The right and wrong way to deliver bad news

True stories that tell how not to handle termination communications and tips on how to do it right

Telling an employee he is being terminated is one of the most stressful tasks a manager will ever have. Under stress, people make mistakes. Add poor preparation or ill-advised practices to stress, and termination announcements become extreme examples of poor communication.

The following stories are true — hard to believe, but true. They provide excellent examples of how not to handle termination communications, as well as some suggestions of how to do it right.

Example 1: Seventy warehouse workers dutifully reported to an off-site location for a mandatory meeting. The senior vice-president delivered a polished presentation complete with slides to the restless employees. Ten minutes into his explanation of the business case rationalizing the decision, he slipped in the announcement that the warehouse would be closing and everyone present would be out of a job. The crowd virtually exploded with anger. They didn’t care about the organization’s opportunity to make a better profit margin. It seemed as if their years of contribution had been callously forgotten in favour of numbers on a chart.

Lesson: Whether addressing a group or one individual, get right to the point. Starting with small talk, beating around the bush or trying to rationalize the decision to make it acceptable only serve to confuse or enrage people. Explain the context as concisely as possible and put the termination decision upfront in the script.

Example 2: Late on a Friday afternoon the office manager called an under-performing administrator into his office to tell her that her employment was being terminated. On Monday morning, who should come bouncing into the office but the administrator, who was completely unaware that she had lost her job. The terminating manager had neglected to provide a letter explaining the termination, and in the meeting, he “pulled the punch” to such a degree that the message was not heard.

Lesson: Never go into a termination meeting without having a letter for the employee reiterating the facts and explaining the support being offered. Be sure to make it clear exactly when the individual is relieved of responsibility. Don’t choose Fridays for terminations. It is difficult to connect with advisers and access support over the weekend.

Example 3: An IT professional was told by her manager that her employment was being terminated because she had not been performing at the expected level. A generous severance package was offered. The dismissal came as a huge surprise to the employee, and while still in the termination meeting, she asked why there had been no prior warning, and what specifically had led to the decision. Her boss proceeded to recount a long list of mistakes, oversights and alleged personal failings. The woman was devastated and launched a wrongful dismissal action against the company.

Lesson: This is not the time for a performance review, neither is it a venue for a frustrated manager to vent. Give an honest, clear and concise reason for the termination. Offer an opportunity for a more complete discussion at a later time, but in the termination meeting, don’t get drawn into a conversation that will only hurt the departing employee more.

Example 4: A general manager of the western division of a national organization had a very close working relationship with the Toronto-based CEO. The GM thought all was well until one day the divisional controller informed him that he was being let go. The CEO had dispatched the general manager’s subordinate to deliver the news, and there was no further contact between the CEO and the dismissed general manager then, or at any time in the future.

Lesson: Don’t duck this responsibility and don’t delegate it, especially to a subordinate of the departing employee. The direct manager should deliver the news. Always thank the individual and shake hands. This confers respect and offers an element of closure for the individual.

Communicating clearly, honestly and with compassion in a termination meeting is challenging. When this difficult communication is handled well, the departing individual’s dignity is preserved, the organization’s prospects of an amicable settlement are enhanced and the risk of a claim is reduced.

It will also enable everyone involved to put the action behind them and return to productive work as soon as possible. It will help the departing individual get through the setback and move on quickly.

Guidelines for termination meetings

•Prepare a script and rehearse it but don’t read it in the meeting.

•Keep it short. Get to the point.

•If the termination is the result of an organizational change, do not include a lengthy explanation of the organization’s strategy, objectives or plans. A few carefully chosen words will do.

•If the reason for the termination is poor performance, poor fit, lack of potential or out-dated skills, tell the truth as carefully as possible. Cite the mismatch between what the organization needs for its future and what the individual offers. Do not give a list of specific shortcomings. If performance management measures have been in place, indicate that they have not resulted in the desired improvement.

•Don’t apologize for the decision. It’s okay to express regret for how difficult this may be for the individual, personally, but do not give any indication that the decision is unjustified or inappropriate.

•Do not disassociate yourself from the action by saying that you had nothing to do with the decision, even if that’s true. Do not say that you disagree, don’t understand or can’t believe what’s happening.

•Briefly outline support offered and note the information is fully explained in the letter. It can be helpful to mention the length of the salary continuance or the amount of the lump sum. Don’t try to cover the details.

•If applicable, explain that a career transition consultant is available to meet with the individual immediately.

•Ask for any company property that should be turned over immediately. Mention or refer to a complete list of company property if there is more to be collected.

•Give the name of a contact person for future questions.

•Be clear about when and how you expect the individual to leave the premises. Explain options for collecting personal belongings.

•Thank the departing employee for something that you can mention with honesty. It could be the person’s contribution, efforts or simply time put in.

•Do not elicit a response. If the individual remains silent, allow the person that privilege.

•Respond to questions and comments by repeating the pertinent parts of the script. Do not get drawn into a performance review, a discussion of the decision or an argument.

•Call the career transition consultant into the room, make introductions, shake hands with the departing employee and leave.

•If there is no career transition consultant on site, repeat your expectations regarding the return of company property, the removal of personal belongings and exiting the premises. Stand up to indicate when it’s time to leave.

•Shake hands, thank the person and wish the departing employee well.

Marge Watters is a founder of Knebel Watters & Associates, Toronto, and KWA Partners, a career management services firm. She is the co-author of “It’s Your Move.” She can be reached at (416) 364-2605 or [email protected].

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