Terminating an Employee Can Be Difficult – Here are Some Pointers
It may have been easy for Donald Trump in the reality TV show, The Apprentice, but many managers and HR professionals would agree that firing someone is one of the most dreaded parts of their job.
A recent article from the Society of Human Resources Professionals (SHRM) provided some pointers that can help you navigate a drama-free termination.
Preparation and Documentation – and Timing
Documentation of prior discussions of sub-par performance, poor conduct, excessive tardiness or absenteeism, or other issues that may be at the forefront of the termination is key. You expose yourself to potential problems if you have never discussed the issues with your employee and given them an opportunity to improve.
With the exception of rare cases which cause for immediate termination, employers should not rush into making a termination.
Martha Boyd, an attorney with Baker Donelson in Nashville, TN, says “Terminating an employee takes careful deliberation, preparation and documentation. Do not be rushed into terminating in a haphazard, unprepared way by an overeager manager or by pressure to get the employee out of the office for morale, safety or other reasons. You can always put the employee on an administrative leave while you are making and finalizing the decision to terminate.”
It is always prudent to consult with legal counsel prior to terminating an employee if it is expected to be contentious or outside of what is standard.
The Termination Meeting Itself
- The employer should make every effort to have two of its people present for the termination meeting, preferably someone in management and an HR professional, said Timothy Ford, an attorney with Einhorn Barbarito in Denville, NJ.
- Keep the meeting brief. Anne Yuengert, an attorney with Bradley in Birmingham, AL, advises, “The meeting should last five to 10 minutes maximum. It is uncomfortable for the employee and the employer, and nothing good can come of a long meeting.”
- Provide the real reason for termination and avoid debate. Employment-at-will doesn’t mean you are off the hook and shouldn’t provide a legitimate and truthful reason for separation. These can be uncomfortable situations where the employee doesn’t necessarily agree with you. However, employers should cite the real reason as a defense in case there is a wrongful discharge action by the former employee. Yuengert cautions that “refusing to give any reasons for termination when employees are at will ‘does not play well in court, so be ready to explain’”.
- Have a termination letter with you which can serve as your talking points. The letter should include the reason for termination, effective date, and other procedural items such as final paycheck, return of company property, and statuses of benefits such as insurance, bonuses, or any unused PTO. With a termination letter, the employee will have the information when they leave as they may have been caught off-guard and not listened to or absorbed everything that was said in the meeting.
- If the termination follows a series of conversations that you have had about performance, you are able to say something like, “As you know, we have been talking about your performance for the past several months and what changes you need to make to improve. Unfortunately, you have not shown improvements and we need to make a change. We are terminating your employment effective today.”
- If the termination is due to excessive tardiness or absenteeism, have the data compiled and ready to present. For example, “Since starting two months ago, you have been over 15 minutes late for work eight times and absent five days. We have discussed this with you on two occasions and there have not been any improvements in your attendance, so we are terminating your employment effective today.”
Your Tone and Delivery
In addition to being concise and to the point, it is best to be compassionate but firm in your tone, and do not apologize.
“Express understanding, but be prepared to respond with statements such as, ‘I understand you feel that way, but the decision is final,’” says Ford. You should always maintain professionalism, regardless of how the employee conducts themselves. Do not resort to raising your voice, name-calling, or other unprofessional conduct.
Conclude the meeting by asking them if they have any personal belongings at their desk, and then escort them while they gather their things and return their keys and other company property.
Afterward, address the situation with other staff immediately to minimize office gossip. Again, brevity is best. Keep your explanation neutral without going into details. For example, “John Doe is no longer with the company”.
SHRM HR Daily Newsletter, 8/25/2023. “Don’t Shy Away from Tough Conversations When Firing Someone”, August 24, 2023.
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