“How do you make doing a termination easier?” they wonder.
“You don’t,” and seeing their puzzled looks, I'd explain my reply.
"Terminations never get easier, no matter how many you do. It’s not about making a termination ‘easier’. It’s about making every termination as ‘graceful’ as possible...for you and the employee.”
I remember spearheading a particularly difficult termination meeting which the employee’s supervisor also attended as a management witness. In the debriefing which followed the employee leaving the premises, the supervisor said, “I hope if I am ever terminated, you are the one that does my exit. You made him feel like a person”. To this day, I regard that comment as one of the greatest compliments an HR professional could receive...and as a validation of what I have long called my “philosophy of grace”. Today's business world has given my philosophy a new name: “emotional intelligence” or “EI”.
Definitions of "EI" vary but typically have 4 parts. For the purpose of discussing EI and employee terminations, this 3-part definition published in “Psychology Today” seems more relevant:
Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. It is generally said to include 3 skills:
- Emotional awareness, including the ability to identify your own emotions and those of others;
- The ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problems solving;
- The ability to manage emotions, including the ability to regulate your own emotions, and the ability to cheer up or calm down another person.
- Make sure you have adequate backup documentation to support the termination and that it has been reviewed by your company’s human resources or legal representative.
- Plan what to say – and equally important – how to say it (more on that below). Think about questions you may be asked by the employee and how you will answer him or her. (EI-Tie In: “…the ability to identify your own emotions and those of others”).
- Determine who else should attend; sometimes a witness is helpful if you think there might be difficulty at the meeting or if you suspect the meeting may be misrepresented to outside parties post-termination. The additional party could be the next-level manager or your human resources representative. Like you, they should also plan out what they will say…but think through the need for additional attendees carefully so that it does not backfire with the employee feeling “ganged up” on.
- Plan out and confidentially pre-schedule exit-related activities, such as back-up of the terminated employee’s computer files and email, timing the cut-off of system access, logistics for the identification and return of any company equipment, etc.
- Make the necessary arrangements with human resources and/or payroll to ensure that all final pay which is due to the employee being terminated is ready in accordance with applicable employment law.
- To the greatest extent possible, always do termination meetings face-to-face. If the employee is virtual and you absolutely cannot meet in person, then at least do a live telephone meeting…but never terminate someone by email (or postal mail).
- Arrange the meeting to be held privately in a closed-door office or conference room that is removed from fellow employees and where you will not be disturbed.
- Schedule the meeting at the start of a week and preferably at the beginning of the subject employee’s work day for their local time zone. To maximize the employee’s receptiveness to what you have to say and minimize negative reactions, stay away from holding termination meetings at the end of a day or a Friday, or before a holiday or scheduled vacation. (EI-Tie In: “The ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problems solving”).
- How you deliver the termination message is key. Remember you are talking to a human being. Someone with feelings, bills to pay (and often a family) whose entire world is about to be turned upside down. The real business world is not a Donald Trump reality show…so saying, “you’re fired!” is not recommended. As a personal preference, I try to avoid using the word “termination” because it sounds cold, callous and impersonal, much like the concept of execution that is often associated with the word. Once an employee hears, "termination" is is not unusual for him or her to stop listening to anything you say afterwards. To soften the blow and keep the employee mentally engaged, I prefer to say “your employment will be separated today” or that “your employment with (company) is ending today”.
- Some companies do not believe in giving reasons for termination...and if they engage employees under an “at-will” employment relationship, they legally and technically do not have to give a reason. However, I have rarely found the “no reason” approach to work. As thinking adults, employees who are being terminated typically want a reason. If the terminated employee is not given a reason, (s)he will usually fill the information void with negative emotions and/or assume discriminatory reasons for the termination.
- If you do give a reason, keep the content short, to the point and factual. Don’t be harsh, critical or judgmental. Make eye contact with the employee and explain your reason in a calm, direct manner.
- Use your earlier preparation efforts to convey your confidence in the termination decision and make it clear that the decision is final. (I’ve watched even senior executives botch up this confidence element with ugly results: the termination meeting goes twice as long as it should and the employee argues the decision all the harder.) If the employee remains contentious or starts to react emotionally, maintain your own composure. If need be, consider ending the meeting early and rescheduling when cooler heads prevail. (EI-Tie In: “The ability to manage emotions, including the ability to regulate your own emotions and the ability to…calm down another person”).
- Close out with a review of separation-related topics such as benefits (e.g., insurance continuation, 401(k) rollovers, any applicable severance), company policy on references, reminders on maintaining confidentiality of company information and the recollection of assets.
- If circumstances permit, end the termination meeting on a positive note by voicing your appreciation of the employee’s attention and cooperation under difficult circumstances and wishing the employee the utmost future career success.
“One More Thing”...as an added plus, following the above can significantly reduce the odds of a terminated employee deciding to sue you and your company.
We hope you found this post helpful. Thank you in advance for sharing it with your friends, especially any small or mid sized business owners who need assistance with their HR needs. We'd love to hear your comments and invite you to explore the full scope of human resources and resume services on our website.
Regards, PhoenixHR LLC