button Vol. 9
No. 1

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State Of The Unions: Changes & Tactics
line Recruitment Concerns: Crucial Changes Evolving
line Retention: The Flip Side of Recruiting
line Terminating Employees:
Ten Tips On Firing

line Employer Briefs

Braun Consulting News
News on Personnel, Labor Relations and Benefits

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Top Terminating Employees: Ten Tips On Firing

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Checkmark Graphic A Few Words About Terminating Employees

We need to start this article by saying that in over 35 years of working with employers we have never met a supervisor that actually liked or enjoyed terminating employees. An involuntary termination of employment is a double failure since it shows that the employee could not meet the needs and expectations of the employer and it also demonstrates that the employer may not have done what was needed in the hiring process and in managing the person once hired.

The Tips in this article are practical tips, and apply only after the decision has been fully made to fire an employee. This is not about the process leading up to the firing, or the aftermath. It is about the actual "termination" itself.

There are a few key attitudes and warnings to keep in mind when dealing with firing or terminating an employee.

First, it is important to remember that the eyes of other employees, as well as senior management will be on you. Your actions will be noted and judged whether you like it or not, and your actions in this situation can have some long-term consequences about how others perceive you, as well as other more practical consequences like litigation.

The reason for this is rather simple. Terminating an employee is likely the most stressful and definitive act possible in the workplace. For some people being terminated can be as stressful as a death in the family and divorce. It is stressful for you, for the employee, and for those around you. People will be watching how you handle this situation because they will most likely be thinking "Is that how I would want to be treated if I were being fired?"

Those higher in your organization will note how you handled the stress, how your "people skills" were, how effective you were, and how you got this tough job done. It is a test of your capability in a very difficult and challenging area, and how you handle a termination will say a lot about you.

Other people in the organization will note your actions and weigh them against how they would feel if you were firing them. This is one of the more memorable events that will happen for most employees, so it will likely stick in their memory.

This is why these tips can be so important.

Doing the job right can help you out and get you through a tough assignment, doing it wrong can have a lasting effect in many different areas.

Second, it can be helpful to assume that everyone coming to work for you will someday have to be terminated. If you have this attitude, one of being prepared "in case" you have to terminate someone at any time, you'll most likely take the time to have a plan in place for terminating employees.

No matter what you think of any given situation with an employee, there is always a chance that you may have to terminate them. It's not pretty, but it's a fact. Having that in mind can make it much easier if it becomes necessary. It may be like many other things where preparedness makes the difference. For example, if you are ready and have a plan for what you would do in case of a fire at work you can relax and know you are prepared, and if a fire actually does happen then you are more likely to execute what you need to do with less error and more efficiency. This doesn't mean you "want" a fire, or are "expecting" one necessarily, but that you are always prepared in case one should break out.

Realizing that you may be called upon to fire any employee can provide you with a helpful frame of mind in being prepared for that eventuality if and when it should arrive.

And third, most employees report they had at least some inkling their job was in jeopardy when they got fired. Despite this, the act of actually getting released often leaves them feeling humiliated, anxiety-ridden and immediately powerless. Whether they saw it coming or not, the three main concerns first in the mind of someone you are firing often tend to be related to the following areas:

  • How do I leave the job site with some semblance of self-respect, and with the information and materials I may need to help me in my job search?
  • What will I tell my significant other/family/friends etc.?
  • How will I afford to stay afloat now that I'm unemployed?
Now that the stage is set, lets move onto some tips for terminating an employee.

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Checkmark Graphic Tip 1 - Get Help: Utilize The Backing Of Your Organization

Your Human Resources department and your supervisor should be consulted and utilized as much as possible during this entire process. Seek out and use any help that is available and appropriate within your organization.

For example, it is usually best to have the help of another person during the actual termination interview. They should be present to be a witness and to take notes. Their primary purpose for being there is to observe and document the proceedings, but they may also be there to lend support, if necessary, in the appropriate manner decided upon in advance.

Offer the employee who is going to be notified of the decision an opportunity to have someone with them at the meeting if that is practical given the circumstances. The more comfortable everyone can be the better off everyone will be.

If security is a potential issue be sure to utilize any security personnel you may have in your organization. If there are no security personnel at your job site then have a plan for others to be available to help you if necessary. Have them close by but not in the meeting room. This is not a Court Room where the decision is handed down and then the person is hauled off. Remember to protect the self-respect of the employee being terminated.

Don't go it alone and take advantage of every means of support you can possibly use during this procedure. If possible, consider paying for a reputable out-placement firm or human resources/labor relations consultant to be onsite and help with the proceedings.

