The Graceful Art of Termination: A Leader’s Guide

Terminating an employee is undoubtedly one of the most challenging decisions a leader faces – and it should be. To be clear, it’s not a moment that tests managerial skills, what it truly tests are the core values and beliefs that underpin leadership. There will always be cases where terminations happen for ugly reasons, and you’re left without anything other than a swift and decisive decision, theft, harassment, or other matters of significant risk. More often, the cause is underperformance. And, the process, while not a happy one, can be a positive one if approached with grace and a clear conscience, guided by two fundamental principles.

Principle 1: Commitment to Purpose

Leaders must constantly evaluate their commitment to the organization’s purpose, asking themselves, “Am I fully committed? Do I believe deeply in why our WHY matters?” This introspection is vital because achieving the organization’s goals requires an uncompromising pursuit of excellence and a relentless focus on meeting customer needs. At times this will become a people decision. Such commitment ensures the sustainability of the team or institution. Understanding the implications of this commitment involves constantly monitoring all the variables that impact the successful fulfillment of all stakeholders expectations:

  • Owners and Investors: Those who have financially backed the business expect a return on their investment. Their trust in the organization’s mission and leadership demands a commitment to delivering on promised outcomes.
  • Customers: The lifeblood of any business, customers place their own reputation and customers and trust in your organization to meet their needs. Their satisfaction and loyalty are directly tied to the organization’s performance and adherence to its purpose.
  • Employees and Team Members: Individuals who commit their careers and livelihoods to the organization do so with the expectation of mutual growth and success. Their engagement and productivity are reflections of their belief in the organization’s mission.
  • Suppliers and Partners: Suppliers invest their innovation, resources, and talent, aligning their success with your organization’s fortunes. Their partnership is predicated on a shared commitment to excellence and mutual benefit.
  • The Community: Whether it’s the immediate organizational environment or the broader community, there’s a reliance on the organization for various forms of support and engagement. The organization’s success and commitment to its purpose have far-reaching implications beyond its immediate boundaries.

Failing to maintain the right competence and engagement not only jeopardizes the organization’s purpose but also signals to these stakeholders that some individual interest supersedes the collective good. Leadership, therefore, must embody and demonstrate a deep commitment to the organization’s purpose, ensuring that all people related actions and decisions align with the overarching goal of fulfilling customer needs and sustaining the institution.

Principle 2: Belief in Good and Universal Fit

The second principle essential to leadership during the process of termination is the belief that there is a suitable place for everyone. This perspective requires leaders to approach termination with empathy, setting aside any emotions of anger or frustration that may have accumulated due to an employee’s poor performance. The focus should shift to the concept of fit—understanding that while an individual may possess value and potential, they may not be the right fit for their current role.

Acknowledging a mismatch in fit is not a reflection of the person’s worth but a recognition that both the employee and the company would benefit from a better alignment. Often, employees themselves are aware of a poor fit, experiencing it as a source of stress and dissatisfaction. Do you as a leader recognize this pain in others and do you care enough to make the hard decision? Persisting in a role where there is a clear misalignment can prevent individuals from realizing their full potential, adversely affecting their well-being and the organization’s performance.

Before concluding that a change is necessary, leaders must first exhaust all avenues for development. This involves clearly communicating role expectations, both culturally and in terms of competence, and providing ample support for personal and professional growth. However, recognizing when further development efforts are futile is crucial. Waiting too long, hoping that things will get better, and working up the courage to do the deed, is harmful to the person and the team or company. At some point, you’ve got to recognize when you’re trying to teach a pig to sing. When you do this it’s both hard on the pig and hard on your ears.

Termination Transaction

Ultimately, the decision to terminate should be approached with a forward-looking perspective, focusing on finding a more suitable role for the individual where they can thrive. This approach not only respects the dignity and potential of the individual but also aligns with the organization’s needs for effective and a high-performance culture. People have often asked me how I have managed to remain friends with most of the people that I have terminated in the course of my career. I’ve told them that it’s been fairly simple. I believe deeply in the people themselves and I believe deeply in getting them to a place where they can be happy, productive and achieving.

In the graceful process of termination, the manner of communication is paramount. It should not dwell on the employee’s shortcomings or how they have failed the team. That’s water under the bridge. Instead, the conversation must pivot towards a mutual understanding that the current fit is not serving the best interests of either the company or the employee. And a mutual commitment to helping them find a better fit. Outplacement support is mission critical in this situation.

To be fair, it’s common for employees to initially resist or not recognize the misalignment, given the immediate emotional impact of termination. However, with time and reflection away from the immediate situation, many come to see the decision as beneficial. This realization often leads to a more positive transition, allowing individuals to seek opportunities that better align with their skills and aspirations. The goal is to do everything possible to ensure that the termination conversation is framed in a constructive manner, focusing on future possibilities and growth rather than past performance issues. This approach not only facilitates a smoother transition for the departing employee but also upholds the integrity of the leadership and the organization.

Termination, when approached with a deep commitment to the organization’s purpose and a genuine belief in finding the right fit for every individual, can be managed in a way that respects all parties involved. Leaders who navigate this process with empathy and clarity not only uphold the integrity of their role but also contribute to a culture of respect and understanding within their organization.

About the Author

Paul Doyle
Paul Doyle is the founder of LeaderWork. He brings more than 35 years of diverse business experience, including 15 years as a CEO, leading manufacturing companies. Paul has been active in North America with companies ranging from $20 million to $450 million in revenue.