Making The Bad, Better: A Leader’s Guide to Firing Employees with Compassion

Let’s face it, firing an employee is downright uncomfortable. Why? Most of us run at the first sign of any sort of confrontation.

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terminated employee leaves desk

Let’s face it, firing an employee is downright uncomfortable. Why? Most of us run at the first sign of any sort of confrontation. It ignites the fight or flight response, which as we know, triggers stress and tension.

Additionally, any sort of employee discharge means completely changing the course of their future. It’s a lot of pressure on you, who, let’s face it, is just doing your job.

Firing an employee can be a completely unpredictable experience. Will they be sad? Angry? Thrilled? You never quite know how they’re going to respond. You can, however, soften the blow, sympathize, and offer your support as best as you can. This handy guide will help.

Mentally preparing

Once you’ve made the decision to discharge an employee, it can be emotionally distressing to know you have to enter into that confrontation at some point in the near future. In order to not let it affect you and your own work performance, it’s best to start preparing as quickly as possible so you’re not dragging it on. Every second they’re still present is time wasted spent trying to find a replacement, and time wasted for them finding a new role that’s a better fit.

Gather all the necessary materials, including supporting evidence as to why you’ve decided to take it in this direction, and go over possible scenarios in your head. Once you feel confident that you’re prepared, it’s best to rip it off like a bandaid.

How to fire an employee

Believe it or not, there are right and wrong ways to fire an employee. The following lists will tell you what you should and should not do when faced with firing an employee.


  • Use the sandwich method. The sandwich method refers to nestling the negative sentiment between two positive statements to soften the blow. Start with a positive, such as a compliment, then break the news with your supporting critique, and end with another positive such as words of encouragement, support, etc.
  • Do it in person. No one wants to be fired via email, text, phone call, voicemail, IM, etc. Plus, they deserve to be able to express their emotional reaction in person, regardless of how uncomfortable it may be for you (assuming that it’s not an extreme reaction that borders on harassment, hysteria, or safety risk.)
  • Tell them why with class, evidence, and explain why and how it has impacted the company.


  • Get emotional. This high be hard to do because many business leaders become close with their subordinates, but try to refrain from getting sad, angry, sarcastic, combative, etc. Remain calm, regardless of their reaction.
  • Confuse them. Keep it short, sweet, and to the point. Getting too wordy or over-explaining your decision will open avenues for debate or argument, which you’ll want to avoid.
  • Make any promises. It can be easy to try and give them a huge severance, bonus, or referral because you feel guilty. While this is generous and shows a lot about your character, they’ve likely already wasted your resources in one way or another. You’ve done your due diligence, just be supportive, empathetic, and then move on.

Leaving on good terms

As one of two parts of this confrontation, you can only control your own reaction and sentiments. While you have the power to impact their reactions and responses, you only have so much traction in doing so.

Leaving on good terms means commanding the energy in the room, staying professional, and wishing them the best. Doing those things won’t secure that you’ll end on good terms (as they’ll still have their own emotional response) but at least you’ll have peace knowing you handled an uncomfortable situation with poise and professionalism like a good business leader.

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