Treating terminated employees with compassion and respect
By Brian Kreissl
As a manager, I count myself lucky in that I’ve never actually had to fire anyone.
While I am aware there’s a school of thought that says managers haven’t really proven themselves until they have had to terminate an employee, I wouldn’t necessarily hold it against a leader if she had never had to fire someone. Perhaps she never encountered any major performance issues with her team or had to deal with any type of organizational downsizing.
I also believe termination should generally be the last resort. It’s a much more important skill to be able to work with employees and manage and improve their performance through coaching, training and expectation setting.
Likewise, even if there aren't any major performance issues — or if there just isn’t a fit with the role in question — it’s much more challenging to come up with creative solutions to retain employees and make use of their talents elsewhere in the organization than it is to just fire them.
Acting with courage, confidence
However, managers do need to have the courage and confidence to make the decision to terminate when absolutely necessary — especially if the termination is for performance-related reasons. It is critical to act decisively and be able to make such a decision in a timely manner.
There’s no point in keeping an employee on if that person just isn’t a fit with the organization and there is little chance of that individual ever becoming a productive employee.
But once the decision has been made to terminate someone's employment — usually in consultation with senior management and HR — managers need to manage the process in a professional yet compassionate manner. Firing someone should never be a pleasant experience, but it should be done as painlessly as possible for all concerned.
Above all, it’s important to treat employees as human beings and remember that people have a lot invested in their jobs and careers. Work provides us with our livelihoods, a sense of fulfillment and camaraderie with our colleagues and a large part of our identities.
Naturally, the prospect of losing all of that is going to be a very unpleasant experience in the vast majority of cases. Even if someone is fully expecting to lose their job and is thoroughly miserable, hearing they’ve just been fired is almost always a negative feeling, even if it does sometimes come with a certain amount of relief.
Conducting the termination meeting
There are many steps involved in terminating an employee, but one of the most important is the actual termination meeting itself. The following are some suggestions on conducting a termination meeting effectively and in a dignified manner:
- Conduct the meeting face to face in a private place where you aren’t likely to be interrupted.
- Try to have the meeting at the end of the day after most employees have gone home. Avoid terminating employees during the Holidays, immediately on their return from leave or when they are experiencing personal or emotional trauma.
- Obtain legal and/or HR advice in advance, particularly where just cause is alleged.
- Have a termination letter/release prepared in advance and signed by the employee's manager or director. However, avoid simply reading the letter to the employee.
- Ensure the individual’s manager is the person who actually breaks the news to the employee. While HR should be there to assist and provide details regarding severance and support being provided to the employee, the manager should do most of the talking.
- While it is often appropriate to show some level of compassion, it is important not to be too emotional or display any anger.
- Ensure there is no doubt that the person’s employment has been terminated through the use of language that is clear and unequivocal. Don’t negotiate with the employee or give any indication your decision isn’t final. However, it is important to tell the employee if there is any reasonable chance of redeployment.
- Thank the person for his efforts and express regrets about the termination (provided the person isn’t being terminated for cause).
- Consider having an outplacement counselor waiting in another room to speak with the employee immediately after the termination meeting.
- Allow the employee to pack his things and leave in a dignified manner. Consider allowing him to return to collect his personal belongings later (unless he is being terminated for cause and is likely to be a security risk).