Karin’s Leadership Articles

How To Fire Someone… With Compassion

by | May 16, 2013 | By Karin Hurt, Career & Learning, Results & Execution |

You really like this guy. You’ve grown close over the years. You care about him. You might even know his family. Perhaps he’s even a strong performer who did something stupid. Now you have to fire him. How do you that?

Firing someone is the hardest thing to do as a leader. Layoffs are awful too, but at least there’s a softish landing and some conciliation that it’s not their fault.

This post is not about whether you “should” be firing this person. I’m assuming you’ve vetted that given appropriate second chances, and now are stuck with “how.”

HR will tell you to keep the “conversation” short and direct. To tell, pack, and escort to bring a witness. Don’t apologize. I’ve even done terminations where we had extra security planted around the corner in case “things got crazy.”

If you need some help with the basics, good advice includes: The 10 Worst Things To Say to An Employee When You Fire Them and The Best Ways to Fire Someone. All points, necessary, but not necessarily sufficient.

Fire Me, But Remember This

Follow the above advice. And if your heart calls for more, keep in mind.

1. It’s not about you.

Helpful words

Firing is so challenging for both the one doing the firing and the one being fired. It brings a great amount of emotional vulnerability into an environment which doesn’t usually make a lot of space for it. But the one who is firing must be careful to share only a small amount of their distress. If the one firing attempts to be compassionate by displaying feelings: sharing sorrow, expressing how uncomfortable the process is, or revealing too much of any kind of emotion, it robs the one being fired from his or her own experience. It makes the event about the them. It invites the one being fired to take care of the one firing, which is distorted and provocative.
So it is important to remember when firing with compassion, at bottom, it is not personal and it is not about you. You can be warm and considerate, but beware of being emotional or dramatic in an attempt to show that you are compassionate. You can care about the person while keeping the correct distance to allow them to have their experience, without asking them to worry about yours.

2. They did something wrong, they’re not something wrong.
Ensure them that this mistake does not define them. Give them a chance to talk if they need a minute.

3. They have a future and could use some hope.
I always plant a seed about an optimistic future, even if I’m furious with what they’ve done. Help them to fail forward.

4. You can say goodbye.
I’ve never regretted taking a moment to connect and say goodbye. If you were close, it’s okay to say something personal if it feels right.

Compassionate leaders stay compassionate. Stay firm, don’t back pedal, but it’s okay to connect and say “goodbye” and “you can survive this.”

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.


  1. Dave Tumbarello

    Karin – Seems you speak from experience. Empathy & positive regard for the person. Sounds like overall advice for many relationships. While I haven’t been in that position, I feel transparency is another key. “Our expectations are __. You demonstrated __.” By the time of the firing, HR and the administration have recorded evidence of the person falling short of the stated benchmarks. It probably should not come as a surprise (at least the employee should have had conversations about meeting benchmarks). All that is left is the “report of findings” which should be carried out with empathy & a degree of support for the person. And, in the words of the singer/songwriter Laura Veirs: “Don’t lose yourself; don’t let yourself be lost”.

    • letsgrowleaders

      David, Yes, unfortunatly, I have a good bit of experience in this arena over the years. I was in HR for a long time, and then leading large teams…. I love that you add “transparency” to the mix. Couldn’t agree more. Thanks or expanding the conversatiion.

  2. Dan Forbes

    Karin, My first supervisory role came when I was in college. One of the first things I did was recommend a college friend for a job with the company. He was hired and it was soon evident that it wasn’t working out. One issue was that because we were friends, he felt like he really didn’t need to perform the duties I assigned to him. I was given the opportunity to let him know that surely some other company was better suited for his skills. It was my first opportunity to “fire” someone. We did remain friends.

    • letsgrowleaders

      Dan, thanks so much for sharing your story. Sounds like you must have handled it well since the friendship remained. It’s even harder when the friendship came first.

  3. Ali Anani (@alianani15)

    Karin, I went through this experience. I understand the feelings of other people. I try to point out their strengths that are irrelevant to the current job, but quite relevant outside in certain fields..
    Your post reminds me of a story that I would like to share here (I hope you don’t view me as only a storyteller). Somebody was fired. Upon receiving his termination letter he got crazy. His friend were compassionate and tried to belittle the termination negative impact. Suddenly, this person screamed and said “who told you I am angry because I got fired?”. So why are you angry, Mr. X?
    He replied “Look at the insult- in the termination letter they addressed me DR. X and not Professor Dr.”
    People have different emotions.

    • letsgrowleaders

      Ali, thanks as always for your insightful comments. I love that story. We never know when we are hitting a nerve. People are so complex. That’s what makes leadership intriguing.

