How to let someone go

Sometimes it just doesn’t work out and you have to let someone go. While you don’t want to rush these decisions you also cannot afford to procrastinate either. Remember the adage, hire slow and fire fast. If you find yourself needing to let someone go try following these steps to make is as painless as possible – both for you and the departing team member.

The initial conversation

Honesty is the best policy here. Start with a conversation around how they feel their work is going. Do they feel they are meeting their goals? Let them know, as clearly and as sensitively as possible, that you don’t feel things are going well and you are considering letting them go.

You’ll find one of two things will happen. One, they could be jolted out of their complacency. Or two, they will admit that they want to leave. Whatever the outcome of the conversation, it’s important to put a deadline in place for what is going to happen next. Be clear, open and honest. 

If performance is the issue then you’ll need to start managing their performance on a regular basis. Can you motivate them to achieve the new goals you’ve set? What are the barriers to making this happen? Hopefully, they’ll get on board or they’ll see that it’s time for them to leave.

It’s worthwhile at this point to re-examine whether or not this person’s role is one you actually need in the business. If they were underperforming, did it hurt the business? Perhaps the role itself is actually redundant. In some cases, it’s useful to look at the whole staffing structure anew. It’s can be surprising how quickly your staffing needs to change, particularly if your business is a growing concern. It never hurts to draw up a new staff structure and consider if it suits the current needs of your business. A quick rearrange can save a lot of grief.

Finally, don’t forget to examine your own roles and those of middle management. It’s often said that workers don’t leave jobs, they leave managers. Is a staff member underperforming because their immediate supervisor is underperforming? Move people around in your structure and you might get another result.

It’s not me, it’s you

If, despite your best efforts, you’re unable to remedy the situation with this team member then you have to face an unpleasant reality. No one enjoys being the bearer or bad news but that shouldn’t stop you doing what is necessary for the business.

First up, understand what your responsibilities are to your staff member and ensure you don’t breach any of their rights as an employee. The Fair Work website has great guides for you to inform yourself (and your employee) and has a template for the letter you need to hand over. Always get legal advice whenever terminating someone’s employment – better to be safe than sorry. It’s also wise to script what you’re planning to say in the meeting – stick to the script and keep the meeting brief and to the point – you’re giving them news, not starting a negotiation.

Letting someone go is never an easy experience for either party and it tends to be emotionally charged, but try to remember it isn’t personal it’s just a business decision. Be ready for a lot of different reactions from those who leave gracefully to those who scream and cry. Have empathy for their reaction, whatever it is. Offer assistance and guidance and please don’t frog march them from the building with their belongings in a cardboard box. When the process is done with understanding and open communication you can expect a more pleasant departure which is not just good for them and you, but everyone in your team.

Goodwill flows

When you start hiring staff you quickly have to get used to the fact that those same staff will one day leave. When you accept this and allow those people to explore other roles and even careers you leave a trail of goodwill. That goodwill always comes back to you. So whatever happens with your staff, aim to make all endings as happy as possible. While it may not feel so happy at the time, on reflection a lot of people will be able to look back and think well of you for handling them with care and nudging them along to find something that actually makes them far happier.

Written by Wendy Mather, business adviser at Generate. A version of this article was originally posted on their Better Business blog.


Generate are not your typical accountants. We provide operational and strategic support to creative and innovative businesses of all stripes and colours. 

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