You haven't been able to sleep, your stomach feels like Mount St. Helens and you're chain-smoking again. You haven't felt so guilty since the time you forgot Mother's Day. The cause of this angst? You have to fire one of your employes.

"I was frightened to death," says Linda Jemison, recalling the first time she had to fire an employe. "I thought, 'What's the worst that can happen?' People aren't going to leap across the desk and take you by the throat, because normal people don't do that, and all the rules of normal human relationships are still going to be in force."

Jemison, president of Downtown Type Inc., a Washington typesetting and graphics firm, says the firing was especially difficult because she is "a nurturing, supportive person. Besides, this woman was having terrible personal problems, so I really felt badly. But I finally said to myself that since she wasn't performing well and often not showing up at all, I had no choice . . . After all, I had a business to run."

Beth Mendelson, director of Communications for the Shoner Media Group, a Washington advertising agency, can empathize with both parties. Having once been fired herself, Mendelson was "particularly sensitive to try to handle the situation in the most compassionate way" when she had to fire a producer. "When you are firing someone, you are really ruining their economic base and their emotional support.

"I tried to be personal but pragmatic. I told her she had good potential as a producer, but her strengths did not match the qualifications for the job.

"I think when you fire someone you owe it to them to be decent and honest. I remember that when I was fired, I didn't feel as if anybody cared."

There have, indeed, been very few caring examples of firing illustrated in the media. Every audience member could feel sympathy with the character played by Dustin Hoffman in the movie "Kramer Vs. Kramer" when he was taken to an elegant French restaurant and, amid the chablis, brie and civilized conversation, given the ax. And although firings in the sports world are rarely handled well, a few stand out as particularly bad calls.

"Terminating employes is not something that most managers have much experience in doing. Consequently, most people handle firings very badly," explains James P. Coughlin, senior vice president of Drake Beam Morin Inc., an outplacement firm headquartered in New York with offices across the country -- including Washington -- and abroad.

Outplacement firms such as Coughlin's are hired by a corporation to guide it and the employe through the firing process. The employer is advised on how to fire someone and the employe is aided in the search for another job. Fees -- paid by the company -- range from 13 percent to 15 percent of the fired employe's annualized salary, according to Coughlin.

"Keep in mind that the dignity of the person being terminated is crucial," says Coughlin. "Some of the worst firings I have seen were ones where the managers were extremely thoughtless. I once had to talk an organization out of letting some of its people go on Christmas Eve. I have seen people fired on their birthdays. You always remember the act of being fired and it is especially cruel to have that memory associated with Christmas or your birthday."

"Try to lay the groundwork if you want to avoid really traumatic firings," suggests Jeffrey Davidson, a management consultant and coauthor of Marketing Your Consulting and Professional Services (John Wiley & Sons, 1985, $19.95). "You don't want to catch the person totally in shock.

"The worst firing I ever saw was when a firm gave 16 of its employes a half-day's notice. It was a grand sweeping ax that came fast and unprofessionally. This happened years ago, but people still refer to it as the Friday Massacre. It was a classic example of what not to do."

Many firers who haven't done their homework can end up with professional egg all over their faces. Coughlin says that "in one case recently, the individual who was doing the firing had never met the woman he was letting go. When they met, he was startled to find that she was . . . pregnant. This was very embarrassing because the company was not about to fire anybody on maternity leave. He hadn't done his homework and this made him look very foolish."

Lawsuits, of course, are a major consideration. More and more fired employes are taking their cases to court -- and winning. "Without some type of counseling and preparation," Coughlin says, "you would be surprised at the dumb things people will say. For instance, I heard of a case where a man said to a woman he was firing, 'Your husband has a good job. I'm sure you'll be all right.' That's like throwing a red flag in front of the bull. But without advance couseling and because people are so tense when they are firing, they will often blurt out something that is a passport to court."

People often undergo total personality changes when they have to fire someone. According to Coughlin, "Since people don't know what to do, the most caring people often take a cold approach. Because of their nervousness, they aren't acting normally.

"Peoples' instincts aren't always correct when it comes to firing. Many people believe the myth that it is kind to fire employes on a Friday afternoon. Actually, this is the worst time, because you can't put any support systems into place. People feel helpless and alone over the weekend. Often they go get drunk or take out their anger on their families.

"Another error is procrastination. One of the worst things managers can do is to 'chat' with the firee for about an hour talking about the wife, the kids, the Redskins -- everything under the sun -- and then in the last 10 minutes fire the person. This is absolutely devastating!

"Finally, never say to an employe, 'You'll thank me for this later,' or 'I know how you feel.' This is the last thing he wants to hear and all he will do is resent you."

"Firing people humanely has a very practical aspect," explains consultant Jeffrey Davidson. "If the person you fire is really bitter, he will be like the town crier and talk about your organization for years. On the other hand, if you make firing as amicable as possible, the person who was fired will, in time, be able to say, 'Well, it didn't work out, but the company is still a class organization.'

"Doing things with class means leaving the person feeling like a worthy human being. One of the best ways of doing this is to explain that the firing wasn't so much a matter of failure as that it just wasn't a good match. Perhaps their skills weren't compatible with their responsibilities. Perhaps it was a matter of chemistry . . . Try to couch the firing in terms that this isn't a rejection of the person's capabilities."

There are other ways to handle firing with grace and kindness that can leave the firer guilt-free and the firee with dignity intact. Coughlin describes one such humane termination:

"The most professional and kindest firing I have seen lately involved a great deal of preparation on the part of the firer. I worked with this employer doing a series of exercises requiring . . . role-playing. During this role-playing, he projected a good middle-of-the-road approach -- warm and compassionate, but not maudlin."

"He scheduled the firing for Monday morning and had me waiting in another office to work with the firee. He finished the firing within 15 minutes, giving a clear and irrevocable message. He went briefly into the support systems and gave out the benefit packages. He then brought the person in to me and said, 'I want to do everything I can to help you relocate . . . I also want you to use me as part of your network.' He shook hands with this man and walked away. There was a good feeling in the air; the firee was not devastated and the firer knew he had handled a difficult situation in the most compassionate way possible." By Peggy van Hulsteyn; Peggy van Hulsteyn is the author of What Every Business Woman Needs to Know to Get Ahead (Dodd, Mead, 1985, $8.95).