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Checkmark Graphic Tip 2 - Plan The Logistics: Where, When, How Long, Etc.

The planning and preparation for the termination meeting should include all of the logistical elements that will come into play.

Here are some of the most important that should be considered:

Check Graphic  Where: Where will the meeting be held?

Tip: A neutral location is best. Not in your office, not in theirs, not in public. A neutral conference room, meeting room, or unoccupied lunchroom etc. is usually the best. Schedule the time and make sure there are no conflicts in the schedule.

Check Graphic  When: What time of day and what day of the week?

Tip: Advice varies, but many professionals agree that the meeting should probably take place in the early to late afternoon (but not at the end of the day) and in the middle of the week. Try to hold the termination meeting at a time and location that will not parade the employee through the job site at a peak period.

Mid-week terminations will allow the employee to reach out for legal or other advice they may need to help them cope during the week. It will not leave them in a situation where they are facing a weekend of going over things in their mind without being able to seek help.

Note: Avoid firings around holidays or birthdays etc. Unless it is critical the employee move on waiting a day or so will reduce the trauma or the termination.

Check Graphic  How Long: How long will the meeting last?

Tip: Between 5 and 15 minutes is considered optimal. The purpose of this meeting is to inform the employee of the decision, not to debate it or review it. If the basic information is prepared in advance, including written materials, then the job can be done in a relatively short period of time. Most professionals agree that shorter is better.

If the employee wants to debate the decision ask them to use the grievance procedure or to write you a letter after they have thought it over for a day or so. No in-person debates, but a letter lets them have their "last word" if that will help them get through the process.

Check Graphic  Who Will Be There?

Tip: Try to get another supervisor or HR person to be in attendance as a witness and to take contemporaneous notes. Other than that, make sure that there are no other people in the room at the time unless the employee themselves have asked someone to come with them. No groups - a limit of four is appropriate.

Check Graphic  Getting In And Out: How will I arrive at and leave the meeting?

Tip: Try to make sure that you can exit the interview gracefully and at the time of your own choosing. You don't want to be stuck in a situation where the employee won't leave when you want them to, or where you have to walk out of a situation where things have not been resolved and you have to "escape".

Plan what you will do when it is time to leave and stick with the plan. Tell the employee up front that you have another appointment in about 15 minutes. Inform them that you wanted them to be treated with respect by a prompt notification of the decision. Again, invite the employee to write you a letter or use the grievance process if they wish to vent.

Check Graphic  What Happens With The Employee: Where will they go after the interview?

Tip: Have a plan for where the employee will go or what they will do after the interview. If there is a security risk prepare for the necessary precautions, such as having the person escorted off the premises. If there is no security risk consider whether the person will leave the job site immediately, or whether they will gather their belongings etc. from their work location.

Follow your organization's procedures to the letter.

Don't leave the employee hanging and have a detailed plan in place for their activity after the interview. Ask them if they would like some help from another employee of their choosing with final tasks, and if they do make it happen.

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Checkmark Graphic Tip 3 - Expect The Unexpected

In preparing for the interview, go over anything you can think of that might throw you for a loop.

Try to anticipate any questions and prepare your answers - then think of any crazy or off the wall comments, questions, or behaviors you might get.

If you go through possible scenarios you will feel more comfortable facing this situation.
Think about what can go wrong, and how to diffuse it.

Here are some examples:

  • The employee starts to cry.
  • The employee will not answer a question.
  • The employee continually "does not understand".
  • The employee "demands" to talk to someone else.
  • The employee stands up or starts to walk around.
  • The employee threatens you.
  • The employee will not listen to you.

Ideally termination should never come as a surprise to the employee, and this should reduce the risk of unexplained or unanticipated behavior. However, part of being prepared, both psychologically and physically, is to know what you would do if the "unexpected" happens.

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Checkmark Graphic Tip 4 - Prepare Yourself Emotionally

Firing or terminating an employee is not only stressful for the employee; it is stressful for the employer or supervisor as well. If you are conducting a termination meeting be prepared for your own emotional state - before, during, and after the meeting.

Before the meeting allow some time to review your notes and get yourself together emotionally. Breathe fully, try to relax, and set up your expectation to succeed.

It is best to contain regret, anger, frustration, sadness, or other emotions. Stick to the tone and purpose of this meeting, both factually and emotionally.

Prepare your self to respond so that if the employee gets argumentative or defensive that you keep your responses measured and factual.

If possible, prepare to observe your own emotions and behavior during the meeting and use it as a learning experience.

