they are not difficult.

The misnaming of these as difficult creates in the mind of both managers and staff members a picture of an aggressive conversation. Consequently both parties enter the meeting with defensive or argumentative approaches from the outset, paradoxically increasing the likelihood of an uncomfortable encounter.

However, the true desired outcome of the conversation is for the individual to become both fulfilled and successful in their job role, be that within the organisation or outside. These conversations are actually the most generous conversations a manager can undertake.

It would be brutally unkind to leave an individual in a role at which they are clearly dissatisfied and failing. This will lead to a loss in their self-esteem and confidence which will have a major impact, not only on their working lives, but on the lives of their families and children.

Employment legislation is a minefield

I am not surprised that many think this. After all there is a lot of terminology involved and then there is the issue of discrimination, currently illegal on the grounds of age, gender, sexuality, pregnancy, race or religion.

However, when you get right down to it an Employment Tribunal case is assessed on only three simple points:

1. Did the organisation follow their own procedure?

You can be right to dismiss someone but if the procedure was not followed then an award will be made. This is to stop managers taking wildly individual approaches.

If your company does not yet have a procedure then you will be expected to follow the procedures set out by Acas.

2. Did the organisation act reasonably at all times?

Unfortunately this is like asking ‘how long is a piece of string?’ The easiest way to ensure reasonableness is ensure you fully discuss the situation with trusted colleagues, other business owners and HR specialists you may have access to.

3. Balance of probability

This point is often overlooked. A company can fire an individual on the balance of probability, there is no necessity to prove a case beyond reasonable doubt. So if management can prove they completed a full assessment and on the balance of probability the individual was at fault the dismissal will be deemed fair.

But how do you fire staff so they say thank you?

It is easy, but it will take time to plan and prepare key statements. However, complete this task and the individual will win, your team and organisation will win and your customers will gain better service.

Here are the approaches and actions to take:

You are both working to achieve a common goal

Remember at all times that you and the individual are working towards the same outcome, for them to be become fulfilled and successful at their work, even if that objective can only be met by them leaving your organisation.

Focus on what key change is required

Take time to think about the one thing that this individual needs to change or improve to become successful. This is what you need to provide feedback on. It might be their attitude, their inability to say no and manage expectations, their lack of enthusiasm for their job role.

Phrase your statements carefully

Introduce your thinking using the phrases ‘I notice’, ‘I perceive’, ‘I am beginning to believe’, followed by the evidence that has lead you to believe what you do. This allows you to be wrong in your conclusions without losing face. However, if you are proved wrong the following conversation can be very valuable as to how and why you came to that conclusion.

Expect strong emotions and anger

Expect distress, anger and emotion to be expressed at first. This is normal. Particularly if they have been living in a comfortable denial of the situation or they don’t want to believe that they are not successful (who does!).

When this occurs remain calm and understand that this is part of the process and give some time for them to come to terms with what is happening. Continue to state your evidence, that change needs to happen and that your only aim is for them to be fulfilled and successful in their job role.

Be curious

Be very curious, and encourage the individual to be curious, about what is going wrong and what needs to happen for it to change for the better.

Stay firm on what is needed

Hold firm about what their current job role needs to deliver, it is likely they will try to negotiate deliverables as an easy way to resolve the situation. Again this is natural.

Be fair and clear

Be reasonable about giving them time to improve but do keep the momentum of the process going. They need to be left with the sense that you have been fair but still expect changes to be made and there is no getting off the hook on this one.

Give positive feedback

Give them feedback on what they are doing well. Help them realise that they are successful in some areas despite failing in this particular job role. This will give them information they need to find another post where they can succeed and is where you can change lives for the better.

Be respectful

Show deep respect for the person despite, in some cases, appalling behaviour and some foolish decisions. We have all done foolish things in our time, this is just their time.

Support yourself

Access support for yourself throughout the process. Although your role is to remain calm and objective you will undoubtedly experience emotions of your own such as anger, frustration, anxiety. Gather a team of people around you who you respect and can provide you with the balanced, objective input you need at this time.

And finally, when you walk the staff member to the door shake their hand, thank them for all of their successes and wish them well for their future. They will then thank you in return. This is how it can and should be.

About the author

This guide has been written for ByteStart by Sue Ingram, Director of Converse Well and author of ‘Fire Well – How to fire staff so they thank you’. Sue has spent over 27 years working in HR and related fields and is an Honorary Teaching Fellow at Lancaster University where her workshop forms part of their International MBA program.

More help on managing staff

For more guidance on employment issues, try some of ByteStart’s other guides;

And for tips and ideas on how to get the best out of your staff;

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