How to Fire Someone With Dignity

Is there any good way to let an employee go?

Posted Feb 14, 2013

Unemployment is a hot topic that gets ubiquitous play in the news—especially in the currently still-sluggish economic environment. However, unemployment rarely shows up on the silver screen. An exception to this in the recent past was the critically acclaimed 2009 film Up in the Air, which brilliantly incorporated interviews of real live people—not actors—who had been pink-slipped. The film is principally about the hollow, empty life of Ryan Bingham, George Clooney’s character, and his misguided quest to live a life as unencumbered and unattached to people as possible. But a hard-to-ignore subtext of the film deals with the dignity of work, and the crushing blow that losing one’s job can have on a person’s identity and sense of self-worth.

Bingham’s own job is serving as a hot shot in a firm that is outsourced for the sole purpose of firing people. A company that needs to make layoffs but is too gutless to let their employees know in person hires Bingham’s company to do the dirty work for them. He flies in, meets with each employee getting canned, delivers the unbearable news, and offers a packet of information about outplacement resources. As if the premise that supports the existence of that business isn’t inhumane enough, a young up-and-comer named Natalie Keener (superbly played by Anna Kendrick) joins the firm with an agenda to reduce overhead by interacting with the to-be-terminated employees via internet video, instead of in person. In one brutal scene, Natalie’s internet-based delivery of the bad news reduces a longtime employee to tears (“Greater opportunities? I’m 57 f***ing years old!”). The webcam fixes on him as he sobs, until Natalie startles him with an order to gather his personal items and leave. It is gut-wrenchingly sad.

The Up in the Air strategy is as heartless an approach to firing someone as it comes, but it raises the question: Is there any good way to do this? I asked this question to my friend Ed, a paragon of what it means to approach work as a calling. Ed is a mid-level manager at a large, well-known technology company, and estimates he has personally had to tell around 250 employees that they have been laid off. As painful a task as this can be, his primary goal is to do it with dignity. Here are 3 things he always includes in the process: 

1. A clear, honest explanation of the challenges the company faces, and why the position is being cut. When it’s relevant—and it usually is—this includes assurance that the layoff is not in response to the employee’s performance or personal value, but a strategic decision that had to be made in response to financial realities. It’s probably easy to be cynical about such rationale, but because Ed’s employees know him well and see him as a straight shooter, they usually take him at his word.

2. An offer to provide a strong, supportive personal reference in support of the individual’s next steps. Instead of washing his hands of the situation, this communicates that the company, and Ed in particular, wants the person being laid off to have a successful transition and is willing to offer a positive recommendation to any subsequent employer to facilitate this. 

3. An offer to meet with the employee’s family. Pink-slipped employees don’t always take him up on the offer, but when they do, Ed meets with the family (usually at local eatery) to explain the situation, answer questions, and assure the employee’s spouse and/or children that the lay-off is a sad consequence of the current economic environment, and not any fault or reflection of failure on the part of the employee.

Ed acknowledges that his employer’s legal team probably wouldn’t approve of every step in his approach, but he feels he just needs to do it this way. These are people. They have feelings. They have families. They deserve to be treated with concern and respect. There is no happiness in this task, but it is possible to do it with grace and dignity. It is painful for all involved, but for Ed, part of living out his calling means he’ll take the barbs and bullets, instead of the Ryan Binghams and Natalie Keeners of the world, because it’s what his employees deserve.