The Good Fire

Want to keep bitter ex-employees from lashing out? Try a kinder, gentler termination.
Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the March 2000 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

What's behind workplace violence? While there isn't a single cause or solution, J. Damian Birkel, founder and executive director of Professionals in Transition, a Winston-Salem, North Carolina, nonprofit support group for people who have lost their jobs, believes that, generally speaking, callous terminations provoke violent incidents and kinder, more sensitive approaches reduce them. Although there aren't any statistics or studies to back up his belief, he says real-life anecdotal evidence is irrefutable.

"Each of the situations [where workplace violence occurs] is different, but it still comes down to the way people are treated," says Birkel. "Terminations have become more and more impersonal. Employers don't even have to fire employees face to face; they can use e-mail or an outside consultant. If you do the cowardly thing and fire someone through a [third] party, you've dehumanized an already difficult situation."

Indeed, terminating employees remains one of the hardest aspects of management. But firing an employee in an insensitive, unprofessional manner actually makes the experience more painful and humiliating for the employee. The resulting emotions could also trigger anger and increase the potential for retaliation. To reduce the likelihood of a violent reaction to a termination, Birkel offers these suggestions for employers:

  • Create an exit information package for every employee you terminate. It should include specific details about their severance package (if applicable) and mention any benefits they may be due (even though you will have explained everything verbally). Also provide a list of community resources to help them file a claim for unemployment compensation, register with the state job service office and contact local support groups. "Put it in writing so they have something in their hands when they walk out the door," Birkel says. "At least they know you tried to anticipate their needs as best you could."
  • Schedule the termination early in the week. Firing on a Friday afternoon gives people an entire weekend to stew and let anger build; firing on a Monday morning lets your former employees immediately direct their energies toward recovery and ultimately re-employment.
  • Conduct the termination interview in person, with as much privacy and dignity as possible. Don't let the rest of your work force know about it until the terminated employee has left the premises. And although you may prefer to have a human resources representative or an outside consultant present, Birkel insists the only person doing the firing should be the boss of that employee.
  • Do whatever you can to help fired employees save face. For example, if they want to leave the premises following their termination interview, give them the opportunity to come back later--perhaps after regular business hours--to collect their personal belongings. Says Birkel, "Anything you can do to allow the person to exit with dignity is going to help you and the morale of your company in the long run."

Jacquelyn Lynn left the corporate world more than 13 years ago and has been writing about business and management from her home office in Winter Park, Florida, ever since.

Contact Sources

Professionals in Transition, PO Box 11252, Winston-Salem, NC 27116-1252,

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