How to Handle Terminating an Employee In the Modern Workforce

professional skills

Firing an employee can be an uncomfortable experience, but it is a necessary part of any HR manager's job. Read on for helpful tips on how to go about the process in as smooth a manner as possible.

Termination in the Modern Workplace

It may not be the most enjoyable part of the job, but terminating employees is something that comes with the territory of being an HR manager. Whether it's downsizing, layoffs, or some other form of termination, you're going to have to fire someone eventually.

In addition to being uncomfortable, mishandling an employee termination can also become a legal liability. If you don't cover all your bases, you may commit an error and end up with a wrongful termination lawsuit on your hands. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported 88,778 charges of workplace discrimination in 2014, and per the report, ''discharge continues to be the most common issue for all bases under Title VII, the ADEA and the ADA.''

Terminating an employee is a delicate art that you will need to master, not just because it's a part of the job, but because improper practice and wrongful termination accusations will land you in hot water. Let's take a look at the do's and don'ts of employee termination in the modern workplace.

What to Do

Right off the bat, let's go over the essentials and review what you need to do when you sit down to terminate an employee.

Keep Civil

Terminating an employee is an emotional affair that can often lead to heated exchanges. No one likes losing a job, and the tension of the moment has been known to cause more than a few outbursts.

Though the employee being fired is entitled to some emotion, the HR manager delivering the news is not. Maintain a calm and professional demeanor throughout the conversation, even if the employee becomes unruly.

To help determine your tone, imagine that you're the one being fired. How would you want to be told? Claire Lew, CEO of KnowYourCompany, acknowledges that firing an employee is difficult but suggests that managers keep three key words in mind: dignity, grace, and respect.


Pretend There's a Jury

If wrongful termination is the leading cause of lawsuits, one of the best ways to avoid such a case is to imagine that the meeting is in fact a trial and follow the law as closely as you can. According to business and employment attorney Vicki Hart Wilmarth, ''If the employer's reason for firing the employee doesn't perfectly line up with the facts developed in discovery and at trial, the business has a good chance of losing the case to the disgruntled employee.''

Pretend you're explaining the situation to a jury; use facts, speak calmly, and deliver your points in an organized manner. Don't leave anything up to interpretation and stay away from subjective statements that can be misconstrued and used against you. If you have an employee discipline policy, use it to provide hard evidence of transgressions.

By imagining a defense lawyer waiting to pounce on any mistakes, you can shape the conversation and steer it in a direction that will not lead to confrontation either in the moment or down the road. Wilmarth continues, ''As the employer, you must assure that the reasons you fire an employee are specific, provable, clearly-stated, well-documented and stay consistent from the time you first discipline the employee to the time of trial.''

Be Direct

As important as it is to be gentle and keep things civil, you have to take care not to go too far in the other direction. When it comes time to terminate someone, don't beat around the bush.

If an employee won't be working for you any longer, you don't need to waste time. Inform them of the bad news, provide a brief explanation, and then conclude the meeting.

Spending too long listing faults also gives the employee the chance to interject and make counterarguments. Get in, make your point, and get out. Better to be brief than spend forever breaking the news.

Close the Door - And Lock it

As you wrap things up in the conversation, you need to take a firm approach and make it clear that the decision is absolutely final.

If the employee gets the sense that there is any chance of salvaging the situation, he or she will immediately begin bargaining and trying to keep the job.

Don't allow any wiggle room; emphasize the fact that the decision cannot be changed and that it is time to move on.

bad news

Tell Your Other Employees

As private as employee termination may be, it's only a matter of time before the other workers in the office notice what has happened. Without hard information to work with, rumors and gossip can quickly run rampant.

To head this off, make a short announcement about the situation. Protect the terminated worker's privacy by only providing necessary information: ''Mark will no longer be working here'' is entirely sufficient.

There's no way to completely curb rumors from spreading, but acknowledging the situation removes the air of mystery and eliminates the need for employees to speculate on recent developments.

