Tips for terminating employees with dignity

Most managers, regardless of level, handle the uncomfortable task of terminating employees badly

Most managers, regardless of level, handle the uncomfortable task of terminating employees badly.

The biggest mistake managers make is terminating them in a harsh, unkind and insensitive way. The manner in which employees are fired often fuels lawsuits. Right or wrong, if employees feel that they are being unfairly treated, they perceive it as grounds for a lawsuit.

A study conducted by Ohio State University, funded by the National Science Foundation and the American Bar Foundation, found that almost 15 per cent of employees who felt they were treated badly when fired filed suits against their employers, as opposed to only 0.4 per cent of employees who were treated with dignity and respect at the time of their dismissal.

The reason most managers often botch the termination process is because they’re winging it. Unless they have the luxury of seasoned human resource specialists to guide them through the process, they’re likely to either say inappropriate things or fail to handle it expediently and professionally.

Here are several tips that can take some of the angst and pain out of termination.

Think carefully beforehand about what to say. The bad news ought to be delivered quickly, professionally and sensitively. To ensure that it goes smoothly, jot down notes beforehand so that important points are covered.

Don’t let it be a surprise. If employees are fired because of poor performance, the moment of termination should not be the first time that they’ve heard about it. As a managers, you should have documentation proving that the employees received prior notice of sub-par performance at prior previous performance appraisals, and were given opportunities to improve.

If the reason for termination is a downsizing and cost cutting or production cutbacks due to drastically reduced revenues, employees ought to be given prior warning so that they can start looking for another job.

Be honest and direct and don’t beat around the bush. Explain what’s happening in plain English. Don’t attempt to soften the blow and fall back on corporate double-speak and jargon. That’s a cop-out; have the guts and the emotional strength to lay out the unadorned facts.

As hard as it is being the bearer of bad news, put yourself in your terminated employee’s shoes. As tough as it is hearing bad news, wouldn’t you want the facts spelled out honestly, without being cushioned by corporate double-speak and gobbledygook?  Terminated employees respect managers who simply tell it like it is, without rationalizing or justifying their actions.

Do it in person and in private. Never fire an employee by pink slip, email or by phone. Make an appointment with the employee and do it in private. It’s preferable to fire employees in their offices or in a neutral space such as a conference room so they can remain behind and compose themselves before rejoining coworkers. Allow terminated employee time to digest the information and respond. Encourage questions.

Termination meetings should also provide terminated employees with important documentation such as date of separation, benefits, if any, and what the separated employees are entitled to.

Show compassion. Be honest. Losing a job is as devastating as death and divorce for many people, according to psychologists. Giving terminated employees constructive feedback that will be helpful to them in their next positions.

Avoid a clinical approach. Many managers take a cold, clinical approach, fearing they’ll be sued for saying the wrong thing. Being too cautious makes managers seem heartless. Don’t lose sight of what’s happening: Suddenly an employee is losing a weekly income that supports him and possibly a family, not to mention paying a mountain of bills that ensure a decent standard of living. In the space of 15 minutes a person is thrown into a tailspin.

Don’t try to remove human emotions and feelings from the termination process. Managers should flip the situation and put themselves in their employees’ shoes. That’s guaranteed to humanize the uncomfortable situation.

Don’t let things get personal. It’s reasonable to assume that employees will be upset. Be prepared for an emotional reaction such as anger, hostility or disbelief.

Do not discuss other employees’ situations. The tough part about termination is deciding who goes and who remains. Naturally, terminated employees will immediately wonder which employees remained and why. And they might understandably ask about the status of other employees. If asked, politely respond that it’s not an issue that can be discussed. By talking about other employees, managers enter a minefield, raising questions of fairness.

Part kindly: Help employees move on. No matter how diplomatically managers terminate employees, it will always be a difficult process. Beyond doing it in a professional, thoughtful and elegant way, try to help employees make a smooth transition to new jobs. Try to give them at least two weeks’ notice so they can begin to put out feelers for new positions. If an employee’s work performance was above average or excellent, provide a letter of recommendation and assistance and guidance in finding a new job. It not only benefits employees, but it makes managers feel better about themselves.

Keep records and documentation of each employee’s employment record. It ought to have dates of performance reviews, detailed evaluations, promotions, pay raises and bonuses. Most important, there must be a concise explanation of the reasons for termination. The official record should only contain facts and dates, rather than supposition, interpretation or opinion.


The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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