Letting People Go
Terminating Employment Honestly, Respectfully and With Dignity
"Hey Bob, great to see you. Come on in. How're things going? You getting on OK? Great suit by the way.
"I've, er, asked to speak with you today because, well, you know. The, er, company, hasn't had a great year. You've been great, it's just the profits you know, they're really down. That darn highway construction has stopped business short. We just don't have the visibility we used to. And, well, I'm really sorry, but the decision has been made to let you go.
"Like I say, I really apologize. I know this is a shock. I went to bat for you but they just wouldn't budge. I can't believe I am sitting here saying this to you. Trust me, if I could do anything I would."
Sound a bit familiar? When you have to give someone bad news, you feel bad yourself. Your first instinct is to make the other person feel good, deflect some of the blame, and be seen as a good guy despite what you are saying.
Whether the person is being fired or laid off, it's an emotionally charged time. However, if you allow emotion to dictate how you deliver your message, you risk not sending the right message.
You need to be clear and focused. You need to have a plan in place to deal with the person's exit. If you aren't focused and prepared, possible unwanted side effects include:
- A wrongful dismissal suit filed by the worker.
- Potential sabotage of business equipment and information.
- Fear and distrust amongst remaining co-workers.
- Loss of a potential rehire in redundancy situations if or when the business climate changes or improves.
No matter what your personal feelings are, no matter who made the decision, and no matter how the termination will affect the rest of the workplace, when you are talking to the person in question, you owe it to him or her to be direct, honest, and fair.
Beating around the bush, talking about everything but the real reason for the meeting, or trying to deflect blame are not helpful behaviors. They prolong the inevitable and only provide more fodder for the terminated worker to find a grievance with the process. A wronged former colleague is a dangerous person.
While you can't be sure the person won't seek revenge, you can mitigate the risk by being well prepared for the conversation that lies ahead. Prepare for what lies ahead by planning what you need to do before, during, and after the termination conversation.
Before the Termination Meeting
- In a well managed company, a termination or lay-off should not come as any surprise. The decision to fire is that much easier and straightforward when people know what is expected of them.
- Hold regular performance reviews and prepare development plans. This provides people with the information they need about what is expected of them.
- Establish clear company standards and write policies that spell out exactly what constitutes grounds for termination. With a clear theft policy in place, the person caught stealing office supplies should expect to be fired.
- Have a progressive discipline policy in place to address deviations from the expected standards. With progressive discipline you have a record of your attempts to turn around performance.
- If the termination is a result of a lay-off or a position being made redundant, this too should not be a shocking revelation.
- Communicate honestly with workers about the state of the company.
- To the extent that's appropriate, share market information on a regular basis. When you are honest and upfront with people about the state of their employment, they can begin to prepare for is coming. Remember, no one wants to be caught off guard in a termination situation. It makes the conversation much more difficult for everyone.
- Discuss the situation on a need-to-know basis only. This minimizes potential leaks. You are also respecting the person's privacy by keeping the details contained to a small group of people. Prepare a plan to deal with leaks just in case they do happen.
- You should speak with an expert about your legal duties and obligations as an employer regarding severance, notice, and potential reinstatement. It's much better to know what the financial costs of a termination will be beforehand. You might also avoid attorney fees down the road if/when you have an unlawful dismissal suit filed against you.
- Back up computer data and files the person has access to. Some people are vengeful and will try to damage your business by destroying the work they have done for you. Ensure you have all the data and files you need before you deliver the final termination news.
- Schedule the meeting as soon as possible. The less time you leave between your decision and the meeting, the less chance there is of leaks and second-guessing your decision.
If you are making a position redundant, don't delay the termination until this month's accounts are finished, or the sale they are working on goes through. If the person is this important to your business, they can easily argue that their position is not redundant and you're not treating them fairly. When you are preparing for a redundancy you want to be sure you can immediately manage your business without the person's services.
During the Termination Meeting
- Have the person's line manager deliver the news. This is no time for delegation.
