How The Best Leaders Let Someone Go Gracefully

How The Best Leaders Let Someone Go Gracefully

John Eades 15/02/2024
How The Best Leaders Let Someone Go Gracefully

Letting someone go is one of the most challenging actions for any leader.

Outside of an egregious reason that requires an immediate dismissal, letting someone go is often a defining moment of failure.

Rarely do people fail alone. It's often a combination of a lack of skill, passion, work ethic, leadership, and coaching.

While exceptions exist to every rule, involuntary turnover is a judgment of a team member's performance and a manager's leadership.

Involuntary turnover is a judgment of a team member's performance and a manager's leadership.

However, after studying thousands of organizational leaders over the last 15 years, it's clear that the best leaders are great at hiring the right people and removing the wrong people.

The best leaders hire the right people and remove the wrong people.

Involuntary Turnover Stirs up Emotion

When someone gets fired, it's a gut-wrenching feeling on one or both sides of the equation.

The team member who is involuntarily terminated typically experiences a blizzard of emotion: anger, frustration, embarrassment, shame, worthlessness, confusion, and or relief.

Conversely, the leader having to deliver the news also copes with a series of emotions: disappointment, sympathy, regret, guilt, sadness, and anxiety. The most effective leaders feel sad because it's a feeling of personal failure, as if they are giving up on someone they want to succeed.

If those weren't enough, firing people can also have emotional effects on the rest of the team. It most often creates feelings of insecurity and concern about the future of their position or the company as a whole.

How to Gracefully Let Someone Go

It will always be easier as a manager to allow someone else to do your dirty work. However, when it comes to letting someone go gracefully, no one should fire your team member except you. Allowing or even encouraging someone else to do it for you shows a lack of courage and accountability.

Allowing someone else to fire an employee on your team shows a lack of courage and accountability.

That's not to say you shouldn't or can't have an HR person involved. It's wise to dot your i's and cross your t's regarding termination. So, if you are making the courageous decision to let someone gracefully go, here are some best practices to help you:


1. Start With the Truth

Begin the conversation with what is happening. It will be tempting to tell them why you enjoyed working with them or all the things they did correctly but reject this instinct. Start with the truth about why you are having the conversation in the first place.

It might sound like this: "I wish I were coming to you with better news, but you are being let go."

2. Provide an Explanation

Irrespective of the length of tenure, every professional deserves the human decency of an explanation for the decision to terminate. Have a plan that details specific reasons for the decision and what you did to avoid this outcome. If it's a performance-related reason, be candid about the effort or lack of skill development that resulted in the outcomes. This will help guide a discussion about future roles or places they need to focus to be successful in the future.

It might sound like this: "Due to a restructuring in the company, your position is no longer required." or "We have worked hard in our one-on-ones to enhance your performance. However, due to a lack of improvement over the last three quarters, I have decided to go in a different direction in your role."

3. Demonstrate Empathy

The secret ingredient in gracefully letting someone go is empathy. Now, before you shake empathy off as a weak skill, let's clarify what it is in the context of leadership. I define it as "How well you identify with others to understand their feelings and perceptions in order to guide your actions."

Empathy might sound like this: "I have always cared more about people than performance, so I know this isn't easy. If there is anything I can do to assist you in finding your next opportunity, do not hesitate to use me as a reference. I don't know what the future holds for you or me, but I know pain and disappointment can fuel us to higher levels of purpose and success. I hope that this move will eventually do that for you."

4. Define HR's Next Steps

The logistics of termination are essential, so be sure to have a plan with HR-related items to close the loop on the next steps and action plans.

This will be different in every organization, but it might sound like this: "The next step is someone from HR will contact you with details of returning equipment and to sign the employment separation agreement. By signing it this week, you will receive pay until the end of the month. Do you have any questions? If not, best of luck in your future endeavors."


One of your hardest and darkest moments will be terminating a team member. Regardless of the reason, it should never get easier, but you should get better at it.

Remember the person on the other end of the conversation. That could be you, or it might be you in the future. Demonstrate empathy and show some grace for the gravity of the situation.

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John Eades

Leadership Expert

John is the CEO of LearnLoft, author of, F.M.L. Standing Out & Being a Leader and host of the 'Follow My Lead' Podcast. He writes or has been featured on, LinkedIn Pulse,,, CNBC Money, and more. John completed his education at the University of Maryland College. 

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