How to fire employees compassionately
When an employee needs to be let go, it's important to let them leave with their dignity intact.
If an employee is surprised to be fired for cause, some process along the way has broken down.
Terminating an employee because of their actions or behaviors should be the last step in a process of progressive disciplinary actions, or as a result of an infraction so significant, immediate separation was warranted. If the staff member didn't see it coming, or wasn't aware of the rule they broke, something is in need of correction. But if an employer must terminate an employee, doing so compassionately says a lot about how an organization respects and values employees.
Don't sugarcoat it
"Two things to pay attention to in conducting employee separations respectfully and professionally are candor and discreetness," Jonathan Brenner, attorney with Epstein Becker Green, told HR Dive in an email. Terminations are not easy discussions to have, he said, and it can be tempting to sugar coat things; to water down, omit, or distort the reasons for the action; or to be disingenuously apologetic. Being candid with an employee that you are terminating is a sign of respect for that person, and it also avoids the potential appearance of being defensive about the decision and the action being taken.
"In terms of one of the trickiest employment actions, terminating an employee is definitely at the top," Gray Mateo-Harris, labor and employment partner at Barnes & Thornburg, told HR Dive in an interview. One of the biggest mistakes she sees, however, is well before termination. Managing performance and discipline is key; if an employee cannot detect a clear path to the separation, an employer could end up in a difficult scenario with little support to explain how it got there.
When managers insist someone has to be terminated immediately, Mateo-Harris said it's important to ask why — what is the reason for the separation and why is it so urgent? If the response is more emotional than professional, she recommended taking time to make sure the separation is supported by a well-documented disciplinary history or otherwise warranted, and that the company's position is legally defensible.
Don't ignore bad behavior
Too many managers are loathe to terminate an employee, despite poor performance and various disruptions. But keeping underperformers reduces morale and shifts their workload to coworkers who may feel bitter. "If there are no consequences for poor performance," S. Chris Edmonds, founder and CEO of The Purposeful Culture Group, told HR Dive, "why should anyone in the company work hard? It erodes confidence in the company and in company leadership when poor performance is tolerated."
Some employees are simply disruptive; even though that person performs, he or she creates an atmosphere that diminishes the group as a whole. "Great companies do not tolerate bad behavior by anyone," Edmonds said in an email. "They set high standards (defining values in measurable, behavioral terms) and praise aligned behavior and promptly redirect misaligned behavior. Trust and respect will never grow in a work environment where mistreatment of anyone by anyone is tolerated."
Be professional and upfront
When the meeting is held, be prepared to articulate exactly why the employee is being let go and be ready to respond to questions. If there has been progressive disciplinary action, provide the employee with documentation that supports the company's decision. If a significant infraction has occurred (like bringing a firearm to work), provide a copy of the company policy that outlines immediate dismissal is warranted.
If the employee brings up a claim of discrimination or harassment, it should not be dismissed out of hand. Notify the employee that the company will follow internal protocols and follow up with him or her, if needed, to protect the company's legal position.
One of the biggest mistakes Mateo-Harris finds is people making promises they don't intend to keep — most frequently, letting the employee believe an employer won't contest their application for unemployment insurance. If an employer is firing for cause and has a right to contest, it's best not to make false promises.
Another area of concern: A manager apologizing or saying they don't agree with the termination. While it is critically important to show empathy and respect the employee's dignity at termination, managers should be counseled against saying (or putting in writing) anything that undermines the legitimacy of the business decision.
Understand that HR needs to be involved immediately
Brenner believes managers and HR both play a meaningful role in managing the termination. "Managers bring a level of personal knowledge and decisional credibility to the separation meeting," he said, while HR professionals provide another voice that can clarify discussion points and represent the company's policies as a whole.
Personnel law is complex, Edmonds said, "and requires HR professionals to ensure proper procedures are followed to protect the employee and the company." Managers don't typically stay abreast of those laws or procedures so involving HR early on is a requirement. "Managers definitely need to be involved but they will not drive the process," he added. "The HR pros must do that."
Generally, after the manager communicates the reason for the separation and answers any questions relevant to it, the manager leaves the meeting and allows HR to manage the remainder of the process.
HR should have all relevant documentation ready. Scripts and checklists ensure the company provides the employee with all the information they need: COBRA notifications, sick and vacation leave payouts, bonuses that will be paid, and the like. An employer also needs to maintain a list of what company property has to be returned: laptops, ID badges, etc. If there are any employee agreements, non-competes or confidentiality agreements, provide the employee with copies and remind them of their obligations. IT should be notified to change passwords, and disable access codes, as well.
A company should allow time for the employee to collect his or her belongings. If necessary, security may need to be nearby, but use a bit of humanity to determine how and whether that will be needed.
Be a human being
Discretion and compassion are key. Keep the meeting discreet and low profile, Brenner suggested, "to avoid unnecessary open display of the action to peers and colleagues." While they needn't be covert operations, "using a little sensitivity to scheduling such meetings at the end of or after (or before) the workday and on days when fewer colleagues will be present can go a long way."
If the meeting gets emotional, be prepared to provide the employee a few minutes to collect themselves. Be firm, letting them know the decision is not negotiable, but offer a bit of time to regain composure. HR and the manager may want to leave the room for a few minutes. Remember the task is to separate the employee while leaving his or her dignity intact.
Do an exit interview
Terminated employees often don't want an exit interview, but their feedback can be important. If you can arrange to schedule it at a later time (by phone perhaps) when emotions are not running as high, try to do so. Through these interviews, an employer may uncover a previously unknown problem within the organization. It also gives the employee an opportunity to discuss concerns with the employer directly, rather than online, with ex-co-workers or in a lawsuit, Mateo-Harris explained.
When colleagues ask, managers should make clear that the staff member is no longer with the company — period. While employees may reach out to a co-worker personally, employers won't want to accidentally infringe on the terminated employee's right to privacy by revealing any other information.
Managing separation professionally is critical, Edmonds said: "Respectful and professional treatment throughout the transition tells everyone — employees, customers, observers — that the company regards employees highly."
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