When you have to fire somebody from a company, the standard legal recommendation is that managers shouldn't talk about the situation at all, because doing so risks defamation.
That is, you might say something about the employee that they could then sue the company over. That's reasonable advice most companies want to follow, plus managers often don’t want to spill details out of respect for the person they’ve let go or for people who were affected by the person’s actions. But silence is also at odds with the sort of internal transparency that many organizations – especially small or young teams – frequently strive for. When somebody disappears and management says nothing, you risk unleashing a torrent of DMs. More pressing, you risk eroding trust in a company that touts its openness.
Making matters worse, if an employee isn't performing well or is behaving badly, most staff probably won't hear about the feedback the person’s manager is giving them. This means that sudden departures can seem, well, sudden to everyone else. Again, that can make for dissonant surprises. Because employees can't see any of the details, they might wonder: Do people who are doing poorly get feedback? Am I at risk and nobody has told me? Is our culture changing?
While leadership teams probably can’t talk about involuntary departures, here are three things you can collectively do to get ahead of FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) and maintain your commitment to candor. Of course, firings often involve special circumstances, so use these ideas as a starting point for discussion with other leaders at your company, rather than as a blueprint.
If you’re the manager on the case, have a comms plan
In addition to planning the conversation with the employee in question (do this with HR, your legal counsel, or your company’s equivalent!), there are other communications you should tee up.
Before the conversation with the employee, tell your peers in management about the situation (the bigger the group, the less info you’ll likely share): the timing of the firing, a request to keep it confidential until then, and who to follow up with for information related to the employee’s projects. Other managers will get questions from their reports and should be ready to respond; you don’t want them to learn about a firing when their reports do. Similarly, ask your manager to tell their peers and other leaders, if they haven’t already.
Also beforehand, write a company or department-wide note explaining that the person is gone and where coworkers can turn for info about work that might be affected. Something simple is okay: ‘Today was Pat’s last day with our company. If you have questions related to the projects they were working on, please reach out to me.’ It’s demoralizing and confusing when people learn about firings well after the fact, so post it as soon as you conclude the meeting with the person. I have made the mistake of having the big conversation with the employee in question, then going directly to another meeting and thinking I’ll post after that. In the intervening hour, rumors started swirling – which generated FUD we could have avoided.
As soon as you’ve had the conversation and posted the note above, set up a meeting with the person’s teammates. If the person was fired for performance-related reasons, the team may not be surprised, since they were probably carrying some of the work. If the person was fired for bad behavior (i.e., they harassed or bullied other people), the team might be unaware of the issue, and they may be shocked if the person was performing well. (If the fired person mistreated a teammate, consider holding individual meetings so that the teammate doesn’t have to process the news in front of others.)
Regardless of the cause, you probably won’t be able to share details, and you can explain to them why that’s true. You can also reassure them that the decision was made after careful deliberation; you can answer any questions they have about feedback mechanisms and how they’ll learn about their own performance; you can help them figure out how to organize work with one less person available; and you can discuss any plans to backfill the employee. If the person fired was their manager, you’ll also need to talk immediately about what the reporting plans are for the team, and you should assume that they may each want to talk with you 1:1.
If you’re a manager but not directly involved, reach out to your direct reports once the news is public
In a small company, people may be very surprised and possibly worried about their own status. You can help people understand that the decision was made thoughtfully and explain why you can’t talk about details. But you can talk about when and how your reports can learn more about their own performance, and you may need to affirm that they’re in good standing, assuming they are. (If you’re on a team with a lot of contractors who work full-time for the company, they may feel particularly vulnerable in the wake of a firing.)
Quick, direct info makes a difference. When I recently forgot to reach out proactively to two of my direct reports after somebody on another team was let go, they spent half a day very shaken up before reaching out to me. I regret putting them in that position – and it was a real contrast with my reports I’d been in touch with, who were calm because they were informed.
If you’re a leader at the company, tell people that this is normal, and regrettable, and it will happen again
There’s tremendous value in a message from a company leader acknowledging that in an organization that values openness, it’s awkward to have to be secretive about a difficult situation. It’s also useful to help people understand that your managers make careful decisions and communicate a lot with staff who are at risk – and that letting people go is normal and healthy for the organization, even though it’s painful. You can bring the temperature down further by explaining the difference between feedback that staff should receive when they’re in good standing (‘Here are ideas to help you grow and do even better’) versus feedback they’d get if they were not meeting expectations (‘You will have to make changes if you want to stay at the company’). Finally, you can provide some certainty by letting people know that even though their managers cannot share details about why somebody else has been let go, their managers can – and should – talk to reports about their performance. If anyone is worried or wondering, they should check in.
If these steps seem like a lot of coordination and discussion, that’s because they are. But like most cases in which FUD is a possible factor, investing in clear communication ahead of time can save you days of costly internal churn. Even more, it can allow you to sustain your culture when it might otherwise be directly challenged by reasonable silence.