Breaking up with nice employees is hard to do

Firing an employee is like breaking up with someone, and just like the dating world, managers also have a hard time telling it like it is when it comes to letting someone go. It’s much easier to break up with employees who have behaved badly, performed poorly or breached company policies, than it is to break up with a lovely person who simply isn’t good at their job.

There’s a reason why there are so many euphemisms for ‘fired’, and it’s because we humans find it hard to find the right words to deliver the gut-wrenching news. Here’s the thing, there are no magic words, or stories of personal failure that led to astounding success, that will soften the blow of what you’re about to say. The greatest kindness you can offer is honesty in your delivery of the bad news.

Unfortunately, at some stage in a manager’s career they will be faced with the challenge of having to graciously let the ‘nice’ employee go, ending the employment relationship.

I like you… but I don’t like your work….

Most managers struggle to have the ‘break up’ conversation with employees who are not meeting expectations. But it is ten times harder when you need to have that conversation with a very nice employee.  These ‘nice non-performers’ tend to be given several opportunities to improve, before you consider removing them, because we really want them to succeed.

How do you break up nicely?

Give them a big hug (only kidding!). You deliver the message with warmth, empathy and compassion. Let them know that you wish things had worked out differently. Focus on reinforcing the positive aspects of their personality and behaviour as opposed to focussing on only the negative aspects which have led to the decision to end their employment. Get to the point quickly and where possible, provide them with some guidance or coaching to enable them to move on to a more suitable role.

How do I tell the team?

Sometimes nice non-performing employees can be popular members of the team, so delivering the break up news to everyone without looking like an ogre can be challenging. Advise the team in your usual way (email, in person, team meeting). It helps to acknowledge that the decision was a difficult one. Be sure to allow an appropriate farewell or organise a team gift if this is your usual practice. Keep in mind that your team are judging your every move and may be imagining if it was them.

What tips do you have for breaking up with nice employees? 

  1. Get to the point quickly, deliver the bad news in the first 1 minute of the conversation.
  2. Offer the employee a support person and have tissues on hand.
  3. Prepare what you are going to say in the meeting in advance.
  4. When presenting the reasons for the dismissal, stick to the facts as opposed to commenting on personality or behaviours which could be debated.
  5. Treat the person with privacy and respect, seek feedback from them about how they would like to exit the business.
  6. Provide coaching or guidance on more suitable future career paths if appropriate, and refer to recruiters or offer to review their CV.
  7. Predict how you think they may respond to the news and prepare accordingly.