"I'm sorry, but we are letting you go"


These aren’t easy words to say.  Certainly, they’re not easy to hear either (for more on that see The Right Response*). 

But if you’ve ever had to fire someone or implement layoffs you know that telling someone they no longer have a job is one of the toughest things a people manager has to do.

If it’s performance related you’ve hopefully been managing that – it does not make it easy, but if the person's been warned, had a chance to fix things and you’ve provided guidance you can take comfort in having done what you could.

Detach and downsize?

But what if they are losing their job due to restructuring or downsizing? How do you handle that? Most people find it very hard to align their idea of being a good manager with delivering this message.  Being forced to fire good people when you believe your role is to lead your team, set direction and motivate your staff creates a fair bit of inner conflict.

Often managers deal with this conflict and guilt by pushing their feelings aside and distancing themselves.** This detachment can indeed steel them for the work at hand but at what cost?  What impression does it make on the people being fired and those that stay?  What does it do to their own morale?  

Detach often enough and you will lose your ability to genuinely engage with your staff.  Perhaps more damaging, you’ll also have a tough time reconnecting with your own values and inner guide. 

A healthier way

If you do need to fire someone or implement lay-offs a healthier way to approach your task is to accept that it will be hard.  Empower and strengthen yourself so that you can be compassionate with your team.  How? 

Let’s say you have been told you have to let 15 people go. Even though you cannot influence the lay-off decision itself you are in control of how you deliver the message and how you support the affected people. Prepare for this challenge by taking concrete steps like reading up on ways to share bad news, researching the job market so you can provide some insights, and mentally rehearsing how you’ll handle the emotional reactions from your team.  Also look for what you will learn from the situation, identify a couple of ways the experience will help you become a better manager.

What you prepare almost matters less than the fact that you have prepared: when you act and take control, you automatically gain a sense of agency and empowerment.  Feeling like you are doing what you can will make it much easier for you to be kind in delivering a hard message. You won’t need to find recourse in brusqueness or avoiding any emotions.

Firing someone will never be an enjoyable part of your job as a people manager but when you have to do it, make sure you do it with compassion and connection.  It will make you a better manager and it will make the bad situation for the person being fired that little bit less bad. 

 *The Right Response – how to get back on the road to success and well-being after a professional setback is my new book, available now on Amazon.com, Amazon.de, and Amazon.co.uk . Or read more about it in the Books section of this site.

 **See the INSEAD working paper „The Downside of downsizing“ by Manfred Kets de Vries and Katharina Balazs

Katherine TersagoComment