When you need to fire someone – do so with humanity

By Elisabeth Goodman, 8th March 2020

One of the questions that comes up periodically in our training and coaching work with managers (see RiverRhee), is what to do about someone who is underperforming.

Often, the manager has put in an enormous amount of time, effort and worry to do everything that they can to help the employee.  And yet the individual is still underperforming, does not have the ‘right attitude’ and is generally undermining the morale and productivity of the rest of the team.

The manager probably knows it’s time to fire someone, but they may be worried about the consequences for the individual’s state of mind, and/or the repercussions on the morale of the rest of the team.

I came across David Rock’s (2008) SCARF model whilst reading Jenny Roger’s (2016) “Coaching Skills” and it seems a particularly apt representation of some of the emotional aspects that might be involved.The SCARF modelRogers (2016) describes how helpful the model was when she showed it to someone she was coaching who had been fired.  It helped the individual to understand the emotions she was experiencing and to come to terms with the situation.

Joel Peterson’s (2020) article in the latest issue of Harvard Business Review provides a well thought out series of steps for how to fire someone that touches on how several of these emotional needs might be humanely addressed.

Being clear about the reasons for firing someone

An important first step is for the manager to be clear about why they want to fire someone.  It could be for one of several reasons:

  1. The individual is not a good fit for the job
  2. They are underperforming
  3. There are organisational reasons for changing people’s roles – and there is no good alternative fit for the individual
  4. There are other organisational changes for instance a need to reduce headcount – and again, there is no alternative fit

Being clear about these reasons will help the manager to ensure that they have taken whatever preventative action they can, and to take the appropriate follow-up action.

How to avoid firing someone

The individual is not a good fit for the job.

Obviously something has not worked in the original recruitment process.  Either the manager made an error of judgement, or the individual did.

If the timing for this realisation falls within a probation period, then there is scope for an open and honest conversation about the lack of fit, and both the manager and individual can part with dignity on both sides.

If not, then the firing will need to proceed – see the principles below for how to do so.

The individual is underperforming.

There is a responsibility on the manager to do everything they can in terms of:

  • clarifying the expected performance and attitude for the job
  • agreeing a plan for addressing any gaps – including specific actions, timings, and how both will know that the gap has been addressed
  • providing appropriate training and coaching
  • documenting all of the above and keeping HR informed

Again, see the principles below if none of the above is effective.

Organisational reasons or changes mean there is no longer a good fit for the individual.

Again, open and honest discussion is key to the situation.  The individual may choose to leave.  If not, the next section kicks in.

Sometimes, a combination of reasons might be involved.  I once had a direct report whose underperformance was actually caused by her no longer wanting to do the work.  We were able to have a conversation where she chose to disclose this, and I was able to support her in finding a better fit for her outside of the organisation.

SOme principles for Firing with humanity

Peterson’s (2020) steps for firing reflect some important principles, which I’ve summarised here:

1. Avoid making the firing discussion a surprise (hence my suggestions above on being clear about the reasons, and exploring options for avoiding firing ahead of time)

2. Avoid making any special cases – areas of risk for this are friends and family.  Making these exceptions will not help the individual or the organisation in the long run.

3. Practice what you are going to say ahead of time (maybe with someone in HR or a colleague) and prepare your mindset so that you can exercise the following principles

4. Treat the individual with dignity and respect (see the SCARF model earlier).  There is a place for everyone in work and society, and you have a responsibility to communicate your awareness of that.

5. Show empathy and compassion but without entering into the emotions involved. To do so would not be helpful, could be seen as patronising, and might unnecessarily prolong the discussion.

6. Keep your message clear and short – to give the individual time to take it in and process it.

7. Offer an opportunity for a follow-up discussion to support the individual in working out their next steps.  This may include keeping the individual in your professional network.

8. Be as generous as possible with the severance package – see suggestions in the illustration


Firing someone is not easy, but not to do so can be harmful to both the individual, and the organisation.

Hopefully the reflections above will help managers to do so in a way that creates positive outcomes for all concerned.

Referring to the SCARF model might also help all concerned to better understand the emotions that might be involved.



Peterson, J. (2020) Firing with compassion, Harvard Business Review, March-April 2020: 135-139

Rock, D. (2008) SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others, NeuroLeadership Journal, 1: 1-9

Rogers, J. (2016) Coaching Skills. The definitive guide to being a coach. Berkshire: McGraw-Hill, Open University Press.

Other notes:

Elisabeth Goodman is the Owner and Principal Consultant at RiverRhee Consulting., a consultancy that specialises in “creating exceptional managers and teams”, through courses, workshops and one-to-one coaching, and with a focus on the Life Sciences.

Elisabeth founded RiverRhee Consulting in 2009, and prior to that had 25+ years’ experience in the Pharmaceutical Industry in line management and internal training and consultancy roles supporting teams on a global basis.  She is developing her coaching practice, with a focus on helping individuals to develop management and ‘soft’ skills, especially associated with change, and with Neurodiversity.

Elisabeth is accredited in Change Management, in Lean Sigma, in Belbin Team Roles, MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) and is an NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) Practitioner. She is a member of the ICF (International Coaching Federation) and of the APM (Association for Project Management) in which she was a founding member of the Enabling Change SIG. RiverRhee is a member-to-member training provider for One Nucleus.

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