Editors’ note: 

Letting someone go because your business has been crippled by COVID-19 is not the same as letting someone go for incompetence. But we find the steps outlined in this article to be helpful for both scenarios.

I lead a small team at my company. I recently had to terminate someone for incompetence, and I had the hardest time figuring out what to say. Despite the fact that this person had been coached and equipped and still fell short of our standard, I felt terrible to be the bearer of such bad news, and guilty for sending them off without a source of income. I don’t think I handled the conversation in the best way. How can I think in a biblical way about firing people? And how can I do it in a way that speaks the truth in love?

As Shakespeare wrote in King Henry the Fourth, “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Leadership is stewardship of people, and stewardship of people—souls with an eternal destiny—is hard. I have been there. I know how it feels to have your stomach turn at the thought of the conversation. I know the tension in the air as the person takes their seat across from you. Letting someone go is no trivial matter.

Now, you said something important in the phrasing of your question. This person had been coached and equipped, but yet they fell short. It sounds to me like you and your organization put this person in a position to succeed, and yet they clearly couldn’t perform to the standards.

In a situation like this, if you are a leader, you have to decide whether you will sacrifice the one for the many or the many for the one. What I mean is this: allowing an underperforming person to continue to flounder in your organization will affect the organization at large, and thus will affect many people. In my business experience, I’ve seen one person tank a year’s financial results due to poor performance. Allowing one person to negatively affect many people is not kind; it’s bad leadership.

Maybe this sounds cold and clinical, but the concept is actually quite humane. If you care about people, you will care about the organization that employs them. You are a steward of the people you lead, and thus you must choose to do the hard things when it’s the right thing.

Mixed Motives for Dreading Firing Someone

There are many reasons firing someone is hard, and they aren’t always good reasons. In my experience letting people go, I struggled because:

  1. I feared what would happen to the person once let go.
  2. I was nervous and scared to have the conversation.
  3. I worried that firing someone might make their team upset at me.
  4. I didn’t want the drama associated with firing them.
  5. I didn’t want the person to hate me.

Note the mixed motives here. While we might tell ourselves we don’t want to fire someone because we love them, we also don’t want to fire people because we love our image. I have certainly struggled with this.

What Does the Gospel Have to Do with Firing Someone?

First, because of the work of Jesus on the cross, we can rest secure in our identities. Jesus paid our debt so we can become children of God (John 1:12). With our identities secure in him because of his adoption of us, we have no reason to fear reputation damage so long as we’re acting in a God-honoring way. Our reputation is secure in Christ, and that is what truly matters. If you face repercussions in the office due to having to fire someone, you can rest in God’s approval.

Second, we must act with great compassion, especially when firing someone. Christians should count other people more significant than themselves (Phil. 2:3), and thus it’s crucial that we seek to preserve the other person’s dignity and show them great respect. It does not matter how they react. Some people storm out in anger; others cry; others simply nod and shake your hand. In all cases we must show perfect courtesy (Titus 3:2) and honor them by refraining from speaking ill of them or making light of this serious situation.

This gospel truth will help you sleep at night: God is the provider, not you.

Third, and this gospel truth will help you sleep at night: God is the provider, not you. Who causes the rain? God. Who has, in infinite wisdom, allowed your organization to exist and prosper? God. Who has put the food on the table and the clothes on the back of the person you’re firing? God. And he’s not a zero-sum God; he doesn’t depend on you to care for people. You can trust that he knows better than you do, and that his plan is far more comprehensive and wonderful than you can fathom for the person you’re firing. So you can let them go knowing you aren’t shoving them off a cliff—you’re letting them go from this organization and into hands of sovereign love.

Some Practical Counsel

This might sound ridiculous, but you can actually glorify God in how you let someone go. If, because of the great compassion you’ve experienced in Christ, you handle yourself with kindness, humility, and love, even the person you’re firing will see Christ in you. They may hate you afterward, but you cannot control that—you can only control how you honor the Lord by honoring the person you’re firing.

In my experience, three things help to show love when you’re showing someone the door.

  1. Pray for them in private. Pray for them before your meeting. Ask God to care for them and show them a new path to another job. Pray they would learn what God wants to teach them. Pray after you let them go as well, and petition for God’s kindness toward them. Prayer is powerful.
  2. Be clear. Jesus said, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no” (Matt. 5:37). He was referring to not making oaths, but there’s a corollary implication: speak clearly and with integrity. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Don’t bloviate with adverbs and flowery praise. This is the time to look someone in the eye with the kindness of Christ and tell them the truth in love. To be clear is to be kind.
  3. Offer to help them. If possible, I have tried to help people find another job. I wouldn’t recommend someone with poor character, but perhaps there’s another job you think might fit them. If you know someone who might benefit from this person’s skills, offer to connect them. (I know this is messy, but I believe it’s kind, and I’ve seen it prove helpful.)

Though we often think in binary terms (either/or), the truth is that many things exist in tension. You can be Christlike and kind to someone as you fire them. You can love them while letting them go. Though it may not be received well, showing sincere tenderness to someone while letting them go is indeed an act of love.

The weight of leadership should crush you. I’m serious. If you really comprehend what you’re doing—caring for immortals—you should be quite sobered. And this is why you mustn’t carry this weight. Hand it to Jesus. He bore the weight of our sins, and he will bear the weight of your leadership struggles. Offload it to him in prayer and wash yourself in his cleansing Word. He will help you.