Whether you are in a leadership role, or solely an HR role, at some point or another terminating an employee will become your reality. In the early stages of a career, young professionals usually ask themselves questions like, “Will I be able to let someone go?”, “Will I hurt their feelings?”, “How will I handle the situation?”, or “What should I say?”.

I have had the unfortunate experience of terminating many staff, and I myself have been let go from a job and a team that I loved. This experience has given me time to reflect and look back at my previous actions as an HR professional. That reflection, let me tell you, has been enlightening.

I am not about to tell you that the terminations all went well because they didn’t. No one is perfect, we will all make mistakes. What I did learn, however, is that there are people out there, with many more years of supervisory experience, that have not learned the art of the termination. Yes, there is an art to it, and I believe that through this article, and some experience, you will find the best way to handle the situation.

Now, I recognize that all organizations have their steps or scripts that they want you to follow, but I challenge you to reflect on those processes and ask yourself, are you going to be the good cop, or the bad cop when the time comes. This does not mean that you don’t follow the process, or heaven forbid, the law because employment standards and common law are our friends, but you are welcome to challenge the way you deliver the message when you deliver the message and whom you deliver it with. You are, after all, changing someone’s life drastically.

There are many types of terminations for a variety of reasons. I was once told that people fire themselves, and that can sometimes be true. If someone steals, breaks the law or policy, commits harassment or a violent act, termination with cause is justified and tends to be an easier conversation to have, assuming the employee does not lash out.

Terminations without cause however are a different breed. These are tricky as you are unable to provide a reason for termination, and it is meant to be short and to the point, but these are conversations that catch people off guard, as most of the time they are not expecting it.

So, how can you become a good cop?

When should you have the conversation:

This is a personal preference or one that your organization may have rules about such as, never letting someone go on a Friday. After speaking with a colleague who is an employment lawyer, there is no “right or wrong” time, but try to put yourself in the employees’ shoes. Would you want to be let go the day before a weekend? Would you want to be let go after you have worked a full eight-hour day? Not likely.

I recommend that the conversation should always occur in the morning, first thing before other staff arrive at the office. This creates zero visibility into an already embarrassing situation, and then you can allow that employee the opportunity to come back, after hours, to clean out their desk. I would also recommend that the conversation occurs near the beginning of the week.

How should you have the conversation…this depends on your role in the organization;

Human Resources:

Your role is to be present in the conversation and support the employee that is being let go. You should have already done your work coaching the manager on what to say, what not to say, how to deliver the message and how to handle typical questions. Often HR is asked to lead the conversation, which I do not believe is your role, unless an unforeseen circumstance occurs and management is unable to attend. You are also there with your expertise should the conversation go off the rails and you interject.

Be supportive, be kind, and ensure the employee gets the support that they deserve. Whether they are a casualty of restructuring, downsizing or the organization is going in a different direction, they still deserve empathy.


Your role is to deliver the message. You are changing this employee’s life, drastically in the short term, and even though tomorrow is a new day at your organization, the employee will be telling their story of termination for years to come. YOU will be the star of that story and have the ability to affect the plot.

It is important to stick to the key messages and deliver the facts of the situation, but you can do so in a kind gentle manner that allows the employee time to breathe and soak it in. It will not take you any longer but how you deliver the message can have a lasting impact on the organization’s reputation, brand awareness current and possibly future employees.

Who should be in on the conversation:

This depends on your company’s policies and past practices. Leading the conversation should always be the direct reporting manager or acting should that individual not be available. I would also recommend that human resources is in the room for support but then leave it at that. This is not the time for a panel viewing or mass audience, this is a personal and private conversation and needs to be kept that way after it has concluded. Make sure leaders in attendance understand their role of confidentiality.

Should human resources be unavailable for one reason or another, then a more senior manager in the same reporting structure should sit in.

Now sometimes, given the situation, you cannot always pick and choose the where, when and how of termination, but when given a choice, you can make a plan and create the best outcome from a difficult situation.

So the next time you find yourself letting someone go, will you be the good cop?