There’s an art—and a legal responsibility—to terminating employees properly
Terminating an employee…The decision to terminate an employee creates stress, anxiety and often sadness for co-workers and managers, as well as the employee. At its best, it should be a decision that benefits all, regardless of how unpleasant it is.
You may have seen in print, “We reserve the right to hire and fire at will”. True, you may fire at will, but in today’s legal environment, the terminated employee sues at will. A court decision just might ruin your business.
Deciding to terminate
Let’s assume the decision to terminate is based on necessity and is a last resort. “We’ve tried, but there’s no way around it. This employee has to go.” At this point, there are many things that you should have already done. If you haven’t, you may find yourself and your company in trouble.
Cases of violence, threatening behavior, theft and the like aside, termination is a step-by-step process that has become defined through trial-and-error. Before the fateful words leave your mouth, ask yourself these questions:
Have I listed and explained—verbally and in writing—the employee’s needs and shortcomings in clear, specific terms with specific time limits for correction?
Have I conducted several meetings with the employee in which the needs and consequences have been progressively emphasized?
Have I documented, in writing, each of these needs, consequences, and time limits, and given copies to the employee?
Have I conducted retraining and given genuine support?
Has everyone else in my organization presenting the same problems been treated in exactly the same manner?
Have I given full and fair warning, eliminating any chance that the termination will come as a surprise to the employee?
Do my superiors know what I’m doing and that this process could lead to termination? Have my superiors stated that they support my actions?
If you can answer no to any of these questions, stop, back up and start again. It may be expensive to do, but failure to do it could be many times more expensive. Who knows, in the meantime, the employee may make a miraculous recovery.
So, by now, you’ve had several meetings with the employee. Each one was structured. You listed the problems and the deadline by which they must be corrected. Most importantly, you maintained your dignity and respected the dignity of the employee. You were firm, but you didn’t quarrel. You kept the meetings as inconspicuous as possible and limited all information about them to the people who must know.
Making the Checklist
Before the termination meeting begins, make a checklist of things that must be done before the meeting, and after the meeting. The meeting will be stressful and upsetting, no matter how polite all parties are. The list could prevent embarrassment and future problems. After all, you don’t want to go running through the parking lot, shouting through a car window at the employee, “Wait, wait. I forgot to get your badge, and I have to tell you about the insurance!”
Included in the pre-meeting portion of the checklist should be:
- Notify superiors
- Gather copies of all related documentation
- List all company property now held by the employee
- Halt employee’s file and computer access
- Line up a witness
For the meeting portion of the checklist:
- Make the termination statement clearly
- State that there is no other choice
- Hand over the written termination and all relevant documents to the employee
- Discuss severance, insurance, unemployment, outplacement and references
The after-meeting checklist should call for:
- Making notes of all that was said
- Proper filing of all documents and disposition of company property collected
- Notifying superiors that the employee has been terminated
Guiding the Meeting
Make the meeting inconspicuous. A witness is essential. Select a witness that will make a credible witness in a court of law
The first words out of your mouth should be something to the effect of:
“I’m sorry to have to tell you that due to (company restructuring-example), your position has been eliminated effective immediately. You should understand this is not a performance-related issue.”
“I’m sorry, but this meeting is to terminate your employment with us. There is no other option open to us now. This decision is final.”
Be polite and even compassionate, but be firm. Listen to what the employee has to say. Do not agree with any argument the employee presents. Don’t quarrel. Do not touch the employee, during or after the meeting, except to shake hands—no slap on the back—no compassionate hug.
Advise the employee that you have taken steps with their reemployment efforts and have contracted with Lifocus, an outplacement and career-counseling firm, to provide career transition benefits. Advise them that the company is paying the fee for this valuable service and have provided for a representative from Lifocus to be here today to meet with you. If the employee is visibly upset, stay in the meeting room with him or her until composure is regained. A company nurse as well as security should be in the vicinity.
Go down you checklist and make sure you’ve made all statements, delivered all documents, and collected all property. If it’s at all possible, allow the employee to choose the time he or she will clean out his or her desk (now, after hours, the weekend).
Escort the employee into an adjoining room and introduce to the representative from Lifocus. If, after their meeting, you want to escort the employee from the premises, make sure that it is just that, an escort. Don’t give the appearance that you’re giving someone the bum’s rush.
After the meeting, complete the items on your checklist. You should schedule a post-termination meeting with the witness and your immediate superior to discuss lessons learned as well as observations to be noted.
Announcing the Termination
Immediately make an announcement to your employees that the individual(s) is no longer with your company. Explain in no uncertain terms that this is the extent of the information you will give out. Point out that your company discourages rumors and speculation, and any information regarding the employee is confidential. This confidentiality is continual. Don’t tell the person who interviews to fill the position that the fired employee wasn’t cutting the mustard if that was the case.
These steps and bits of advice will keep your company from making a bad situation worse. It will help the terminated employee get on with the rest of his or her career, and it can keep you out of the courts.
Thomas Wharton is President of LIFOCUS, Inc, a human resources consulting firm in Rhode Island, providing Career & Transition Coaching, Outplacement, Executive Coaching, and Assessments. Tom can be reached at 401.884.7959 • firstname.lastname@example.org. • www.lifocus.com •@careercoachTW