As humans, we often falter when approaching things that are awkward and difficult to handle. In these moments, our thought process goes from strategic to survival mode. But just because something is hard doesn’t mean there’s not a proper way to do it.
For example, it would be difficult for many of us to talk to a friend about their troubling behavior. Even if you had observed this behavior for an extended period of time, you’d struggle to think of a way to discuss it without rupturing the friendship.
So you might either stay quiet on the matter, keeping it bottled up until it explodes out in the worst possible way. Devoid of strategy and compassion, your intervention could quickly become a confrontation. And those rarely end well.
Most of us have also had the experience of being in a relationship with someone but deciding that it was time to end things. A simple conversation handled with candor and compassion would achieve this purpose. But the more likely result is a series of sloppy interactions that you hope will convey your intentions even if you don’t eloquently voice them.
This same phenomenon often takes place when a manager needs to fire an employee. Letting a team member go is undeniably difficult. In fact, it’s one of the worst things you’ll ever have to do in the business world.
But that’s why you need to put time and effort into preparation. There’s an inverse relationship between the cruddiness of a task and the amount of thought you need to give it. Blissful tasks, such as taking employees out for a reward lunch, don’t require much planning. Firing, on the other hand, should be approached with the same degree of care as a chef uses when making a soufflé.
When handled with care, the firing (letting go, sacking, dismissing) of an employee becomes an unfortunate episode in the overall journey of your company. But if you botch the process, it has the potential to wreak havoc on everyone involved.
Like it or not, you will be partially defined by the way you handle employee terminations. They actually become part of your company culture. As Mary Kate Miller explains:
Company culture is defined as a set of shared values, goals, practices, and attitudes cultivated by a business. Company culture is often set by leadership, with organizational founders playing a key role in how people feel about the company, the work they do, and where they see the business going. Every organization has a company culture—whether you deliberately cultivate it or not. Building an organizational culture with intention can be the difference between a strong, healthy company culture and a toxic culture. So let’s get intentional about it.
How do you avoid the perception of a toxic culture? It starts with the way you handle potentially toxic situations, such as the firing of an employee.
How to Fire Someone without Burning Them
Every employee is unique and it’s impossible to lay out an exact plan for how you should let them go. The best approach is to have consistent guidelines for terminations and then adapt them to your specific situation. Doing so demonstrates the thoughtful way you’re handling it and ensures the best possible outcome.
Inadequate leaders, on the other hand, seek a drawer full of cookie cutters that they can use in such situations. The more prescribed, they would say, the better. But these boilerplate interactions leave employees past and present feeling as though they’re just nameless ingredients in your generic recipe book.
To bring the maximum amount of personalization and compassion to the process of terminating an employee, use these steps as you navigate a customized course. They’ll help you avoid pitfalls, while also allowing the breathing room to make the process feel authentic.
Have a Plan
No employee should ever be fired on a whim. You should first review your company’s termination policy and make sure you understand the procedures. Potential decisions to make at this point include:
- Will they be allowed to return to their desks after your meeting?
- Will their access to company systems be ended after your meeting?
- Will you provide severance?
- Will you provide a letter of recommendation?
The answers to the first 2 questions will likely be “no,” while the last 2 questions hopefully get a “yes.” Either way, your plan should anticipate anything that might come out of your discussion with the employee.
Final details to prepare in advance include what company property they will need to return, the date their employment ends, and how their final paycheck will be handled.
Tell Them in Person
While it’s understandable if you feel apprehensive about your conversation, you should never send such a sensitive and volatile message in an email, via messenger, or over the phone. Here are just a few of the reasons that your conversation should be held in person:
- It shows respect to the employee, helping them maintain dignity
- It allows them to observe your body language and sense your compassion
- It makes the communication more clear, avoiding misunderstandings
- It creates a setting where they’ll feel more comfortable asking questions
Choose a private location where other employees won’t be able to observe what’s happening. Being dismissed from your job is a painful experience that requires mental processing, so the employee should be safe from interruptions.
Get the Timing Right
Your goal should be to reduce the elements of surprise and inconvenience as much as possible. When the employee is being terminated because of performance issues, you should already have had a series of performance reviews with them so they were made aware of the problems and had a chance to improve. Likewise, any workplace violations should also be documented. Taking this proactive approach gives them an honest chance to keep their job, while also providing you with an avenue to prepare them for the prospect of termination.
On the topic of timing, never fire someone on a Friday. The same goes for the day before a holiday. You’ll want the employee to have access to counseling, professional services, and other resources that will be closed over a weekend or holiday. The last thing you want is for them to be marooned in their home, feeling despondent over what occurred.
Have the Right People Present
It’s important to strike the proper balance with who’s in attendance. If there’s a crowd, the employee could feel intimidated. But it’s essential that you have a witness present, as it can help eliminate potential legal problems.
The most common arrangement is to have the employee’s direct manager lead the conversation. They have a relationship with the employee and can tailor the message to their communication style.
The witness is often from human resources. Their role is to take notes or record the meeting, provide support, and answer any questions the manager might not have an answer for. Always make it clear to the employee that you are taking notes or recording the meeting. Your legal liability is greatly diminished when you have an experienced professional like this in the room.
You may also want to include security personnel to escort the individual to the door following your meeting. This is advisable when you anticipate a volatile reaction from the conversation.
Keep It Simple and Direct
This is not the time for a lengthy discussion or impromptu talking points. If you’ve come to this point, the employee should have had plenty of opportunities to course-correct their performance. You need to deliver the message as clearly and diplomatically as possible. It’s worthwhile to have examples of performance issues on hand if needed, but it’s preferable to avoid getting into the details and inviting an argument.
Be prepared for questions such as:
- When the last paycheck will arrive
- How the payment of unused PTO will be handled
- The longevity of their health insurance
- If they’ll be eligible for unemployment.
If you don’t have answers to these questions, ensure that the HR representative attending the meeting can handle them.
Follow Up with Your Team
Once the dust has settled from your conversation with the employee, there’s another crucial conversation to be had in your office. Round up the rest of the team and let them know what happened. Avoid giving details about why the employee was terminated because that should be kept private. In fact, your team will take note of how you show respect for former employees in moments like these. It’s a bit counterintuitive, but when handled correctly, these frank but thoughtful conversations can boost morale in the aftermath of a termination.
Continue Building Your Business
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