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How to fire someone on your team with empathy and compassion

team compatibility team development team trust

So you’ve got a rock in the pit of your stomach. You know what needs to be done and it can’t be avoided any longer, for everyone’s sake. But how are you going to get through this?


It’s time to let someone go. But how do you do it with empathy and compassion? How do you let someone go with their dignity intact and without destroying the motivation to seek out new opportunities, to grow and learn and find the company fit that is right for them?


How are you going to get through that difficult conversation? What are you actually going to say?


If any of these thoughts are running through your head, this article is here to guide you through some considerations and strategies you can employ to get through it as smoothly as possible. 


The best leaders are just as good at getting people out of the wrong seat on your team as they are at putting them in the right one.

Even if there haven’t been any errors in the hiring process, things change along the way. Organizational restructuring, role changes, or a call for new skills to which an employee can’t adapt are all common reasons for having to let people go. Cases of serious misconduct are the outlier. The reasons for letting people go are usually much more ordinary. Most of the time you are able to coach your team member to succeed in a different role on the team, but sometimes that can't happen. Everyone has likely been through an involuntary separation at least once in their career. It is a rite of passage both for the leader and the person who is being let go. 


If you’ve been fired before, how would you have preferred that conversation go? Was there anything said that really left a scar? Or if you moved on relatively quickly, what was it about that conversation, seen as objectively as you can, that your boss probably did right? Use this experience to inform your own choices in how you fire employees.


The key to effective empathetic firing is the process you follow and how compassionate that process is. 


There are no scripts as to what to say and sometimes there’s fear about being subject to legal action. The guiding best practice should simply be to treat people with empathy and compassion, as fellow humans, throughout the firing process. And to have a firing process in the first place. 


Don’t procrastinate

It's likely that if you’re reading this article for some practical advice, there’s someone you’ve been needing to fire for a while now, and you’ve been putting it off. You may be trying to give them one last chance and hope for the best, or conversely, maybe you are waiting for a bigger justification - for them to really mess up royally so you can be more justified in your decision even though their mistake could cost the team energy, resources, and the performance of the rest of the team. 

It’s time to do what needs to be done. You owe it to your team to be constantly reassessing the organization and making sure everyone is where they should be. You owe it to all to eliminate the weak links so others can better carry out their work. As much as you have to identify who is ready for a greater role and groom them to expand, you also need to identify who is underperforming and what you can do about it. 


It goes without saying that firing IS the last resort. If you’ve got that rock in the pit of your stomach, it’s because you’ve run the gamut of interventions, which haven’t yielded results. You would have tried coaching and/or training, but if the person has continued to struggle or their toxic attitude is affecting others, then they need to go.

Jim Collins, in his book, Good to Great, explained how it is often more empathetic to let someone go when you know it is over
then it is to “allow them to languish in uncertainty for months or years, stealing precious time in their lives that they could use to move on to something else when in the end they aren’t going to make it anyway.”

Most people that need to be fired are unhappy with their current work situation.

Letting them go frees them from a situation that is also not good for them and that they do not like. When you let that person go, the rest of your team will often thank you. Then their performance will likely improve as well. Many times they wonder what took so long.

In all likelihood, you’ve been lying to yourself for months, because that’s what most managers do. Kim Scott, former Apple University faculty member, and manager at Google, argues there are 4 lies managers tell themselves to avoid firing someone:

  1. Their performance will get better
  2. Having someone in the role is better than having the role empty while we look for someone to fill it
  3. It’s better to transfer the person rather than fire them
  4. Firing someone will be bad for morale

So if you’ve been laboring under any of these beliefs, it might be time to face the difficult decision.



Rule number one in firing with compassion is, don’t surprise people. You should have already had some difficult conversations with the candidate in question, trying to solve the problem. You should have already tried giving behavioral feedback, coaching for performance improvement, formal warnings, and possibly training. When the problem persists, it should come as no surprise to the person being let go.


