The Stress of Severance: Why Managers Dread Having to Fire Employees

on (updated 4 months ago)
| 5 min read

Summary: Firing employees can be emotionally challenging for managers due to empathy for the employee, fear of emotional reactions, stress of confrontation, perception of failure, and legal risks. Creating a clear performance management culture, preparing thoroughly, showing empathy and respect, owning responsibility, and focusing on the future can help reduce severance stress. Managers can also alleviate stress by clarifying values, remembering their purpose, planning thoroughly, leaning on resource…

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Firing an employee is one of a manager’s most stressful and dreaded responsibilities. It’s an emotional decision that can make managers anxious, guilty, and overwhelmed. In this blog post, we’ll see several reasons why terminating an employee can be challenging for managers. We’ll look at the current realities managers face when needing to let someone go, envision how the process could be improved, and discuss practical strategies to make severance less stressful for managers and employees.

Why Firing Someone Is So Hard

There are many reasons why firing an employee fills managers with dread. Here are some of the main factors that contribute to the pain of severance: Empathy for the Employee Managers often know their employees personally and may have even hired them. Having to end someone’s livelihood abruptly can feel cruel, even when warranted. Managers understand how devastating job loss can be for employees, their families, finances, and self-esteem. The empathy managers feel it makes severance emotionally tricky.

Fear of Emotional Reactions

Terminations frequently involve tears, anger, and sometimes desperation from the employee being let go. These emotional reactions are uncomfortable and difficult for managers to navigate. Scenes or outbursts can shake managers’ confidence and composure during dismissal.

Stress of Confrontation

Many managers dislike confrontational situations. Having to criticize an employee’s poor performance or misconduct directly creates an adversarial dynamic between manager and employee, raising stress levels for both parties during the termination conversation.

Perception of Failure

When an employee under a manager’s supervision needs to be terminated, it can feel like a personal failure. Managers may wonder if they could have done more to improve the employee’s performance through closer mentoring and support. Managers may worry they’ll be blamed for not dealing with issues sooner.

Legal Risks

Navigating employment laws adds another layer of anxiety around terminations. If proper protocols aren’t strictly followed, wrongful termination lawsuits could result. HR should always guide the process, but ultimately, the manager has to execute the termination properly to minimize legal risks.

A Better Path Forward

While firings will always hold some inherent discomfort, there are ways companies and managers can improve the termination process to make it less painful for both parties. Here are some best practices that can create a smoother severance journey:

Clear Performance Management Culture

When performance issues are addressed early with clear feedback, documented action plans, and reasonable timelines for improvement, firings become a rare last resort rather than a surprise. Ongoing performance conversations make terminations feel equitable and evidence-based rather than arbitrary.


Managers should never fire someone on a whim or without guidance. Working with HR to understand company protocols, plan what will be said, anticipate responses, and practice delivery reduces stress. Securing locations with privacy, planning security presence if needed, and having human resources demonstrate care for all involved.

Empathy and Respect

During the termination meeting, managers should speak frankly and convey empathy, humanity and respect. Validating emotions like shock, anger, or hurt shows compassion. Explaining severance packages and offering to provide references demonstrate regard for the employee’s transition.

Own Responsibility

Rather than blame the employee, managers should be responsible for the termination. Expressing regret and acknowledging any failures as a manager provides closure. Reflecting on learning improves future leadership.

Future Focus

Dwelling on the negative rarely benefits either party. Affirm strengths, express hope for the employee’s future, and share positive regard. It uplifts the employee and manager.

Strategies to Reduce Severance Stress

While the support of HR and company protocols are indispensable, there are strategies managers themselves can adopt to alleviate stress when terminations are unavoidable:

Clarify values: Reflect on your management values like empathy, integrity, responsibility, and compassion. Anchoring the termination in your values provides moral courage.

Remember purpose: Focus on the greater good—protecting team morale, upholding standards, and freeing up opportunities and resources for those who meet expectations.

Plan thoroughly: Minimize surprises and ambiguity by methodically planning every detail, from timing and messaging to seating arrangements. Visualize how the discussion could unfold.

Lean on resources: Seek guidance from HR, mentors and other managers who have experience letting employees go. You don’t have to navigate this alone.

Be fully present: When the time comes, clear your schedule so you can be fully available to the employee without distraction. Being present demonstrates respect.

Project confidence: While showing empathy, also project confidence in your voice, demeanour and body language; this reassures the employee you are in control of the process.

Control the narrative: Share the business reasons necessitating termination to avoid false assumptions. Prevent rumors by briefing team members appropriately.

Learn and reflect: After it’s done, look for lessons, be kind to yourself if warranted, and focus on leading your team forward. Severance is part of management.

Wrapping It Up

Firing employees will likely always be one of the most complex parts of being a manager. However, creating cultures of clear performance expectations, following protocols, demonstrating humanity and care for the employee’s transition, and learning from the experience can help managers navigate terminations with less stress and dread. While a challenging leadership responsibility, severance executed with empathy, integrity and purpose enables managers and employees to move forward. Managed well, these difficult transitions can elevate leadership skills and strengthen organizational culture.

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