Do It on a Tuesday

Ideally, you want to fire someone as early in the week as possible. Monday is not ideal because it's quite a rude welcome to the week, but waiting too long makes it difficult to start the job search.

Being terminated on a Tuesday morning means you have the rest of the week to get out and start the job search while contacts and other HR recruiters are active.

In the spirit of civility and etiquette, terminating someone on Tuesday is a good way to soften the blow and help the employee land on his or her feet.

For further assistance, this termination best practices lesson has other helpful tips on how to go about the process.

What NOT to Do

Now that we've gone over the right way to do things, it's time to look at the flip side of the coin and cover the wrong way to go about terminating an employee. In order to avoid misinformation, rumors, and potential lawsuits, here's a list of mistakes to watch out for as you fire an employee.

Wing It

We've already detailed the dangers of wrongful termination, so by now you should hopefully understand the importance of hitting the right beats.

For the same reasons, you should also know that heading into the meeting without a plan is a terrible idea. Before you even schedule the meeting, put together a solid list of talking points. Write out a script if you need to although refrain from reading off it during the meeting.

Trying to improvise and make it up as you go is a sure recipe for disaster. You might forget to mention something, or worse, you could say something incriminating. Play it safe and know your agenda before you sit down.

Go it Alone

While you don't want to make a firing a public affair, you should never go into the meeting alone. The purpose of having a 'witness' is not to provide moral support or strengthen your resolve, but to prevent any ugliness after the fact.

If you fire someone by yourself, you open the door to future squabbles that essentially boil down to a 'he said vs. she said' situation. In the same way that having a recording or conversation notes will set the record straight in the event of any discrepancies, having a third party in the room limits liability.

Offer Misguided Compassion

If you're a kind-hearted soul, it's only natural to feel the desire to extend some sympathy to the employee that you're letting go. Getting fired is stressful and frightening, but your inclination to lend a shoulder to cry on must be ignored.

This is a business decision, not a personal one. Saying things along the lines of ''I know how you feel'' or ''I understand this is tough'' may seem like nice consolations, but in reality they usually come off as insincere; the last thing you want to hear from the person firing you is that they ''know how you feel.''


If employee satisfaction is important to you, consider this wisdom from the Harvard Business Review: ''Actually, when slackers and slouches are finally fired, managers usually discover that coworkers are relieved. Their peers are the ones who have had to work harder to make up for their shortcomings and slacking off. When terminations are well justified and professionally executed, the rest of the work group realizes that this is a good place to work.''

When the idea of hurting one person's feelings has you troubled, just remember that the dismissal will improve for morale for your entire team.

Do it Over the Phone

Terminating an employee is a big deal from the other side of the table. Losing a job can have life-altering ramifications for the worker in question; they could lose their car, their home, or worse.

Even though the employee being fired is on his or her way out, you still need to do them the honor of terminating them face-to-face. Conducting the conversation over the phone or worse, by email, is inconsiderate, disrespectful, and gives your company a bad reputation.

On top of the etiquette, firing someone over the phone makes it harder to carry out the steps in the 'do's' section of this article. Doing the deed in person is not just the polite thing to do, it's also the safest in terms of avoiding legal issues.

Fire on a Friday

If Tuesday is the best day to fire someone, there also needs to be a worst day, and that would be Friday, particularly at the end of the day.

When you let someone go on a Friday, you're essentially leaving them to stew for a full 48 hours. They can't reach out to contacts or make calls on the weekend, so you leave them with nothing to do but feel sorry.

You want the employee to get right back out there, and that's an exceptionally hard task to accomplish on a Friday evening when everyone is heading home for the weekend.

new start

Employee termination is an uncomfortable process, but it does not need to be extraordinarily painful. By acting with tact and grace, you can salvage your employee's failings while also making your own life easier.

By Bill Sands
March 2018
professional skills employee policies

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