Grace Under Fire: How to Hold a (Less Painful) Termination Meeting

You’ve made the decision to terminate an employee without cause. You’ve researched the facts, put together a fair severance package, and you’re ready to meet with the employee – except for that pit of dread in your gut telling you to run the other way. We’ve all been there. The idea of inflicting pain on someone, aka firing them as you sit across from them face to face, is not a prospect most employers relish. In our experience, employees can react to an unexpected termination in every imaginable way. While many receive the news with quiet resignation, some do not. We have seen employees become angry and argumentative, and others break down sobbing and share heart-wrenching stories. In one recent meeting, an employee told us through tears that he was the sole earner in his household and he was worried for his family. No question, that was tough.

So how do you avoid discomfort during a termination meeting? Well, the truth is you can’t – you must accept that these meetings are often fraught with emotion and they likely will be uncomfortable. However, we believe that by focusing on preserving the employee’s dignity throughout the process you can make a less painful experience. Here’s how:

1. Stay on Message

You can uphold your employee’s dignity during the meeting by being compassionate in your tone and factual in your message. Be sincere and tell them that you understand this is difficult, but don’t linger on the reasons why they are being terminated. Stick to a message that doesn’t contain too much extraneous detail. For example, try stating that it just isn’t working out, or they aren’t a good fit with organization.

A concise message will help you avoid giving the employee points to debate or room to bargain for their position, which will only drag out proceedings. If they attempt to engage you, repeat your message and redirect their focus to the severance package you have carefully prepared to reflect their personal situation. Remember to thank the employee for their service and wish them well.

2. Create a Private (and Safe) Setting

Every effort must be made to ensure privacy and confidentiality. Schedule the meeting in a location that is away from onlookers and during a time when the workplace is sparsely populated. Choose a room that has good soundproofing and a door. Don’t forget to shut blinds if you have interior-facing office windows.

No one likes to think about this, but it is important to be safety conscious and consider any risks. Is this employee likely to become hostile? Should you have a colleague with you to provide added support, or should you notify security to be on standby? Position yourself between the employee and the door: don’t back yourself into a corner if you may need to make a quick exit.

3. Invite Only Those Who Really Need to Be There

Beside yourself and the employee, who else should be in the meeting? Is your employee unionized? If so, they will likely require a union representative or shop steward to accompany them. You may also need additional representation such as their manager or department head. However, consider if the employee has had a difficult relationship with their manager. If so, don’t ask that person to be present. There is no need to expose either party to more bad feelings by potentially inflaming the situation.

4. Remember Timing is Everything

In our opinion, the best time to hold a termination meeting is at the beginning of the employee’s work week, for example the Monday or Tuesday of a Monday to Friday work week. Scheduling the termination at the start of their week gives the employee more time to contact any needed support services that may not be open over the weekend. Also, many people like to make plans with friends and family on their days off, and being fired right before will unfairly sour those plans.

5. Coordinate with IT and Plan for Other Logistical Considerations

Will you have to plan for collecting assets like the employee’s security swipe card, ID badge, and company cell? You will also need to advise your IT support when to cut off the employee’s corporate network access. Regarding the employee’s personal belongings, we recommend staying with them while they pack up and remove items from their workstation. You can continue to offer them support while they do this if it is comfortable. If not, arrange to have security or a support person to accompany them and escort them out of the building.

6. What Else Can You Do to Ease the Pain?

Consider any other actions you can take to ensure you are treating the employee with dignity and compassion during the termination meeting. Can your organization afford to offer placement services to assist them in finding a new job? You may also consider having a support person present after the meeting to help counsel them. In addition, we recommend offering the employee cab fare home as they may not be in a state to drive home safely.

Terminating an employee without cause is never a pleasant task. If you would like assistance with an upcoming termination meeting, please contact Pivot HR Services at

This is the second of two parts in this series. We invite you to learn the facts of terminating without cause in part one.

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