Handling Tough Conversations at Work

February 20, 2020

A Soundview Live Webinar attendee submitted a question for recent presenter Anese Cavanaugh, asking:

How do I tell a 25-year employee that he is going to be terminated?

Here is Anese’s written response, which she has allowed us to share:

First, my heart goes out to both of you, that is a tough conversation to have, however handled with clear intentions, energy, and presence, you’ll have a better chance of creating a positive and productive experience for both…

Okay… offered here as food for thought to integrate into your process as it resonates and feels congruent for you…. 

First, #1, Your Intentions, Energy, Presence (IEP), and regard for this human are going to be the most important thing in that convo. This is a presence thing –– you can have the best “convo and process” ever but if your IEP is not clean and in service of, it will be harder to have the best outcome. 

So… beforehand, consider: 

What are your intentions for this person? How are you regarding them? 

What energy are you bringing to that conversation? 

Are you present to how this will impact them? How?

Are you present to how you’re showing up? How?

If you can answer those clean, now you can move into the 5 steps to intentional impact for the conversation…those 5 steps are better thought through really personally for yourself and since you’re asking, here’s where I’d be looking:  

1) What outcomes do you want from this convo? i.e. They know they’re terminated, they know why, and we have clear next steps. 

2) What emotional impact do you want to have on them? On you? i.e. they feel seen, cared for, dignified, and valued. And you feel present, caring, and tuned in (this is personal for you, think this one through, these are just my top thoughts of what I’d want) 

3) How will you have to show up to create this impact and outcomes? i.e. present, clear, in service of, not rushed, caring 

4) What will you have to believe to show up that way? i.e. that they’re a valuable human, they have feelings, they’ll do better elsewhere, this termination is in the best means for all, you’ve done EVERYTHING you can to avoid termination (given feedback, etc.), you want to help them, etc. Whatever is true –– lean into those beliefs to serve best. 

5) What actions will you have to take now? i.e. Prep for convo, be clear in communication, identify next steps, ask what help do they need and make an action plan, document, etc. 

Those are the 5 steps to intentional impact and how I’d be working through a convo like that. 

As always, work with your HR and compliance departments to ensure the conversation is within bounds of corporate and state HR guidelines. You know your situation best and also your company and state hiring and firing guidelines, so use those to support your process. 

Finally, I suggest you get a copy of Contagious You to support you further in this query. Not only for your own presence and leadership health, but also for the feedback conversation and really considering steps as you work your way into this convo. In addition, Contagious Culture has a chapter on “hiring and firing for the energetic good of all” –– take a look, I discuss this at length there too. Finally, I wrote an article in HBR a few years ago about firing someone so they still have their dignity –– it’s on our articles and podcasts page on anesecavanaugh.com (while there, subscribe and you’ll get private articles I only release to our community which may support you further).

I hope this is useful to you. Remember, you know best –– the trick is to work your IEP and be present to the situation and serving this person who’s been with you for 25 years. 

Good luck. 



Anese Cavanaugh is an entrepreneur, an author, the creator of the IEP Method® (Intentional Energetic Presence®), a leadership and collaboration advisor, an impact strategist, and a thinking partner for business leaders in many different industries. She is also a bestselling author – her most recent books are Contagious Culture and Contagious You.