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How to Fire Someone Compassionately

Jada A. Graves

You've probably heard the tale of Tim Armstrong and the Conference Call That Went Awry.

Just in case you haven't: On Aug. 9, AOL's CEO and Chairman Tim Armstrong scheduled a meeting with numerous on-site employees as well as up to a thousand remote workers who called in, where he explained the necessity for a spurt of layoffs within Patch, a hyperlocal news division of AOL. About two minutes into the conference call, Armstrong interrupted his own meeting to abruptly and publicly fire Patch's creative director Abel Lenz. According to news reports, the firing took place allegedly because Lenz was taking pictures - something he frequently did during conference calls in order to post the images on the company intraweb - and Armstrong was concerned about company leaks. Audio of the public ousting quickly went viral, as did bad publicity for Armstrong, who has since apologized for the incident to his staff in an internal memo (Lenz, however, remains fired).

Most people aren't terminated in such a spectacle, but there is a moral to the tale: Whether you're a manager or an employee, the dumper or the dumpee, firing is never fun. It is possible, however, to give someone the bad news while still keeping your humanity and upholding your employee's dignity. Robert Sutton, a Stanford University professor and author of "Good Boss, Bad Boss" offers four guidelines in his book for how to handle letting someone go:

"The first thing you want to do is give them as much predictability as possible. Firing someone without warning and on the spot sometimes happens, but good bosses are quicker to give people warning," he says. "Second, give them as much understanding as possible. There are studies that show that people who are told why it's necessary [to let them go] are less stressed about it. The third isn't immediately obvious, but give them as much control as possible for the way things will unfold. And the last one is to have compassion."

[See: 25 Career Mistakes to Banish for 2013.]

With that in mind, consider these pointers on what to do and what to avoid when you have to let go of staff.

DON'T fire someone on a Friday. Waiting until the dregs of the workweek might seem less awkward, but doing so actually gives the fired person Saturday and Sunday to feel miserable and simmer in a 48-hour holding pattern until most offices and network contacts start their next workweek. "If you fire them on Friday at 4 p.m., they're going to stew, and get angry and they don't have resources available to them," says Laurie Ruettimann, a human resources consultant. "That's HR 101."

DO the deed on a Tuesday. Or a Monday even - the sooner in the week the better, because then the terminated employee has a better launchpad for planning his or her next steps. "It gives them the opportunity to tap into their network and begin a job hunt, or even to decide if they want to take some legal action. Firing someone as early in the week as possible so that they can get in touch with resources that are available since they're working," Ruettimann says.

DON'T tell remaining staff by scheduling a meeting after the fact. Formally scheduling time to convene and discuss someone's termination might lead to unwanted questions about what happened, plus it's just a little morbid. "There is no good way to deliver bad news, but a swift discussion [with staff] the next morning is fine." Ruettimann says. "You don't want to make it seem overly newsworthy." You could also go around to employees individually to quickly explain that their colleague is no longer with the company, but that's all you're able to share.

DO tell some staff on a need-to-know basis before the fact. There are a handful of colleagues whom you should clue in beforehand: your direct supervisor (he or she likely has to approve the termination), human resources personnel and even the office manager, if there is one. Depending on your office culture and its level of security, you might also need to inform the information technology department.

[Read: 5 Secrets You Should Know About HR.]

DON'T wing it. Consult with HR and perhaps also with your company's lawyer to script what you may say and what you absolutely shouldn't. For some states and occupations there are disclosure requirements that determine what's appropriate to reveal to the employee about the reason behind the firing, and ad-libbing on your own could open up the possibility for lawsuits, plus it leads to miscommunication. Remember, "they probably will only hear three of the 10 words you say - 'You are fired,'" Ruettimann says.

DO put it in writing. If you've ever been fired or laid off, you probably had a flurry of questions you didn't know to ask until later. That's why Ruettimann advises giving your employee something he or she may read and refer to later. "It's important that whatever you communicate verbally should also be communicated in writing," she says. "Whether it's a folder or even something just as simple as a letter communicating their firing."

DON'T perp walk them out of the building. If you can spare your colleague the embarrassment of collecting his or her belongings while the entire office looks on, followed by needing an escort out of the building, then do it. This type of treatment breeds resentment in the fired person and affects the remaining staff by inspiring gossip and clogging productivity.

DO offer some dignity and privacy, if possible. "Try firing them at the end of the day once some employees have left, or you could also let someone go at lunchtime," Ruettimann says.

If your office's security policies allow it, Ruettimann suggests you "Advise them to take a long lunch break and come back at a designated time to pack up their belongings. If you prepare ahead of time, you can arrange to have their email closely monitored during that down time, and you can have their security access shut off."

[Read: Are You Going to Be Fired? Watch Out For These 5 Signs.]

DON'T go into hiding. Leave your calendar as open as possible on the day, particularly if the termination is for budgetary reasons, not misconduct or unsatisfactory performance. It's neither mature nor professional to avoid the person in the awkward aftermath. Ben Horowitz, co-founder of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, writes on his blog: "Be present. Be visible. Be engaging. People want to see you. They want to see whether or not you care." According to Sutton, "Everyone feels better about it, plus you may find that you want to hire them again or hire their friends in the future."

DO offer help. You don't have to be a professional reference if you don't feel you should - you did just fire this person, after all - but maybe you could pass along a job lead for something he or she is better suited to do. Or you could send information on networking opportunities and events. Sutton recalls advice from Michael Dearing, founder of Harrison Metal, a firm that invests in technology companies, and the former senior vice president and general merchandise manager of eBay: "'There's a difference in what you do and how you do it.'"

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