No easy way to say ‘You’re fired’

But there are steps managers, HR can take to ease the pain for everyone involved
By David Bell
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/15/2009

Terminating an employee is probably the most dreaded aspect of managing people. Managers often approach the task with a mixture of guilt, defensiveness and fear of unforeseen consequences.

Yet, the ability to conduct a termination properly is a fundamental skill for an effective manager. And the ability to support managers in the conduct of terminations is a requisite skill for effective HR professionals.

As shown by the case of a Halifax bus driver who committed suicide after being fired, some employees can have extreme reactions to the news of a termination. Halifax Metro Transit fired Dann Little on Friday, April 17, after he was suspended for clubbing a fake seal at an anti-sealing protest while he was working. He committed suicide that weekend.

Little’s case is the exception rather than the rule in terminations. The 55-year-old had been on anti-depressants for two years and was diagnosed with a clogged artery in his brain, but he never disclosed his health issues to his employer, his wife told the CBC.

If a manager suspects an employee may be at risk of harm to himself or others (including staff), has the potential to sabotage company property or if the termination is suspected to be difficult in any way, then providing on-site support with an outplacement counsellor is the best course of action.

For the most part, managers are not in a position to assess or interpret warning signs or address suspected psychological symptoms. And there are many situations where employees exhibit no signs of distress whatsoever.

But, if there are explicit statements made by the employee indicating violent intent, then calling security or police is a must. If a manager doesn’t feel comfortable with an employee’s behaviour, these concerns should be addressed immediately with a senior manager or HR.

HR at the termination meeting

Many companies and HR departments require HR people to be present at the termination meeting, often out of fear the notifying manager will say something that will put the company at legal or employee relations risk. However, this seldom happens and, if managers are skilled and experienced in terminations, they can, if necessary, conduct the notification on their own.

Where HR should definitely participate in the termination interview is if the manager has limited experience of terminations, there are unusual circumstances around the specific case or it is a unionized workplace.

HR presence at the termination meeting allows the notifying manager to leave right after advising the employee he is being released, turning the meeting over to the HR person. This tends to lower the emotional temperature.

The HR person is also better positioned to explain the details of the severance package and post-severance administrative procedures, although such details do not normally come up at the termination meeting. Finally, the HR person will normally have more experience with terminations and should be better able to manage whatever reactions the terminated employee exhibits.

But, when a company is undertaking a significant number of terminations over a period of time, a constant HR presence at termination meetings may reposition HR, in employees’ eyes, as a force to be avoided. HR effectiveness in many other areas can thus be negatively affected.

Common employee reactions

Most employees who are terminated conduct themselves professionally. They want to preserve their dignity and reputation and they don’t want to burn bridges.

The most frequent reactions are surprise, numbness and disappointment. Most terminated employees find it difficult to absorb or process information just after they have been notified, so there is little value to going into detail with them about severance provisions and administrative processes. Tears are quite common. It is best to give the employee a little time, and perhaps a little privacy, to work through his emotions.

A related, common reaction is withdrawal, where the employee just wants to get the meeting over with and go home. The recommended approach here is to quickly retrieve company property from the employee, give him a brief introduction to the outplacement counsellor (if using one) and then let him leave.

Another common reaction is confrontation — the employee will question the decision to terminate and want to discuss in great detail why he is being terminated. Similar to questioning is bargaining (“Can I look for positions in other departments?”) and denial (“If I can just talk to the vice-president, I can convince her to change her mind.”).

The best response is to emphasize the decision to terminate is final and was reviewed at the highest levels. If the employee wants feedback on the reasons for his termination, the manager should state the termination meeting is too stressful a context for such a discussion, but offer to provide it at a later date once matters are settled between the company and the employee. Terminated employees are usually content with such an offer but often don’t follow up on it.

A small number of employees do express anger or betrayal. The most effective approach is to let them vent but not to engage in arguments or self-justification with them. Also, the notifier should understand, in most cases, the hostility is not directed at her personally but rather at the situation. Usually the former employee will have returned to normal by the next day.

A final reaction, which often surprises managers, is relief. The employee’s uncertainty is over. He knew things weren’t working out but he was hesitant to take the initiative to leave. Now someone has made the decision for him. This is especially common when a company has undergone a series of downsizings or an employee has been through a series of conflicts about his performance.

Getting the employee out of the building

Some terminated employees will not want to leave right away. They may want to go around and say goodbye to colleagues, load personal files off their computer, clear out their desk and pack up their personal belongings.

But this can create an extremely uncomfortable situation both for the terminated employee and for the other people in his work area.

It is to everyone’s benefit if the terminated employee leaves the premises as quickly as possible. At the same time, strong-arm tactics are damaging to the company’s image, disturbing to other employees and counterproductive. The manager, HR or outplacement counsellor can gently guide the employee to the door or the elevator. In any event, it’s important the employee’s movements and activities be monitored until he has left the building.

The manager can also suggest the time to say goodbye to colleagues is at a farewell party.

The best way to deal with personal files on computers is to ask the employee to provide a list of those files he wants pulled off. Employees normally agree to this but such a list is usually not forthcoming.

For personal effects, the recommended approach is to arrange for the employee to come back after hours to pack up his personal property, with a person other than the notifying manager letting him into the premises and overseeing the packing up. The majority of terminating employees agree to this approach. They appreciate the privacy.

David Bell is HR director of Ceridian Canada in Markham, Ont. For more information, visit

Those left behind

After a termination, special care should be given to ‘survivors’

In planning terminations, management tends to focus too much on the employees being terminated and not enough on those who will remain with the company, the people outplacement counsellors like to call “survivors.”

It is imperative that, as soon as the termination notifications have been completed, the manager communicates with her whole team in person or by conference call.

Particularly in the case of downsizings, the survivors need to be informed as to what has happened, who was impacted, what was the business rationale, how it impacts them and what the plan is going forward.

They need to know they are not being impacted by the current actions and they are part of the company’s plans. They will want to understand what they should do, or not do, to avoid becoming casualties themselves. They need to know how the changes impact their work, such as new processes, priorities and responsibilities. It’s also appropriate to acknowledge a sense of loss, if such is the case.

Although no further terminations may be planned, managers cannot say there will never be any more terminations. Instead, they should say the organization and workforce are where they need to be for now.

The manager cannot discuss why an individual was picked for termination or say anything critical about him (as this would inevitably get back to the terminated worker). Instead, the manager can refer to changing organization needs and workforce rebalancing.

Managers at all levels need to be even more visible and accessible to the team than usual during the days following a termination. They need to answer employee questions, handle issues related to changes in workflow and the distribution of responsibilities and get a sense of employee reactions and concerns.

Source: Ceridian Canada

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