I was 24 years old and working as a Human Resource Manager for a large call centre. I had only been in the role about a week when I had to perform my first employee termination. I had trained for this. I had been coached by others on this very topic. I knew we had the legal grounds to terminate this employee and frankly, he deserved it. So why was I vomiting in the washroom an hour before the meeting?

Terminating an employee sucks. It does not matter why they are being terminated. It is never a pleasant conversation. Now that I have had hundreds of these meetings it is a bit easier but I still get a little queasy from time to time. It helps to have a standard approach that treats the employee well, reduces anxiety and mitigates company risk. Keep in mind, when you terminate an employee – whether for performance or not – you are creating company alumni. This person is out there either promoting or undermining your company. Yes, a terminated employee can feel they were treated well and tell other people, therefore promote your company!

This is how I ensure I treat future alumni well:

Never Terminate On the Spot

I bring this up at most of my training and coaching sessions around terminations and performance management. Never, EVER terminate on the spot. Emotions are high, you may not have the entire story, and there may be legal risks to consider. Once you say “That’s it! I have had enough! You’re fired!” there is no going back. Send the employee home for the day (or several, if an investigation is required) until you get all your ducks in a row. It will pay off in the long run.

Consider Alternatives

Could there be any other causes for the issues you are experiencing? Look at the process, the group, what is the feedback from others? Have you (or their Manager) provided the tools and direction required for success in this position?

Is there another function in the organization that could be filled by this employee? What are his or her strengths and can they be applied elsewhere? If taking this route, obtain the advice of a human resource professional or lawyer to avoid constructive dismissal issues.

Get Advice

Many follow the saying “Hire slow, fire fast” but don’t move too fast. Get some advice from a human resource professional or lawyer first. You need to know your legal obligations and possible risk associated with any termination. Not doing so may lead to expensive settlements and litigation costs.

Put It In Writing

There are two reasons to do this.
1)  you want a legal document outlining what you have offered to the employee in case of litigation and
2)  you want the employee to have a clear understanding of what is happening and when.
The more questions you can answer in your termination letter the less anxiety the employee will have when they get home and the news really sinks in. They will not remember the details of your discussion, so having a reference document really helps. At the end of the letter provide your contact information in case they have any questions.

Plan, Plan, Plan

About 10 years ago I was leading the process of terminating 6 employees in the same office, on the same day. The meetings were split between the regional manager and I. My last one was with the warehouse supervisor. I took this one because his relationship with the manager was not great so I was trying to avoid conflict. I had the meeting in his office in the warehouse and decided to take him out the back door since that is where he was parked and it would avoid possible contact with the manager. The conversation went smoothly and we were even having friendly chit chat as we walked out. Then I noticed that the locksmith was changing the lock on the door as we approached. The employee turned to me and said “Nice Sarah. You couldn’t even wait until I was gone!” and stormed out.

The lesson I learned? You can not plan too much for this meeting. You want to plan out every detail. Where will you sit? Where will they sit? Where are the other employees? When and how will their system/building access be terminated? I could go on and on. Create a checklist (or have a professional create one for you) and think hard about timing.

Also plan your communication. Think about what you are going to say and how you will say it. Consider body language and tone. You want to come across as soft and empathetic as possible. This is not the time for aggression, jokes, or sarcasm. Do not fold your arms and lean back in your chair (I have seen Managers do this too!). Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Do Not Debate

Termination discussions should be concise and to the point. Answer any questions but the decision has been made and this is not the time for debate. I sat in on a termination once with a senior partner who was terminating his Accounting Manager. We prepped ahead of time and discussed this very topic. However during the meeting this concept was ditched. We were there for over an hour while the employee pled his case. I watched slight glimmers of hope rush over his face as the senior partner agreed with some of his points. It was heartbreaking to watch. Of course the end result was the same. I met with the employee a week later to collect some legal documents and he still thought he might be able to change our minds. I kept in touch with him for months afterwards and I found he had a difficult time letting go and moving on with his job search. I think the meeting was a real disservice. Be kind but stand firm.

The Exit

If there is no one around you can take them to their desk to collect their things. You will want to make sure they are not taking sensitive documents, but otherwise give them some space.

If there are employees present, I would suggest either packing up the desk contents and couriering them to the employee or arranging a time to return after hours. No one wants to pack up and be escorted out in front of their peers.

Ensure they have a safe drive home. If they are emotional suggest a friend or family member drive them home or offer to pay for a taxi. If they are using a company car you can have a taxi waiting arranged ahead of time. Do not let them drive the company car home.

You will also want to create a communication plan to advise the rest of your employees of the departure. A human Resource professional can help you do this. Be sure to keep privacy in mind and not give too much detail. The rest of the team may be concerned about their jobs. If there jobs are safe, tell them.

Follow Up

I like to follow up with employees if we had a close relationship. Just checking in to see if they need anything, have questions or if there is anything I can do to help with their job search can mean a lot.

If the person didn’t have an opportunity to say good bye then it may be appropriate to arrange for a lunch or have them come into the office if the situation feels right.

At the end of the day, these conversations are unpleasant but with a little guidance you can ensure the employee is treated with respect and your company is protected from litigation.

I hope this post was helpful. If you are new to employee terminations or just feel you could be doing better, check our people solution – The Respectful Termination.

Sorry this one was so long. Apparently, I can write a book on terminations. If you enjoyed it please remember to share it with your friends and colleagues.

Sarah Mullins is the founder of uptreeHR, a Halifax based human resource consulting firm that is passionate about helping business owners manage their people, set clear expectations and increase performance. We truly believe you can treat your employees well, create an amazing culture and not break the bank.

To book a complimentary 30 minute consult with Sarah, click here.

Sarah Mullins, CPHR
Principle Consultant


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