Getting fired sucks. And getting fired sucks even worse when the person letting you go says something foolish, stupid, or even insulting.
After all, the sole goal of the people doing the firing is to treat the employee as respectfully and compassionately as possible.
Their feelings? Irrelevant.
Which is why bosses should never say any of the following:
1. "Look, this is really hard for me."
Who cares if it’s hard for you? The employee certainly doesn’t. Talk about how difficult the situation is for you and the employee immediately thinks, "Really? What about me? How hard do you think this is on me?" If you feel bad—and you will—talk through your feelings later with someone else. (If you're like me, sometimes you'll second-guess yourself too.)
Also never say, “Look, I don't know how to say this…” You do know how to say it. You’re just uncomfortable actually saying it.
Never even hint that the employee should somehow feel your pain. That's just selfish.
2. "We've decided we need to make a change."
You're not an NBA team firing an unsuccessful coach. And you're not holding a press conference either, so skip the platitudes. If you've done your job right the employee already knows why he's being fired. (Here's a straightforward guide to firing people the right way.)
State the reason for your action as clearly and concisely as possible. Or just say, "Mark, I have to let you go."
Mark should already know why.
3. "We will work out some of the details later."
For the employee getting fired is both the end and the start of another process: Collecting personal items, returning company property, learning about benefits status, etc.
It's your job to know how all that works ahead of time. Getting fired is bad enough; sitting in limbo while you figure out the next steps is humiliating for an employee who wants nothing more than to leave.
Never make an employee wait to meet with others who are part of the process. Once you let an employee go she's on her time, not yours.
4. "Compared to Juan, you just aren't cutting it."
Never justify firing an employee by comparing them to someone else. Employees should be fired because they fail to meet standards, targets, or behavioral expectations.
Plus, drawing comparisons between employees makes it possible for what should be an objective decision to veer into the “personality zone,” a conversational black hole you will struggle to escape.
5. "Okay, let’s talk about that. Here’s why..."
Most employees sit quietly, but a few will want to argue. Never let yourself be dragged into a back-and-forth discussion. Just say, "Pete, we can talk about this as long as you like, but you should understand that nothing we discuss will change the decision." While that sounds harsh, it's not. Besides, arguments almost always make the employee feel worse.
Be professional, be empathetic, and stick to the facts. Don't feel the need to respond if an employee starts to vent.
Just listen. That’s the least you can do. And the most you can do.
6. "You’ve been a solid employee but we simply have to cut staffing."
If you truly are downsizing, leave performance out and just say you're downsizing.
But if you're not actually downsizing and you're hiding behind that excuse so the conversation is easier for you then you do the employee a disservice—and you open your business up to potential problems if you later hire someone to fill the open slot.
Never play games to try to protect the employee's feelings—or, worse, to protect your own. Just be direct.
7. "We both know you aren't happy here, so down the road you’ll be glad."
Whether or not the employee will someday be glad you let her go is not for you to judge. Don't expect employees to find a silver lining in the cloud of getting fired, at least not at first. Let them find their own glimmers of possibility.
8. "I need to walk you to the door."
I once worked for a company where the policy was to immediately escort terminated employees out of the building. (And I hated it.)
Getting fired doesn't make an employee a criminal, so don’t put them through walks of shame. Just set simple parameters. Say, "Jane, please gather up your personal belongings and I'll meet you back here in 10 minutes."
If Jane doesn't come back on time, go get her. She won't argue.
9. "We have decided to let you go."
The word "we" is appropriate in almost every setting... but not this one. Say, "I."
At this moment, you are the company. So take responsibility.
10. "If there is anything I can do for you, just let me know."
Like what? Write a glowing letter of recommendation? Call your connections and put in a good word for him? (Of course if you're forced to lay off good employees due to lack of work, definitely do anything you can to help them land on their feet.)
You should absolutely say, "If you have any questions about benefits, final paychecks, or other details, call me. I'll make sure you get the answers you need." But never offer to do things you can't do. You might feel a little better, but the employee won't.
Remember, when you fire an employee it's all about the employee, not about you—and especially not about what makes you feel better.