How to Answer, "How Would You Fire Someone?"

Firing an employee has got to be one of the most difficult tasks a manager can face. However, it’s also one of the most important. If you’re looking for a management position, your interviewer is going to want to know if you’ve got what it takes: Will you fire an employee if it’s necessary, or will you ignore the problem? And, will you do it in a way that protects both the company and the rights and privacy of the employee being fired? With that in mind, your answer needs to convey your understanding of several keep components of terminations:

Do your due diligence as a manager.

Except for the few cases when immediate termination is clearly appropriate – stealing, assaulting another employee, etc. – getting fired should never come as a shock. Your job as a manager is to develop the people who report to you. Firing someone for cause when you’ve never had a single counseling session with that person means that you’re not doing your job.

Follow procedure.

Some companies have very specific steps you must go through before firing an employee, steps that are usually designed to prevent wrongful termination lawsuits. Leaving out even one of the steps could force HR to overturn the termination, which would create a really uncomfortable situation.

One important step of most termination policies is documentation. Every step of the way, document what you’ve done to try to avoid having to fire the employee.

Have your facts in order.

Think of the questions you’d have if you were being fired, and make sure you have the answers ready:

  • Is the termination effective immediately?
  • What should the employee do with active projects?
  • Will there be any severance pay?
  • What will happen with the employee’s health insurance?
  • If it’s in the middle of a pay period, how and when will the employee get paid?

Be respectful.

How you fire someone can make all the difference in the world. Here are some tips on how you can protect the employee’s dignity and privacy.

  • Have the conversation behind closed doors. An open cube farm is not an appropriate place to fire someone. Neither is a conference room that allows everyone outside to see what’s going on.
  • Break the news. If you’ve done your job, your employee probably knows it’s coming. Don’t drag things out by saying everything but, “You’ve been fired.”
  • Give your reasons. Remind the employee about any previous counseling sessions, warnings, poor performance reviews, etc. Again, if you’ve done your job, there should be no surprises here.
  • Let your employee talk, but don’t get dragged into a negotiation. You certainly want to let your employee express his feelings, but make it clear that the decision is final.
  • Explain all of the logistics, and ask the employee if he has any questions. If he asks a question you can’t answer, try to find the answer on the spot.
  • Unless company policy dictates that the employee be escorted off the premises immediately – or you’re worried there may be a security risk – give the fired employee some time to pull himself together. Offer to gather his personal items if he’s not ready to face his former co-workers yet.
  • If you do need to escort the employee from the premises immediately, assure him that you’ll make sure he gets his personal items back right away.

So what does all of that look like?

How do you put those components of a “good” firing together into an answer that will impress a recruiter? Here’s one example:

“First, I’d try to see if there’s anything I could do to prevent having to fire the employee…things like performance counseling or retraining. I’d also document anything I tried so that we’d have a solid record. At the same time, I’d refresh my memory on company policies regarding terminations, just to make sure I’m following the correct steps.”

“I’d also try think of any questions the employee might have, so that I could have the answers ready.”

“I’d get a private room, preferably one without windows or a glass door that would let other employees watch. Then I’d get right to the point; I think it’s harder on the employee when they know it’s coming but you just drag it out. Then I’d explain the reasons for the termination, and remind the employee of the steps we’d taken to avoid it.”

“Even an employee who expects to be fired is likely to have an emotional reaction, and I’d let him express those feelings. However, I think it’s important to not give the impression that the decision can be changed. It’s not fair to give the employee the impression that you may change your mind, so you have to let him vent while making it clear that the termination is final."

"After he’s had time to vent, I’d ask how he wants to handle things. Sometimes, of course, you have to escort a fired employee from the premises immediately. But if that weren’t the case, I’d find out whether he wants to go back to his desk and say goodbye to his co-workers, or if he’d rather just leave and have me send his personal belongings.”

Your interviewer knows that no one enjoys firing an employee (and he probably wouldn’t want to hire an applicant that did enjoy it.) So you don’t have to pretend that you wouldn’t hate firing someone, but you do want to demonstrate that you won’t shy away from firing if it’s necessary, and that you can do it in a way the protects the rights of everyone involved.


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