How do I let an employee go knowing they’re struggling already?
It’s hard, because on the one hand, you want to be considerate of this person as a human, but on the other hand, if they aren’t doing their job or because your company is making changes outside of your control, you need to look out for the organization and the other dozens (or hundreds, or thousands) of people who work there too.
I think to feel comfortable with what you’re doing, you need to ask yourself some questions. I’m sure you’ve already gone through all of this, but let’s take a look anyway.
First: Are you letting them go for cause, i.e., are they not performing up to the level you need them to? If so, have you done everything (reasonable) you can to help them meet your expectations? Your company hired them for a reason, so perhaps something changed that is impacting their quality of work — after all, you say you know they’re struggling somewhere else in their life. Does your company have an Employee Assistance Program that you could refer them to? Have you already put them on a performance improvement plan? If not, I’d suggest that it would be kind of asshole-ish to just let them go with no chance to improve?
Second: If this has nothing to do with them and everything to do with how your company or organization is doing, are you certain that there is no place for them in whatever version of the company you’ll have going down the road? Can you offer them something other than their current job, even if they ultimately don’t end up taking it?
Again, I’m assuming you’ve thought of all of this; I just wanted to reiterate that when you’re dealing with someone’s livelihood, it’s important to be as close to certain as you can be. Letting someone go is different from not hiring someone, even though the result is the same: they don’t have a job with you. Once let go, the obvious impact is to their income, but also to their access to health care (if they are in the United States), to their daily lives, and to some degree their future, all usually with minimal notice.
With all of that in mind, if you need to let the employee go, I’d suggest a few things will help lessen the blow:
1. If they are being let go because of layoffs, offer a fair package. Provide more than just a couple of weeks severance if at all possible. It can take two or three months for someone to get hired in the best case scenario; cutting someone off from expected income with no notice should be avoided. This person isn’t your responsibility in a legal sense, but they did work for you for some period of time and it would be pretty shitty to just cut them off with a thank you and not much else.
2. If they are being let go because they are not able to do their job to the standard your company requires (as in, they’re being fired), and you can swing it, I’d suggest not fighting if they file for unemployment. I recognize that I don’t have the background in running a small business and that the hit might be significant, but talk to your HR and finance folks and see if this is possible.*
3. If you can do so, offer up a generic letter of recommendation that they can submit when they apply for other jobs, and offer to be available to serve as a good reference for them. You know, beyond “yes, they worked here, and no, they never stole from me.”
Once you’ve done that, know that you’ve done what you can. I think employers should definitely care about their employees outside of the office, but they are not responsible for your employees beyond providing them with a safe (in all forms) and fair work environment. If we lived in a different type of society, someone struggling would have the time to sort out their life and then come back to work when they are better. But in all but the largest companies and organizations, we simply don’t seem to have the infrastructure set up to support that kind of all-inclusive care for our community members.
*This doesn’t apply if they’ve done something to cause egregious harm to your organization.