Have you ever fired a bully? Did you wonder how to tell your staff or if you even should?

Let’s say you’re a manager in an ICU and just fired one of your older, experienced nurses because of continued disruptive behavior. You can almost see and feel the tension in the air among your employees.  Eyes are darting back and forth; people are whispering in the corner; and everyone stops talking as soon as you enter the nurses’ station.

What do you do? Do you talk about it with your staff? Do you avoid the subject in the hope that time will erase the memory of this situation? Or do you address the termination with your remaining employees?


Here’s the science behind why.

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Whenever something negative happens at work, like someone who everyone thought was untouchable gets fired, humans go through a series of predictable responses. These responses are based on a few normal evolutionary reactions. As a leader, it’s important that you understand said responses in order to help your staff through the transition process, so I’ve outlined the four most important aspects below.

1. Human beings are myopic

This may sound pessimistic, but we see the world through our own eyes and only care about ourselves. Seriously. Don’t believe me? If you were sitting in a room with 100 people and I took a picture of all of you, and then passed the picture around to each and every one of you, who would you look at first? Yourself of course! Why? Because you’re a selfish human. The truth is, it’s not your fault. We’re all designed to be selfish. If we weren’t we wouldn’t have survived up to this point.

When you fire someone, everyone else immediately worries about him or herself.

Am I next? How does this person leaving affect me? This is a NORMAL reaction, but it can quickly become a problem on your unit. Why? Because your employees shift their focus from their patients to themselves. 

If my daughter is a patient on your unit, I don’t want your employees focused on themselves.

2. Fear is an absolute

Most people, even though they may agree that this person should have been fired, go through a period of time where they are afraid. Even if they believe their job is safe, they exhibit fear of the unknown. If this experienced nurse could get fired, what else might happen? Who else might get terminated? How will this person leaving affect our unit, my work, etc.?  

Fear prevents people from performing at their best. Why is this a problem? Because when employees are filled with fear, their ability to critically think, effectively communicate, and make good decision are impaired.

If my dad is on your unit as a patient, I don’t want your employees rattled with fear.

3. People get distracted

During the time immediately following this person’s termination, the employees who are working are now distracted, dramatically affecting their performance. When your hypothalamus senses danger (OMG! Susan just got fired!), it sends a message to the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol. Both of these hormones affect your ability to concentrate, make decisions, problem solve, and even do simple math. Hmm…how might this impact your employee’s ability to calculate medications?

If you terminate someone you MUST talk about it with your employees! #communicate Click to Tweet

Make no mistake about it. If you terminate someone and don’t talk about it with your employees, it will affect their performance for a while.

If my mom is a patient on your unit, I don’t want your employees distracted.

4. Negative events impact communication

When something perceived as negative happens, it changes the conversations people have with each other. In healthcare, employees stop talking about their patients and start talking about what happened. It’s a way for people to cope with the situation, especially if they are an extrovert (like me). We have to talk about it, ruminate about it – over and over. Instead of talking about making sure we are rounding on our patients, supporting the new nurse who is a nervous wreck, or making sure we assist phlebotomy when they need to draw blood on our patient who has a running IV, we gather in corners talking about the negative event.

How we communicate with each other matters to our patients.

If my husband is a patient on your unit, I want you talking about him and how you’re going to take care of him. Not what happened to Susan.


Immediately after this person leaves, gather your staff together for an emergency huddle.  Say this: “Susan is no longer with us. This is what I can tell you…and this is what I cannot tell you…”

The key here is that you acknowledge that this employee is gone and that there are some things you can’t share due to confidentiality. By letting them know that you DO have information but because of confidentiality, you cannot share that information, you are establishing a trusting relationship with your remaining employees and demonstrating that you honor confidential information.

Because whether or not this employee walked off of the unit shouting, “I just got fired!” or calls her buddies immediately after, your employees will find out. Address it immediately so that the information doesn’t get twisted, exaggerated, and blown out of proportion. 

Use the three R’s to inform them and put them at ease.

Put your employees at ease by using the 3 R's! #leadershiptips Click to Tweet

1. Reassure

Your remaining employees need reassurance that they are okay and that they won’t get terminated out of the blue. This is what you say to reassure them:

“Unless you commit a violent or criminal act, nobody will ever be let go as a surprise. I promise you, if I ever have any concerns about your performance or behavior, I will have a conversation with you immediately. A termination will not come as a surprise.”

By verbalizing and addressing their fears, you are comforting them that if you haven’t already had a conversation with them about their performance or behavior, that they are safe. In doing so you’re also reinforcing a culture of accountability, transparency, and honesty.

2. Reinforce

If you’ve done your due diligence as a manager and worked with your staff to create a professional practice agreement (this is how we treat each other in this space…), this is the perfect opportunity to reinforce your unit or department agreement. Reinforce the behaviors you expect, as well as what they should expect from each other.

3. Recommit

This is also the perfect opportunity to recommit to your purpose – to recommit to patient care. Studies show that high functioning, high performing teams have clarity of purpose. They know why they come to work, what they need to do to achieve their goals, and how decisions are made. They know their WHY. Simon Sinek talks about this in his book, Start With Why. So does Daniel Pink in his book on motivation, Drive. Any time something disrupts the team, recommit to the overarching purpose – the why behind what you do.

The key here is to talk about it! The worst thing you can do is to ignore the situation!

What can initially feel like an uncomfortable, painful situation can actually become an opportunity to regroup and strengthen your team. To find out how well you’re doing as a leader in addressing workplace bullying and incivility, take my assessment below.

RT Leadership Assessment

Have you ever had to terminate an employee? If so, what did it teach you as a leader? Share your experience in the comments below!

Take care. Be kind. Stay connected.

Helping you cultivate a healthy happy workforce,