How to Terminate an Employee with Compassion

Terminate Employee

Termination is difficult for both the employee and the employer. Especially during the pandemic, many employers have had to let go employees due to budget cuts, slow service, and other reasons. Having the termination conversation has been more difficult than it ever has been before, and being laid off or fired is incredibly damaging to one’s self-esteem, so handle the terminating process with delicacy and tact. Here is a simple termination guideline on how to go about this conversation. This is not a legal opinion, please consult a lawyer if you have any questions about termination.


Keep It Short and Simple

There is no way to soften the blow of termination, so get to the point. Give them an abridged version of why they are being terminated.  There might be a moment of shock for the employee. Use clear words, and slow your speech to keep them calm. Once you are sure the point is understood, move to the closing steps on what to expect next. Have information ready on the employee’s final pay and benefit information, including COBRA. If they get upset, try to remain calm and let them vent. Do not encourage the escalation of emotions but listen. Use words that let them know that they are being heard but avoid cliché sentiments (“I know how you feel” or “it’ll be OK.”) that may minimize the employee’s feelings. The departing employee should be treated with dignity, respect and honesty.

How to Terminate an Employee with Compassion
Photo by Kelly Sikkema

Have A Face-to-Face Conversation (if possible)

Even if your employees have been exclusively working from home it is best to have this conversation face-to-face, whether it be in person or through video chat. Never terminate via email or text as this is disingenuous. The general HR rule is that two people should do the termination.  The other person in the meeting should be a neutral party that will take notes of what is said and should defer the conversation to the key party overseeing the termination. If there is litigation, this will avoid a dispute about what was said.

It is best to terminate early in the week and at the beginning of the day so that you have time to inform the team and change out any access control systems. This also gives the departing employee a better chance in determining their next job steps the earlier in the week you have the meeting.

Interview Mistake to avoid
Photo by Tim Gouw

Make a “bad-news sandwich” Positive → Negative → Positive

Start off the conversation by stating something positive, followed by bad news and end with positivity. Getting laid off or fired is already hurtful but throwing criticism at someone, even if it is constructive, compounds on the pain. Don’t kick someone while they’re down. Offer a nugget of advice that they should work on, but construct it in a positive way to avoid hurting them even more. Example: “ John we appreciate your service to the company. However, due to the major loss in revenue we are having to make cuts in payroll. We are having to end your employment here effective immediately. We will continue your health coverage till the end of the month and you will get a final paycheck deposited in your account today. I personally want to say I have enjoyed working with you and you will be missed. You have a great resume and I am optimistic you will find a new job soon.” Note: If the termination is due to performance issues, then this formula is not to be used and stick to a fact based script.


Seek Legal advice prior to the meeting and always consider protected characteristics.

Be certain that the employee’s age, marital status, race, gender, pregnancy status, request for FMLA leave, sexual orientation, disability, religion, national origin or other protected activities ( or any whistle-blowing acts or complaints of discrimination or harassment) are not considered in the decision to discharge the employee.  Document and follow the exact advice of your legal team.

Seek Legal advice prior to the meeting and always consider protected characteristics.
Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm

Less is more in your discussion “You cannot twist silence”

Do not talk too much.  Do not argue.  Do not apologize.  Do not soften the message.  If there is litigation, this will avoid a conflict between the company’s reason for terminating the employee and what was communicated to the employee.  Let the employee express himself or herself at the end of your comments.


Keep in Mind The Aftermath

Think about the next phone call they have to make about this news, their family, friends, etc. Give them the positive words they need to help their self-esteem because it is very hurtful to hear.  When possible end on a high note of either helping them find a new job offering to be a reference or encouragement that they have a valuable skill set another employer would need. Leave them with hope.


We hope these tips will help you create a script that is compassionate and respectful to those who are being terminated. If you would like to learn more about HR and career advice, please follow us on our social media.


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