And finally, you may find it helpful to prepare a "reward" for yourself after this is all over. Give yourself time to unwind or pamper yourself a bit. Don't schedule highly taxing or demanding jobs right after this meeting, and don't expect to be at your peak. It may be easier if you know in advance that you have a reward coming for a job well done.

Allow yourself time to process your own emotions and the results of the meeting without being rushed or distracted. Briefly express your emotion to a fellow supervisor since verbalizing will often help move the emotions along (Boy I hate this part of my job etc.).

This can be a valuable process and learning situation, utilize it to its fullest potential.

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Checkmark Graphic Tip 5 - Control The Interview

From the moment you contact the employee for the interview until the moment you depart your goal should be to control the interview. By "control" we mean that you direct the course of the interview and dictate its timing and outcome.

Of course this is idealized. If you are lucky and well prepared the interview will go according to plan and you will be in control. If the interview goes off the rails it is because you let it.

You have covered the logistical elements in your preparation for the interview so this should go a long way towards controlling the interview.

However, there are other elements that are involved in keeping control of the interview such as the following:

Check Graphic  Decide what "tone" will you set and stick to it. It is usually advisable to set a positive tone if possible. This means that you can present the situation (in your overall tone, tone of voice, choice of words, etc.) as one of a necessary decision that is the best for both parties (since you know work has not been going well for some time etc.). If the employee does not agree with this, you can still maintain that "tone" for the meeting anyway and still maintain control of this factor throughout the meeting. A firm but courteous tone is often the most effective under the circumstances. Do not be distracted from your "script" of how the meeting must progress.

Check Graphic  Decide how much time will be spent on each segment of the interview. Allocate a certain amount of time for each part of the interview, such as the introductory words you use, the time spent on signing any papers or discussing any documentation involved, and how long you allow the employee to talk in any given segment.

Check Graphic  Decide how to end the interview. If possible, conclude the meeting with a handshake and a sincere wish that the employee will do well in the future. You can also reaffirm your organization's willingness to provide transition tools to the employee if appropriate.

Check Graphic  Decide in advance that you will be prepared and do your best to maintain control throughout the interview. Be open to the possibility that things may not go exactly as you planned them to, but expect to succeed.

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Checkmark Graphic Tip 6 - Give Clear Explanations

Make sure that any release or other paperwork involved with the termination is written in plain, understandable language.

If documents are written in confusing legal jargon it is still necessary for the employee to fully understand it.

For example, in the case of Thomforde v. IBM, 406 F.3d 500 (8th Cir. 2005), the 8th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals found that confusing language in a release did not serve to place the employee on sufficient notice that he was releasing any age discrimination claim that he had against the Company. Because of the agreement's lack of clarity and IBM's failure to explain what its language meant, the Court held that the agreement was not written so that the intended participants could understand it, as required by the OWBPA (Older Worker Benefit Protection Act). Because the release failed to satisfy OWBPA's statutory-waiver requirements, the court reinstated the case and sent it back to the trial court for further proceedings.

Any explanations about the details surrounding the termination, such as exactly when the termination is effective, what the severance pay will be, when they can expect their last check, what services are available to them to make the transition, etc. should be stated clearly, definitively and in easily understandable language.

Always tell the employee that a confirming letter will follow regarding any benefits since major "he said - she said" misunderstandings can occur at stressful meetings such as one for termination of employment.

Most people will be in an emotional state and their grasp on details and memory will probably not be at their peak.

This is one of the reasons that it is important both psychologically and legally to present information in a clear and unambiguous way. Doing so also tends to "ground" the situation and keep a rational and decisive tone to the information and its presentation.

Again, confirm all commitments in a letter so that there is documentation of exactly what it is you committed to at the time of termination.

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Checkmark Graphic Tip 7 - Be Professional

While you can't control an employee's actions, you can maintain a positive and professional attitude that may help prevent any bitterness.

Keeping the tone of a termination meeting positive can avoid creating a tense atmosphere that may make your employee resentful and more likely to resort to (at best) legal action or (at worst) a hostile rampage.

Have everything ready and in order, and move smoothly from one part of the meeting to the next.
Be organized and follow a script if possible.

Have all paperwork ready to sign, a check for the employee if appropriate, and all logistical elements in line ready to go. Don't forget that letter confirming what post employment benefits the employee will be eligible for. Make it clear that only items in the letter are available in post employment.

Being prepared and keeping a controlled and respectful tone will likely be the most important elements in conducting yourself professionally in a termination meeting.

