The Right Way to Terminate an Employee

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No HR professional gets into the industry to fire or terminate employees. But it is unfortunately a necessary evil of the job.

“Letting an employee go is never an easy decision,” says Kari Rosand Scanlon, Principal Consultant of Spotlight HR Solutions.

That’s why there are several important steps an HR professional , small business owner or manager should do before letting the employee go, says Scanlon. Including:

Pinpoint reasons: First, the manager needs to pinpoint the main reason for letting someone go – layoff, violation of policy, performance – then the manager, with the help of an HR specialist, needs to ensure that the reason is not discriminatory in anyway.

Setup termination meeting: From there, the manager should plan for the termination meeting. During the meeting, the manager should provide a short explanation for the decision. This is not the time to rehash the employee’s entire employment history nor is this the time for the manager and employee to negotiate extending the working relationship.

Final pay and benefits information: The meeting should also include information on the employee’s final pay and benefit information, including COBRA.

Timing is important: The timing of the meeting is important too.

“While Fridays seem like a good day for a meeting, the best day is Monday,” says Scanlon. “This lets everyone at work adjust to working without the employee in the office. It also allows the employee time to begin pursuing an alternative job right away.”

Notify existing employees/department: The manager needs to consider notifying the current employees and customers about the decision, pending on role and position with the company. It’s important to provide an truthful explanation while maintaining privacy. Current employees will be interested in knowing how job duties are going to be divided up while customers will want reassurances that their needs will still be met. With careful planning, the manager will be able to quickly move forward.

Termination meetings  101: What you need to know

The individual responsible for delivering the termination message can find separation meetings difficult and is often racked with uncertainty and anxiety about how to deliver the message, says Jim Greenway, Executive Vice President, Sales and Marketing Effectiveness for Lee Hecht Harrison, a global career outplacement and transition leader.

“Preparation and training ensures separations are handled with skill and sensitivity, resulting in better outcomes for both the company and the exiting employee, says Greenway. “Each departing employee should be treated with dignity, respect and honesty, while being given the appropriate information and support needed to make good decisions.”

If the co-workers left behind feel the departing employee was mistreated during a termination, the organization can quickly lose the trust, loyalty, and goodwill of its employees, adds Greenway. Here are some additional points to ponder and prepare when it comes time to terminate an employee, says Greenway:

Preparation/notification is key: Prior to the notification meeting, HR or Legal should prepare managers for possible questions the employee may have and offer input as to how each should be addressed.  HR should be comfortable answering questions related to pay and benefits (such as vacation days, severance, insurance, COBRA and commissions), and well-versed in the procedures for returning company items (including credit cards, laptop, car or cell phone).

Identify any special circumstances: The company should also identify any special considerations that could exacerbate the situation.  For example, it’s recommended that organizations try to avoid releasing someone on his or her birthday or a company anniversary date.  Greenway recommends the same tips as Scanlon – notifications should take place as early in the day as possible on any day other than Friday.

“Early or mid-week gives the employee an opportunity to begin taking action in a job search, rather than facing a weekend with less ability to move forward in a search,” says Greenway.

Make sure the meeting is private: Notification meetings should be held in a private area—preferably a conference room where other employees cannot see or hear the employee—and should take about 10 minutes.  Meetings should begin by succinctly communicating the company’s decision and the reason for the decision.

“It’s recommended that the notifier allow time for the employee to respond and voice concerns, while resisting any impulse to jump in, argue or justify the decision,” says Greenway.

Notifiers should stick to the message, but hear the employee out. It’s important that the exiting individual’s work is transitioned smoothly, so briefly discuss projects that are pending or any work that will need to be re-assigned.

Handling potential conflict: If the individual responds with anger, notifiers should stay calm, give the employee time to vent, and then repeat the message.  For someone who responds emotionally to the news, show compassion and understanding but return to the company message.  Avoid clichéd sentiments (“I know how you feel” or “it’ll be OK.”) that may minimize the employee’s feelings. Keep in mind that stress may make it difficult for an employee to process all the information you’re providing, so have a folder of relevant materials ready that he or she can review later.

