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Terminating Employees with Tact

Terminating employees is the last thing any business owner or manager wants to do.

It can be painful for everyone involved, regardless of the reason (layoffs, furloughs, termination with cause, and so on). Most people in this role, particularly in HR, are sensitive to the impact to the employee. Unfortunately, however, ending an employment relationship is a necessary evil for any employer from time to time.

But sometimes, in our attempts to “make it easier” on the employee (or on ourselves), we can inadvertently make a bad situation worse. Aside from inadvertently increasing the risk of wrongful termination litigation, employers can make it emotionally more difficult than it needs to be. Here are a few tips for “terminating with tact” and conducting the task no one likes with as much grace and legal compliance as possible.

1: Don’t draw it out.

The employee may or may not have any idea of what’s about to hit when you call them into that room (that being said, for performance-based terminations it shouldn’t be a surprise, if you’ve done a good job of working through your progressive discipline process). Do them a favor: don’t keep them in suspense. A termination can come like a punch to the gut, and we sometimes try to “soften” the blow with small talk. However, all that does is extend the pain; and worse, it can cause confusion around what you’re there to talk about. The meeting should be short and sweet, not up for debate, and take no more than about 10 minutes (the decision has already been made, this is just the communication of it).

2: Do be prepared to answer questions.

You are going to get questions, the majority of which are predictable. They’ll want to know about their final paycheck and benefits. They might ask about severance pay, whether remaining time off will be paid out to them, what company property must be returned, and so on. Be ready with answers. Otherwise, you’ll have to get back to them, and that’s just another way of unnecessarily drawing out the difficult process.

3: Don’t give them false hope.

It’s common for employees to be shell-shocked; most will remain polite and in control, but some may react in ways they ordinarily would not.

It’s appropriate to show some humanity, allowing them a moment to gather themselves or to share their reaction. In fact, it can be helpful for everyone to give the employee a chance to express their thoughts. But sometimes distraught employees will try to negotiate or argue with you. Our role at this point is to be there but say little. Don’t debate. Don’t entertain or pretend to entertain their arguments. Don’t respond to attempts to negotiate. Don’t tell them everything is going to be okay if you don’t know that.

For the conversations that you feel may be particularly risky, plan ahead and protect yourself and your employees. You can engage a local off-duty police officer or contact the police ahead of time to alert them you may have a risky termination.

4: Do try to help them, if you can and if appropriate.

Particularly when it comes to layoffs and furloughs, employers can often help tremendously with the former employee’s next steps. Even if your organization can’t offer financial help (e.g., a severance package or outplacement services), you may be able to provide assistance with the job search process, resume updating, managers potentially offering to be references if appropriate, the unemployment process, etc. Such steps can help ease a painful period and also help hasten an employee’s ability to find new employment (which can also shorten the time they might potentially find themselves thinking about wrongful termination lawsuits or collecting unemployment).

For more information on how to handle this most sensitive and sometimes challenging employment duty, join us on November 2, 2017 for our webinar, “Terminate with Tact.”