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Checkmark Graphic Tip 8 - Respond To The Employee As A Person

Don't overlook the fact that you are dealing with a person in a potentially volatile situation. Being prepared helps, that way you can look at the other person and respond appropriately to however they might react.

Think about THEM, and not strictly about what YOU are going to do or are doing.

Think about the employee as a person.

Look the employee in the eye.

Watch your tone of voice when speaking.

Take time to listen to what they say and pause before you speak in response.

Even though you are in control of the interview, respond appropriately based on the situation, not just what you have in your plan. You can be compassionate, yet forceful, and you can be empathetic without being apologetic.

Remember, you are dealing with a person, another human being. It is often our tendency to make someone or something an abstraction if we are trying to remove ourselves from a difficult situation and this can lead to shutting the other person out, or not being responsive to their actual behavior.

Try not to let the unpleasantness of the situation lead to treating the employee as an abstraction, or a nuisance.

When they are in front of you in this meeting do your best to treat them like a human being who deserves your respect and humanity.

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Checkmark Graphic Tip 9 - Congratulate Yourself: Review Your Performance And Move On.

After you have completed terminating the employee you can review the situation and your own performance.

Whatever happened in this whole process you can learn from it and move on. Assess the situation and how you did, and incorporate what you learned into your arsenal of skills to use in the future.

Talk to your colleagues, supervisor or a group of other managers to debrief. This will give you a chance to talk about the feelings that you experienced and to hear the reactions of the others involved.

Congratulate yourself for confronting and working through a difficult situation.

Learn what you can, reward yourself for what you did right, and move on.

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Checkmark Graphic Tip 10 - Some Do's And Don'ts

Here are a few more suggested "Do's" for terminating an employee:

  • Terminate in the first ten minutes of the conversation. Avoid a long build-up to soften the blow because this will often only confuse and cloud the message.

  • Be clear and answer questions. Make sure the employee understands that they're being terminated. Once you've explained the situation, let the employee ask questions.

  • Let your employee respond. Let the employee speak their mind. Acknowledge any valid points and tell the employee that you appreciate their input and candidness.

  • End on a positive note. Thank the employee for their contributions and wish them luck in the future. When the meeting is over, stand up and shake their hand.

  • Expect the best out of your self, this situation, and the response of the employee.

  • Rehearse what you will say and how you conduct the meeting if possible.

  • Put yourself in the employee's shoes, then do what you feel is right.

  • Specify clearly why the employee is being terminated and the effective date and time of the termination.

  • Inform the employee of any rights or entitlements that they may have coming.

  • Ensure the return of any property that is the employers.

  • Cover all areas of security, including computer passwords, access to company property or data, and physical security of the job site and other employees.

  • Ask the employee if he or she understands the reasons for the termination.

  • Focus your discussion on performance related issues.

  • Arrange for the employee to remove personal effects in private.

  • If possible, offer the employee an opportunity to resign.

  • Document the termination conference.

Here are a few more suggested "Dont's" for terminating an employee:

  • Don't give employees false hope and say you'll help them find a job.

  • Don't say, "I'm sure your not going to have any trouble."

  • Don't pass the buck and say this firing was not your idea.

  • Don't give platitudes and say, "You'll feel better when you sleep on it."

  • Don't say, "I feel really bad about this." Saying these things only makes the situation worse

  • Don't get defensive.

  • Don't interrupt, contradict or try to defend yourself or the company. Arguing will only create resentment and frustration on the part of the employee.

  • Don't assess blame or make apologies. There's no reason to blame the employee or the company for the termination. Just explain that the company's needs don't match the employee's particular skills.

  • Don't apologize, you can express regret that the employment relationship didn't work out, but don't apologize.

  • Don't debate with the employee. Give honest answers, but don't debate.

  • Don't make value judgments or attempt to analyze the reasons for dismissal. Cite the reasons briefly and factually.

  • Don't take responsibility for the failure. You may want to simply express regret that the opportunity did not work out.

  • Don't use words like "incompetent" or "dishonest". Focus on performance.

  • Don't offer advice. Listen respectfully, but don't offer advice or recriminations.

  • Don't discuss the termination with anyone other than the employee and those directly involved.

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Checkmark Graphic Conclusion

Firing is rarely rewarding, but it helps to face it as something that will inevitably happen in your organization.

It can actually be a potential growth process, both for yourself and your organization.

It may not be easy or fun, but it is necessary. With proper preparation and a good attitude towards it, terminating an employee can be done with the minimum amount of disruption and the most positive good that can come out of the situation.

For more tips on firing visit our earlier article Terminating Employees: Ease The Pain.

If you need help in this area feel free to contact us using our contact form.

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