- Choose the meeting location carefully. You want it to be free of interruptions and in a place that won't make a spectacle of the person being terminated. They may want to be left alone or not want to be seen immediately upon leaving.
- Choose the time carefully. When is the office least busy? The fewer people around the better, especially if the person is expected to pack up his or her belongings and exit immediately. Perhaps give them the option to return immediately after work hours and you will supervise the clearing of their things.
- Have at least one other person in the meeting with you. Ask this person take notes of what is said and, if you think it's necessary, both you and the person being terminated should sign this as an accurate record. Someone from the HR department can help you with any process issues during the meeting.
- Be direct and lay out the facts of the termination quickly and concisely.
- Stick to the topic and purpose.
- Don't engage in small chat or talk about other issues.
- Be specific and honest about why the person is being let go. Explain the grounds of the dismissal however don't get into the small details. You want to avoid an argument or an appeal to change your mind.
- Allow the person to express himself or herself. Don't get dragged into a debate over the merits of your decision, though. Be strong and resolute in your decision.
- Avoid apologizing for the termination. When you are at this point, you should be very sure of your reasons and there is no need to be sorry. This doesn't mean you can't be empathetic.
- Be calm and understanding. It is possible to be firm and kind at the same time. If you approach the conversation in the manner you would appreciate being treated chances are your demeanor will be appropriate. Regardless of the history, this person deserves respect.
- Follow the HR policies set out.
- Review the benefits and severance they are entitled to.
- Where possible, provide the person with their immediate monies owing (final paycheck, severance, holiday payout). What you can do may be limited by payroll processes and dates, however, if you can speed the process up all the better.
- If you aren't able to provide money owing right away, explain when it will be paid.
- In cases of redundancy, provide a reference.
After the Termination Meeting
If you think the hard part's over, it's not. You still have the remaining co-workers to deal with. In the event of a lay-off you might also have to do this in stages and repeat the sequence a few times.
- One of the most important things after the meeting is to make sure the terminated person does not have the means or opportunity to sabotage your business. If the termination meeting goes poorly, you may need to escort the person back to his or her desk to collect their belongings and leave immediately. Hopefully this won't be necessary and you can leave things on better terms than this. Be prepared for this eventually, however.
- In a redundancy situation, consider offering outplacement services to help employees find new jobs and training. This shows goodwill and puts you in a good position to rehire your top performers if that is ever possible. It also stops the flow of negative publicity about your company as terminated workers talk about it with their friends and family.
- Acknowledge the impact that the termination will have on the remaining co-workers. Will they have to pick up extra responsibilities? In the case of a termination for cause, will the position be re-filled and when? Perhaps this is an opportunity to promote someone within the team? Communicate with them and make sure to let your team know that you will provide whatever support you can to help them get through this.
- Allow the team to express their emotions without fear of any reprisal. Some will take the person's side and be angry for a while. Others will be frustrated by the impact it has on their workload. There might be a period of distrust and apprehension. Be aware of this and keep the lines of communication open. The best thing you can do is be as transparent as possible. When the termination has been a redundancy, no one wants to feel like they are waiting for the axe to fall again.
- Be honest about the reason for the termination. If it's because of a decline in business, talk about the reality of everyone's job security. If the termination is based on performance, remind people of the expectations. If it is for a blatant violation of policy, remind them of the company policies.
Terminating someone's employment is never enjoyable. There is much you can do to lessen the discomfort for yourself and the person being let go. This starts with having good policies in place to communicate expectations and business realities to your team. Then by being well prepared and very clear about your intentions you can avoid an ugly scene and lessen your exposure to a lawsuit.
By handling a termination the way you would like to be treated, you preserve the morale of team. You create a work environment that says you value everyone's contribution even if they have to be terminated at some point. When you are well prepared and able to communicate honestly with your team, the person exiting leaves with dignity and the people who remain are free to carry on, secure in the knowledge that their workplace treats people fairly and respectfully in good times and in bad.