Firing an employee is stressful, painful and difficult. So it’s no wonder we put it off, avoid it, and ignore it for as long as we can.

But at some point you realize that you just have to do it. The employee is not pulling his weight, other people are picking up the slack, and his poor performance is causing damage to the business.

So how do you do it?

No surprises

It’s only common decency to give your employee a chance to improve before you make a final decision (to be sure that letting your employee go is the right thing to do, see Time to Hire Someone New?).

If you have not already done so, meet with the employee you are considering letting go, and share what you feel needs improvement for them to remain in their position. Make the changes you are looking for clear and defined, and give a time limit (30 days is a reasonable amount of time).

If after the 30 days are up, it is still clear to you that it is time to let your employee go, s/he will at least be prepared for what is coming. The decision will not hit like lightening from a clear sky, and s/he will be better prepared to accept the decision in a mature and professional fashion.

Clarity and compassion can go together

It’s important to be clear and unambiguous when you are letting an employee go. Sometimes in our desire to be kind, we tend to give unclear messages. For example, an employer may say, “I am starting to feel that this might not be working out”. Employees hearing such a statement could legitimately hope to convince the employer to keep them on.

But being clear does not mean that you have to be unkind. Some employers take the opposite tack and give very cold and impersonal notice (“this is your last day here. Please remove your belongings and leave the premises in the next half hour”). Your employees, current and past, deserve your respect and human compassion. It is possible to be unequivocal and still be human.

Here’s how: call your employee into your office, and invite them to sit down. Say that after the 30 day period, you have come to the conclusion that this is not working and it’s time to part ways. Give your employee time to digest the information, and be ready to answer their questions about how you came to the conclusion. Be prepared with information about what they will be receiving as severance pay, and offer (if relevant) to assist them in making professional connections or to serve as a reference in their job search.

It would also be respectful to discuss how they would like their colleagues to be informed – by you, by them, or in a joint email. (Of course, do not inform any of the employee’s colleagues that you are planning to let them go. The employee being fired has the right to be the first to know.)

Decency is a two way street

Some employers fear that the fired employee will be so angry or resentful that they may cause damage to company property, destroy or share sensitive information, or otherwise respond inappropriately. This is why many companies have a policy of escorting the employee out the door, with their things, immediately following the termination of their employment. Some companies even have access to the employee’s computer and email accounts blocked during the termination meeting.

While such fears may be legitimate, treating a person who has so recently been a trusted member of a professional team like a convicted felon is sure to be experienced as an insult heaped upon the injury of letting them go. In addition, other employees watching the painful scene may begin to feel concern about their own value and how they may be treated in the event that they are let go in the future.

On the other hand, if treated with decency and respect throughout the process, the employee is much more likely to respond in kind, demonstrating willingness to assist with the transition of the role or through assuring that relevant information and data is preserved in an organized and accessible manner for their successor.

Of course, if you have reason to believe or suspect that this specific employee is not to be trusted, and particularly if lack of trustworthiness was the central reason for their dismissal, you may want to safeguard sensitive data and information.

Firing an employee is no fun; being fired is much worse. If you are able to let your employees go with fair warning, clarity, and compassion, you will have helped them through a painful transition, while signaling to the rest of your team that you will treat them with decency, kindness and respect even when they are no longer in your employ.