Outplacement services: If outplacement services are being provided, it can be very helpful to have a career coach ready to step in immediately following the notification.  In a private conversation, the coach can diffuse unproductive behavior, manage risk and provide the individual with an opportunity to deal with feelings in a productive way.

“This meeting will help put the separation in perspective, and ensure the individual gets focused on the future rather than on the past,” says Greenway. “Now, the individual is ready to start taking preliminary steps forward, assess available options and identify the best path toward a successful transition.”

Key mistakes to avoid when terminating an employee

In an article published by the Society of Human Resources Management, Eric Meyer, a partner in Philadelphia-based Dilworth Paxson LLP’s labor and employment group, said one of the biggest mistakes employers make is failing to properly document the reason for a disciplinary termination. HR managers and the employee’s supervisor should carefully measure the individual’s poor performance or noncompliance against company policies long before the termination discussion.

“Employers should review the employee’s file, make sure the reason for the termination holds water and make sure the termination decision is consistent with the company’s practices and policies,” Meyer advised.

To avoid negative repercussions such as wrongful-termination lawsuits, companies should have written procedures for firing employees, said Rob Wilson, CEO of Employco USA, a human resource outsourcing company based in Westmont, Ill.  During the termination meeting with the employee, it’s important to present all documents about job performance, such as work reviews and written warnings, he stressed.

“Be sure to explain clearly, yet courteously, as to the grounds for termination, avoiding debate on the issue,” Wilson said. “Handle the termination with a human element, treating them as a person and not a number, and be sure to keep the termination confidential, to maintain the former employee’s privacy.”

Even companies that operate in states that allow them to fire workers “at will”—that is, with or without cause or notice—should still articulate a business reason, according to April Boyer, partner in K&L Gates’ labor, employment and workplace safety practice. This step can help protect an employer should a worker file a lawsuit claiming his firing was illegal.

Meyer said it’s also important to have a witness present.

“Two people should do the termination,” he said. “One person should take notes of what is said. If there is litigation, this will avoid a dispute about what was said.”

Other mistakes, he noted, include categorizing a disciplinary termination as a mere “layoff” and deviating from disciplinary policy by creating exceptions for certain employees.

Boyer, too, has seen HR managers make plenty of mistakes when firing people. They include:

Not considering protected characteristics: “Be certain that the employee’s age, marital status, race, gender, pregnancy status, request for FMLA leave, sexual orientation, disability, religion, national origin or other protected activities—such as whistle-blowing acts or complaints of discrimination or harassment—are not considered in the decision to discharge the employee,” Boyer said.

Communicating the decision inaccurately: “Be honest,” she said. “Be concise.  Do not talk too much.  Do not argue.  Do not apologize.  Do not soften the message.  If there is litigation, this will avoid a conflict between the company’s reason for terminating the employee and what was communicated to the employee.  Let the employee express himself or herself at the end of your comments.” Moreover, if someone is let go for performance reasons, don’t send other workers an e-mail praising the employee’s dedication and hard work and reporting that the employee resigned, Boyer stressed.

Failing to consult with an attorney ahead of time: “The legal fees incurred to consult with an attorney before terminating an employee are minor compared to the cost of litigating a termination that is not handled properly,” Boyer warned.

Failing to retrieve company property: Also important, Wilson said, is helping terminated employees move forward by offering the following:

Financial transition planning: Fired employees can benefit from advice on finding a new job that pays enough to cover their bills. This type of service can also assist with 401(k) and other retirement planning.

Upfront compensation: At the time of termination, provide the employee’s accrued salary to him or her in person, with a paper check. At the same time, financially compensate the person for remaining vacation days or paid-time-off days.

There is going to be a time where every HR professional has to terminate an employee. These tips can help you plan, prepare and remain professional.

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