Rebecca Johnson: Smart Parting

Management advice from Rebecca Johnson

It’s never easy to release an employee. Here are a few ways to soften the blow.

This article originally appeared in the November 2015 edition of INVISION.

In 1978, Kenny Rogers shared these wise words with us in his hit song, The Gambler:

“You got to know when to hold ’em,
know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away
and know when to run.”

Hiring a new employee is a gamble. No matter how nicely written the resume, or how glowing the references, you are rolling the dice. So what do you do when you realize that the employee is not a match for the job? While the decision to let an employee go should be a last-resort measure, many managers wait far too long.

Letting go is obviously toughest when employees have been with you for a long time. Veteran employees should have a chance to work through performance issues, with guidance from the management team. But if an employee shows poor work habits, has unsatisfactory skill levels, or displays attitude problems during the first 90 days on the job, keeping him around makes as much sense as putting sour milk back into the refrigerator with hopes that it will taste better the next time you take it out.

Whether with a new hire or a veteran, once you have taken the preliminary steps, considered all potential legal ramifications, and have finally made the difficult decision to discharge the employee, don’t torture yourself and the employee by prolonging the inevitable.

Strive to let the person go with his dignity intact. Termination should rarely come as a surprise. Telling someone you’re letting him go should not be the first time that the employee has been made aware his work or behavior is unsatisfactory.

Legally, it’s crucial that the employee has previously received a written notice that his termination is a possibility. And because many employees who are terminated legitimately fear what people will say behind their back, it’s a good policy to reassure workers that, except for the management team involved in the termination (or others on a need-to-know basis), the issue will not be discussed with other employees. Keep your word to the employee on this, and your remaining employees will have greater respect for your leadership.

While providing the employee with a letter of recommendation seems like the right thing to do (and may make you feel better), be aware that this letter can be used against you if it contradicts the reasons for termination.

Timing is important. Firing an employee on Friday does not allow the employee the opportunity to immediately begin searching for another job. Early in the week and early in the day are the most logical times to have this tough talk with an employee. And despite what I wrote earlier about not prolonging the inevitable, you don’t want to deliver a pink slip just before Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Any time you’ve had to let someone go, think about what happened and what you might do differently in the future. Look for trends in hiring and training. Do a retention study: List everyone who has left your employment in the past five years, whether by his own accord or not. (Remember: Sometimes you’re not the one ending the relationship.) Note the reasons that the employee is no longer with you and determine how you can improve employee retention.

No one enjoys the task of terminating an employee. But knowing “when to hold and when to fold” can increase productivity, boost profits and improve office morale.

REBECCA JOHNSON is a 30-year veteran in the eyecare business. She is the executive director of Business Consultative Services for GPN and owner of EyeTrain4You, an ophthalmic staff training and development company. Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..