Letting an employee go, a.k.a. ‘firing’ someone, is pretty unpleasant business. This can be especially true when it’s for performance reasons (not misconduct or lack of professionalism). In these cases, there are some sure-fire things you can say to make things even worse. Here are the top things NOT to say, and what you should say instead.

“Hi! So, how are the kids?”

This seems like a good thing to say. The problem is two-fold:

  • You’re going to get an answer. Whether the kids (or husband, pet, etc.) are doing great or not-so-great, you’ve now started the conversation on a very personal note. You’ll need to segue gracefully from that into some tough news. Imagine: ‘Gee, I’m sorry to hear about little Darla’s problems at school. That’s great to hear, about Danny doing so well in softball. Listen – I have to tell you something…’ Awkward.
  • You get to demonstrate what a caring person you are, but it only eases your discomfort, and only temporarily. Your employee may feel even more betrayed, like it’s ‘friendly fire’, once you’ve communicated the termination in the same conversation.

Instead…

Open your conversation by getting straight to the point. (If your employee wants to talk afterward, that’s a different story). For example: Hi, Jackie. Wow, this is tough. I think it’s best if I get straight to the point: we have decided that this will be your last day with our Company. I am very sorry to tell you this.

“I think you’re great, personally. They’re making me do this.”

Your actions and words represent your employer, regardless of your disclaimer. This kind of statement exposes your company to potential legal trouble and exposes you to being called to the stand. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as an ‘off-the-record’ comment at a time like this if there is a dispute. Plus:

  • It makes you look weak as a leader.
  • It implies the decision you are acting upon is wrong, and as soon as the individual’s cousin’s friend, who is an attorney, hears that the manager said they disagreed with the termination, the plot may thicken. Hurt people hurt people… and companies.

Instead…

You could say something like: You have so many good qualities and talents. I’m sorry this hasn’t worked out the way we had all hoped it would.

“I’ll give you an excellent reference.”

Unless this is a true layoff situation (truly due to no fault of the employee), this is way more dangerous than it sounds. See above, under “I think you’re great, personally.” Another reason:

  • Maybe your company maintains a ‘neutral reference policy,’ releasing only dates of employment and position(s) held but no subjective commentary about the employee. You will have undermined that policy, which exists to keep from being liable in accusations of defamation (if there’s a consistent ‘neutral reference’ policy, how could it be?).

Instead…

Consider: We wish you the best and we truly want you to be successful. Our Company maintains a neutral reference policy and releases only basic facts (dates of employment and positions held) to prospective employers you authorize to obtain it. We would never do anything to undermine your future employment opportunities.

“At least your husband will support you.”

This is none of your business. Especially in this particular moment, it:

  • Sounds dismissive and condescending.
  • Undermines the reason for termination, implying that maybe the company felt it was ‘no big deal’ to make this decision or, at worse, may have illegally discriminated.

Instead…

Try something like: You’re strong; I trust you’re going to land on your feet. I know there’s a lot to figure out right now. I understand.

“Really, you had to have seen this coming.”

You’d hope so, but maybe not. And regardless, why rub salt in the wound? Plus, this type of statement:

  • Puts the individual on the defensive, increasing the possibility of any post-termination dispute or negative online comments about the company.
  • Does not respect the dignity of the individual. Treat people kindly or at least respectfully when it matters most. Company values aren’t true unless they’re proven until the end.

If you’re not sure what to say/what not to say, ask an HR professional to help with talking points. You don’t have to do this alone! Also, remember to have another manager or supervisor witness every termination meeting, and to make notes for the employee’s file.