Terminating an employee the right way

It’s never an easy task, but there is a humane and sensitive way to approach it


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You’ve just hired a new employee who on paper you thought would be a superstar. Instead, you have already seen problems in the first few weeks that show you this employee is not working out. Now you are faced with that sick feeling in your stomach and loathsome task of terminating your superstar and asking yourself, “How can I do this?”

Terminating even the worst of employees is never an easy task, but there is a right way to let someone go.

In my HR tenure, I have been faced with overseeing group layoffs and individual terminations. Through these challenging situations, I have learned valuable skills that I hope you can benefit from when termination is the only alternative.

Here are some of the primary considerations:

Step 1: Prepare your core message and stick to it. I don’t mean write it up and read from it, but do rehearse what you will say and stay on message. When an employee is emotional, it can be easy to get derailed from your message, so stay focused about what and how you are delivering the information.

Step 2: Be succinct and brief. This conversation is not a negotiation. You do not want any room for doubt that the decision is final, so don’t explain your decision over and over.

Step 3: Treat the departing employee with dignity and respect. Sometimes, through no fault of his/her own, the wrong person was hired. Fitting a square peg into a round hole just doesn’t work. Allowing employees to leave with their head held high is important for all concerned.

Step 4: Manage the reaction. Some employees may get angry or cry, and it is your job to stay focused and calm and not react, but to stick to your message.

Step 5: Listen for signs the employee has heard you. For example, the employee will say something like, “When will I get my paycheck?” or “When is my last day?” Keep in mind that some employees get to this point of understanding sooner than others. These are good signals that they have comprehended what you have said because they are thinking about their next actions.

Step 6: Explain next steps. Outline items such as the final employment date, when the employee benefits will end, etc.

Step 7: Anticipate questions. Can I say goodbye to my friends? I am in the middle of a project; can I finish this work before I go? Being prepared for the myriad of questions that may arise will help you move the process along and assist the employee with his or her exit.

Step 8: Deliver the message on any day but Friday. If an employee is disgruntled or has questions, there is no one for him or her to talk with at your company on the weekend. The goal is to help the employee move on from your workplace, not stew about issues.

Legal considerations

 • No surprises, unless an employee’s actions are egregious and immediate termination is the only answer. The employee whom you are terminating should not be blindsided by this course of action. This means that any performance issues have been discussed with the employee prior to termination and they have been given an opportunity to improve the performance problem. If they choose not to improve they have essentially fired themselves.

 • Whenever possible, it is advisable to have another person in a management role participate in the termination meeting. This is helpful so that, should the employee wish to pursue a claim of wrongful termination, you have someone present who has witnessed the conversation that took place in the termination meeting. This can prevent the “he said, she said” issue. It’s helpful to make sure that this additional person has a reason for being there and a role to play. For example, they could be the person who tells the departing employee about COBRA benefits or other administrative details of termination.

 • Following the termination meeting, it is critical that you document what was said to the employee along with the employee’s responses. By doing this you won’t be struggling to remember what was said months later should the employee pursue a claim.

While none of us enjoys terminating an employee, it is sometimes a necessary part of our roles as managers and leaders. If you follow the steps outlined, you will feel confident that you can convey this message in a humane and sensitive way.

Delise West, president and founder of Human Resource Partners, with offices in Concord and Dover, can be reached at 603-749-8989 or through h-rpartners.com. 

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