Special Note to Readers of this Post:

This was originally published in 2017, as an excerpt from the anthology, Humans At Work

So much is different right now and the kinds of conversations we must have with our teams are heart-breaking. 

This was written for terminating people for performance issues.  Much of it still applies to lay-offs. 

What I can offer  to you right now is an encouragement to stay in your heart, have the tough conversation from a place of loving leadership, feel your emotions and have empathy for those on the receiving end.  Simple words, little explanation (what can you explain anyway?), and in a space of complete compassion. 

We will get through this and on the other side will be a new normal.  How you show up today for yourselves and your teams will prepare you for how you will show up better and in full leadership on the other side. 

Reach out if I can help you.  -MP


Outside of public speaking, there is little that strikes fear into the hearts of managers more than having to terminate someone. Emotions, opinions, and judgments collide with a sincere desire to protect the company from adverse actions. Add to this any  disappointment that the relationship and work product have soured—and finally, heap on looking someone in the eye and saying, “Yes, I am firing you.”

You now have the perfect recipe for human disaster.

And that is why it is generally done poorly. We don’t know exactly what to say, how to protect the company, and in the middle of all of it are those messy human emotions.

But terminations don’t have to be this way. Terminations can be compassionate and dignified, and they can promote good will and self-esteem. They just need to be done a bit differently than you might imagine.

With some attention to emotional intelligence (EQ) and leadership, you have all the skills in your toolkit to create positive communication even in such trying circumstances. .

Why are terminations so difficult to do well?

People don’t want to cause friction. We are not wired to want to hurt people—and in fact, we are usually wired to want people to like us.

From a communication perspective, very few of us listen with the type of attention that might be required during a termination. We move swiftly toward expressing our point and then quickly move on.

Another reason terminations are so difficult to do well is just pure and unadulterated fear. What if I say the wrong thing and we get sued? What if the person has a strong reaction? What if they go postal on me? What if I’m just wrong? What if they cry? What if they spread rumors about me or the company?

What is a Compassionate Termination?

The compassionate termination is a respectful ending conversation between two individuals that discusses behavioral facts while honoring emotion.

Ten Principles of Compassionate Termination

Obstacles and opportunities are first created in the mind. Therefore, these ten principles address both mindset and mindful action. The first and overarching basic principle is that we are human beings doing the best we can with the information and situation at hand. When we know more and practice more, we do better. Consider the following principles as guidelines for more than just termination—indeed, they are guidelines for any emotionally-based conversation.

1. Be Present

How you show up will set the tone for the conversation. Become aware of, and clear up, any strong emotions you might have. You cannot predict the future, and the past is already complete. Show up now.

2. Check Assumptions and Judgment

You are human, so you have them. Being aware of them and neutralizing them allows you to be fair and in control of your own emotional response. The person you are terminating will feel this and his emotions will likely stabilize.

3. The Golden Rule

Simply put, treat people as you would like to be treated. If the shoe were on the other foot, what type of conversation would you want to have? How would you prefer to exit? What emotions might you be feeling that would need honoring?

4. Hold a Safe Place for Strong Reactions

Those who are being terminated will likely experience strong emotions, reactions, and defenses. Your job is to create a safe space for emotional expression – after all, you’ve already done your emotional work around this.

5. Don’t Play the Blame Game

The blame game never works. Your employee is likely to point fingers back at other colleagues, the company, or you. Stay in a neutral place. Redirect the conversation back to supporting him and looking toward the future.

6. Support the Terminated Employee’s Future

Speaking of futures, all compassionate terminations bear in mind that the person being terminated still has one. When the blame has subsided and the bargaining has completed, the person needs to leave the conversation with some hope for their future. In any way that you can, find something to appreciate about the person and offer hope for the next outcome. There is nothing more devastating than beginning a job search with shattered self-confidence.

7. Do What You Say You’re Going to Do

Think out and clearly communicate what you or the company is prepared to do for the individual. Write it out so that the communication is crystal-clear and then do it. Trust can be built and protected on the way out, too.

8. Balancing Act – Protect the Company, Honor the Individual

Be careful of over-offering information or opinions, but balance that protection of the company with appropriate appreciation for the human being.

9. Have You Done Your Job?

Is the employee surprised? Truly surprised? If so, then you have not done your job.

10. Don’t Act Abruptly; Don’t Wait Too Long

Timing is everything. If you wait too long, the conversation may become harsher. Additionally, your employee may have been feeling unsuccessful for too long already. But conversely, if you jump on an issue too soon, it’s perceived as micromanagement. Do your investigation, conduct your coaching and course-correcting, and keep open and honest communication. You will know when it’s time.

Some Final Thoughts

How many times have you heard a friend or family member express that their termination was, in hindsight, one of the best things that had happened to them?  Your compassion might help someone see that this really is the best decision, as painful as it feels in this moment.

Your thoughtful leadership will set the pace for thoughtful human interaction at every phase of the employee life cycle. But this is never more needed than at the end of someone’s employment. Your EQ will pay off in great dividends.

At the very core of Emotional Intelligence is the ability to understand that both employee and employer have feelings, and can manage those feelings. Leveraging a whole lot of EQ to customize an appropriate communication, rooted in dignity and respect, that discusses performance and outcomes rather than personality—that’s the winning ticket.

Nothing lasts forever – nothing. Learning to let go—and support others to do the same—lies at the heart of compassionate terminations.

Stay Inspired!




Mary Pat Knight, CEO of Leaders Inspired, is a Transformation Strategist, Speaker, Facilitator, and Coach committed to leadership and emotional intelligence in the workplace. She is known for cutting through corporate drama to create laser focus for powerful business and personal results for her clients. 

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