Blindsiding people does not show empathy and compassion. It only means you’ve been too cowardly to say anything before and have just made it worse for them. Address problems with staff early. Maybe it won’t come to firing if you tackle it early. People can and do change, especially when they are given effective feedback by their manager. If you do have to blindside someone it’s likely your fault for not addressing situations with them earlier and giving them an opportunity to remedy their behavior/performance. Very few dismissals are based on a single event. The grounds for dismissal tend to accumulate over a period of time, so you should have exhausted every option and addressed your concerns with that staff member multiple times such that firing should not be a shock. 


If there is a sudden restructure, your organizational change processes need tightening so that there is constant communication at every stage of the restructure or outsource so your team members are fully aware as early as possible how many jobs are likely to be lost and when. This kind of conversation is no easier, but a bit of a different beast to the individual dismissal we’re considering in this article.  


Most cases of unfair dismissal are brought by people who feel they weren’t told the truth when they should have been when there was perhaps still a chance for them to do something about it. This is a fair comment. Don’t put yourself in that position. Give your staff plenty of warning and opportunity to address any issues you have with them.

Prime yourself for the discussion

When it comes to delivering the bad news, practice what you’re going to say in the most sensitive way possible. While practicing and before you have the actual conversation, remind yourself of your goals;

  • Think, “This is a really important task I need to do with the most grace, compassion, empathy, and sensitivity I can muster.”
  • Close your eyes for a moment and imagine yourself, like them, sitting in the chair opposite you. Try to get into their head before you deliver the news.
  • Take some blame for the situation. As the manager, you are responsible for some of their failure if you hired them or coached them. 
  • Focus on the outcome - you want to help them move on to somewhere that better matches their skills and potential, personality, and communication style.


Don’t give the job to an HR person or someone else on your team. YOU have to do it. Don't pass the buck. That’s probably about as far as you can get from being empathetic and compassionate. If the situation is delicate and you want a witness or someone better versed in the intricacies of termination, severance pay, etc, then after you’ve had the main part of the conversation one on one with your staff member, then ask someone from HR to join the conversation.


Don’t drag it out or ramble. If you’re calling them into a meeting to fire them, say you’re firing them within the first 30 seconds or so. The second part of the conversation after briefly presenting the reason is to organize their departure in a way that is empathetic as well as least disruptive to the team. Don’t try to be funny, or emotional. Be professional. Any other tone risks misunderstanding and causing offense. Shift the discussion quickly to benefits and transition rather than reasoning. While you are trying to be empathetic and compassionate, this doesn’t mean you owe them a protracted discussion. The time for that has well passed. The ins and outs of the issue should really have been addressed previously in one on ones, performance reviews, or other coaching or training attempts to address the issues. Now a decision has been made, you are communicating that decision NOT negotiating or defending it. 


Shake it off

Even if things go really well, it’s never a pleasant experience firing someone, so allow yourself to shake it off afterward. If you need a breather, then take one. Make sure to schedule the discussion at a time that you don’t have to rush off to something important afterward or deliver a presentation or undertake another significantly stressful public task. You are human and will have been affected by the experience so take a moment to acknowledge that with a few moments of quiet to yourself and touch base with HR or anyone else that may be involved in following up after your discussion to ensure as smooth as possible transition ahead. Never let someone go on a Friday. Monday is the best day of the week to deliver this kind of news so that they can use the whole work week to take the necessary actions to find their next gig. Firing someone right before the weekend when they will have 48 hours to stew without the ability to network and apply for jobs is the worst time to deliver the news.


Also, take a moment to reflect on the conversation and/or debrief with another peer in management. How did the conversation go? Was it as you planned and expected? Was there anything that surprised or threw you and how would you deal with that if it happened again? Is there anything in your company process dealing with dismissals you feel the organization may need to do differently?


Learning from the difficult conversation of dismissal will be one of the positive things to come out of this, as is the new future for your team. Being able to fire someone with empathy and compassion builds a new skill for you as a leader, independent of the organization, that you can take with you anywhere for the rest of your career.

Being frank with your remaining team as to why the person was fired is important to maintain a sense of safety. Your team needs to know why someone was let go in order to know how to avoid making the same mistakes.

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