Dealing with the emotional toll of letting someone go


If you manage people long enough, at some point you’ll have to do a manager’s most dreaded task: Letting someone go. “There’s no getting around it. Firing someone ‘just sucks,’ as one manager put it to me,” says social scientist and workplace well-being expert Tchiki Davis, PhD. “You’re going to feel terrible. And while you can’t make those negative emotions just disappear, you can develop some strategies to help you cope.” Like the ones she shares here.

Note: This article does not cover how to terminate an employee. Most organizations have protocols for dismissals and guidelines for what to say (and not to say). Be sure to work with your manager and HR team to understand the policies and best practices at your company before taking action.

Of course, being laid off or let go is hard. But doing the firing is hard, too. You’re a human being, so by nature you don’t want to do something that hurts another person. It can tear you up inside, causing a pit in your stomach and sleepless nights. “And if you’re a people pleaser, you want to make them feel better and feel okay about it, but you can’t — you’re the one telling them they’re not needed or not good enough,” explains one experienced manager.

You have a lot to think about — how it will go, how your team will react, and how to get the person’s work done after he or she is gone — but don’t neglect your own well-being.

Here are some ways to take better care of yourself during this difficult time.

1. Reduce your anxiety over your delivery of the message by preparing and practicing.

Rejecting someone and playing the bad guy is hard. So much so that some managers put off the task if they can (for example, if someone’s underperforming). But avoidance only lets your anxiety build.

Many managers say that going through the process of terminating someone a few times gives you a better idea of what to expect and may reduce the stress, but the anxiety you feel is a natural response to a difficult situation and never goes away completely. So, how can you make the whole thing feel less overwhelming and paralyzing?

  • Outline the process with your manager and/or HR partner. In addition to helping you map out the practical steps to take, management and/or HR can provide encouragement, stories of how others have found it hard, and other help. Feeling supported and less alone can go a long way to boosting your confidence.
  • Write a short script for starting the conversation. The beginning is the hardest part, especially if you haven’t let anyone go before or tend to shy away from conflict. You don’t want to be harsh, but at the same time you need to be direct. It’s a tricky, worry-inducing line to walk, so you need a script. While you won’t read from it during the conversation, writing down what you plan to say (and practicing it in private) can help ensure that you feel good about your approach. (For an example opener, see tip No. 1 of Sample openers to 9 tough talks and for planning tips see Preparing for a difficult conversation.)
  • Role-play the conversation ahead of time. Find someone you trust to practice with — like a mentor, HR partner, or your manager. “Rehearsing helps a lot, because you get in the moment. You’re under stress, too, and if your message isn’t clear, you can confuse people,” one manager told me. “I had a case where I was nervous and softened what I was going to say. And they weren’t sure if they were fired or not. That was the worst. If I had practiced more and said the words a few times, I would have done much better.” Ask your practice partner to adopt a few emotions — anger, sadness, stoicism — to help you practice handling different reactions.

2. Prevent your fear from taking over by striking a balance of firmness, kindness, and understanding.

People may cry, be angry, or blame you. And their reactions may not be fair. The reality is that you’re not in a position to change the person’s feelings. Instead, face your conversation with courage and empathy.

  • When you talk to the person, don’t overshare or make it about you. It’s human nature to create a long list of reasons rationalizing why what we’re doing is necessary when we have to do something we’re ambivalent about. Although that list may help you feel better about what you have to do, don’t share all of those reasons with the person (even if you want the person to understand your position and perhaps not judge you so harshly). That’s just piling on. Rather, aim to be brief and clear in your message to make the interaction as painless as possible for the other person, and leave your own experience out of the equation. As one manager put it: “If you say, ‘It’s hard for me, too,’ they’re likely to say, ‘Oh, really? You think it’s hard for you?’”
  • Don’t go into robot mode. Your instinct to detach from the situation may kick in to protect you from the other person’s negative emotions. To some extent, it’s an effective strategy to not let yourself get too upset. But be careful not to become so void of emotions that you’re unkind. Instead, show understanding for the other person’s reactions. If there are tears, hand him or her a tissue. If there’s anger or blame, calmly hear the person out, acknowledge that the situation is difficult, then return to your planned message. This way, you’ll be able to come out of the conversation knowing you did your best to be kind.
  • Encourage others to reach out to the person. In some ways, you — as the person doing the terminating — are the worst person to offer support. The person being laid off or let go may not want it from you or be able to receive it from you. But you can offer support through other people. Being terminated can be ostracizing for the person going through it and awkward for remaining colleagues who aren’t quite sure what to say. You can make things less weird by asking the person if he or she would appreciate hearing from teammates. Then, you might say to your team, “I spoke with him this morning, and he’d love to hear from you.” Facilitating this kind of interaction can help the terminated person feel more accepted after being rejected, help you feel better knowing that he or she has support during this rough time, and help your team with their own recovery process.

3. Overcome your guilt about potentially harming someone’s livelihood with compassion (for yourself and the person).

Managers can become fixated on the idea that they’re cutting off a person’s income or having a negative impact on the person’s career trajectory. These are serious considerations. But, on the other hand, job changes and layoffs happen all the time. These tactics might help you keep the event in perspective.

  • Remember that you’re doing your job. In clinical terms, it’s a manager’s responsibility to be sure that the team functions and gets the job done with the available resources. When you terminate someone, it’s either because they’re not an effective resource (i.e., there’s a performance issue) or resources are being taken away (i.e., a company downsizing or restructuring). You’re not terminating someone because you’re cruel — you’re doing your job. So give yourself a break.
  • Think about how you could help the person in the future (if appropriate). You may feel most guilty about terminating someone who you feel doesn’t deserve it, for example, if a job is eliminated or doesn’t quite suit the person’s strengths. In cases where you feel genuinely good about the person’s skills and performance, offer to give a recommendation, referral, or introduction to help the person more easily transition to their next job.
  • Tap a close friend or two for support throughout the process. Having to let someone go can be particularly isolating, especially since you often can’t talk about details freely at work. Before the event, seek advice from trusted peers who have been through this before. What mistakes have they made that you can avoid? What have they done to try to feel better about it? Consider making plans to connect with close friend after the termination, so you’ll have the chance to talk with someone who understands what you’re going through and can help you recover more quickly from the emotional roller coaster.

For one experienced manager’s perspective on terminating underperformers, see Zipp’s tips: Taking the fear out of firing. And for more from the Happiness Coach, see her other articles.