The best way to handle an involuntary goodbye at work.
Q: I have to fire my VP of sales. People love him but I need better results. Should I throw a goodbye party, or is that too painful and awkward?
A: There are few things more uncomfortable than the farewell party for someone who folks know—or suspect—isn’t leaving of their own volition. There’s the tepid, subtext-y toast (“Sandra worked here for a while and did some things”), the minefield of questions you can’t ask, and the do-they-know-or-not avoidance of eye contact with other attendees.
But letting a colleague slink out the back door without marking the transition is also awkward. It outs them as leaving involuntarily to those who may not know (which feels disrespectful), and elicits an icky feeling in other staff who wonder if they too will someday suffer the same humiliation.
So basically, you’re choosing between two awkward and uncomfortable options (sorry). Here are two questions to consider as you make your choice:
What does the person leaving want? You just fired them. The kind, respectful, and decent thing to do is ask them what they want. Some may have no greater desire than to crawl under a rock and never see you again. Let them. And then write the kindest announcement email that you can, saying that they didn’t want a fuss, but that you know they’d appreciate personal farewells. If they would like to mark this occasion, your job is to throw yourself enthusiastically into the job. Come up with all the nice (yet also true) things you can say in their farewell toast: funny stories, how you started working together, successes they did have. If you can’t come up with anything, delegate the task to others closer to them who can. But make sure that the experience is infused with courtesy and kindness.
What would be best for the team? Showing that you will treat people with respect—in good times and in bad—is foundational to trust and psychological safety. When your team trusts you, they will be more likely to raise important issues, bring up challenges, and contribute new ideas. This is a great opportunity to show that your team doesn’t need to fear humiliation or ridicule from you, even in the worst-of-all-cases scenario that you fire them. It’s also a chance to model for your younger employees that sometimes work relationships—just like personal relationships—don’t work out and that’s OK. Most of them will leave a role involuntarily at some point in their career; you can give them a healthier frame than “I am a failure and must now hide myself away in shame.”
Sometimes, though, a farewell party could do damage. If everyone knows the person is leaving for bad behavior (fraud, sexual or racial harassment, abusive behavior), nix the party; that’s nothing to celebrate. If you (or they) will be unable to get through the event without snide and bitter comments, or if you really can’t think of anything both nice and true to say, stick with an email; credibility is also a core component of trust.
My last comment is about equity. These let’s-call-it-‘retirement’ or congrats-on-unnamed-opportunity parties are often reserved for more senior folks. Front-line and junior staff are submitted to degrading “Mathias’ last day is today” emails. But your front-line staff deserve the same caring and respectful treatment as your VPs if you want to reap the full benefits of trust and psychological safety. So consider setting a standard process for how to treat departures regardless of title—you’ll only benefit.
Good luck with that toast.