    • Dave Tumbarello

      Trying to understand another individual is never a linear process. Thank you for the story, Ali. The lesson is to never assume you understand the feelings or motives of another individual….. unless you ask.

      • Ali Anani (@alianani15)

        Thanks, Dave for your appreciation. yes, if one doesn’t ask, he/she shall get no answer. We should avoid assumptions. I find that management by assumptions is wrongly practices.
        May be a new difference between growing leaders and managers is that we grow leaders not to assume. Do you agree, David?

  4. Steve Borek

    I don’t have much experience in this area.

    Up In The Air was a great movie. Did you see it?

  5. Eric Dingler

    This is always tough for sure. 99% of my staff are 17 to 22 years old. 80% are working their first job for me, And, their parents always end up calling me if I “pick on” their kid and fire them. We had to start training staff now how to work. Not just how to do the tasks of the job and deliver on their job description. We have to train them how to be an employee. How to talk to (and about) supervisors. How to respect the culture of an organization. Etc. Once we added this to our training, we cut way way down on the number of staff we had to fire.

    • letsgrowleaders

      Eric, wow… that really is a significant added challenge. I like your approach. Only once have I had someone’s Dad call me. He got an ear full 🙂

  6. Matt McWilliams

    You continue to believe in them.

    If you are firing someone, it’s usually for three reasons:

    1. Bad hire. You’re fault. They are not a good fit.
    2. They are incompetent. (Lazy, uneducated, etc.)
    3. Company issues (budget, etc.)

    In 2 of them, #1 and #3, they will make great employees elsewhere. Believe in them, convey that, and write great letters of recommendation.

    On #2, do the same thing really…believe in them, tell them why they are being fired, and encourage them.

    • letsgrowleaders

      Matt. Great points. Thanks for adding those.

  7. Anne

    I think that the cruelest thing to do is fire someone on a Friday. That gives them the weekend to wallow in misery, not being able to do things. Better to fire on Monday: they can start on Tuesday with a plan to do better.

    • letsgrowleaders

      Matt. Great points. Thanks for adding those.

  8. Cindy Navarino

    I started reading a new book “Necessary Endings” by Dr. Henry Coud”. In the book Dr.Cloud shares endings as being natural in both our business and personal lives. It can come from losing a job, personal relationship, or even divorce. As leaders we often struggle with a mix of internal emotions fom sadness,to regret,to worry, or even what will become of them now? It’s human to think in such a way. From a strategic point of view the need to end a business or personal relationship is to move towards something “better”. Executed well neccessary endings can shed positive light and growth not only for the company but the indvidual who is being terminated and often times can come in form of relief in other words something they could not bring themselves to do. Sometimes you simply have to say goodbye in order to move on grow and develop . One thing is certain, respect, compassion, and a kind word of hope goes a long way in a difficult situation .

    • letsgrowleaders

      Cindy, thanks for your powerful contribution. Sound like a great book.

  9. Dan Black

    I’ve never been in a role where I’ve had to fire someone. But know in the future I will be. Great suggestions. I’ve heard that being a open hear after you fire someone can be valuable.

    • letsgrowleaders

      Dan, so glad to have you join the conversation on Let’s Grow Leaders. That’s a great suggestion. It’s always good to be open to listening more (for a bit, you don’t want it to become circular). It’s important to let them know you can’t be talked out of it.

  10. Renee

    4th reason to fire someone:
    The company has gotten bigger and the employee (which has been told specifically) did not grow. They are still a good employee, just stuck in there own ways and did not want to grow with the company. They will do better else where or on their own independently.

    • letsgrowleaders

      Renee, thanks so much for your comment. Agreed, sometimes the company or the person outgrows the fit. This is a perfect time to exercise this compassion and helping them discover their gifts and find determine the best next steps.

  11. Zoey

    Thank you all for this. I have to fire someone this week, it is my first time, and I am terrified. I am sure it is the right decision for both the company and the employee, but I always think we all deserve a second chance … so it is hard for me to acknowledge that he has have enough chances and will not change. Thank you for your advice.

  12. letsgrowleaders

    Zoey … You’ve got this. Follow your heart. You can do this well

    • Zoey

      Thank you Karin, this was a big help when I had to fire someone last year. Today I must fire someone else. I feel more secure than last time, but still, it is hard to fight the guilt. Thank you so much for your help!

      • letsgrowleaders

        Zoey, if it ever gets easy you’re doing something wrong. Thanks so much for checking back in. I’m glad to see you’re doing well.

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