Terminating an employee is difficult regardless of the circumstances. It is difficult for the employee whose employment is being terminated and it often causes a lot of stress and emotion for the manager or team making the decision to terminate. However, you made the decision to terminate employment for a reason (a very good one hopefully!). You have weighed the reasons and tried to solve the issue or make adjustments before deciding that this employment relationship simply wasn’t going to work.
But, where leaders often misstep is the termination meeting itself. First and foremost, we have to remember that this meeting isn’t about us and how we feel. This meeting is about the employee and, regardless of the circumstances, we have a responsibility to ensure that an employee is treated with dignity and respect as we communicate the decision to them. There are a few keys to executing on a termination meeting:
1. Be Prepared – As the leader terminating an employee’s employment, ensure you are totally prepared. Ensure the termination terms are fair and that the details are clear. If applicable, be prepared for questions about the severance package including how payments will happen, how their benefits will be impacted, confidentiality, non-compete or non-solicit policies, company property and how the employee will clear their workspace and get home.
Ensure the termination letter is prepared and that you communicate an appropriate (and legal) reason for termination that is consistent with the letter.
Be over-prepared. If you know the employee being terminated takes public transit, arrange to have a taxi cab there and waiting for them when the meeting is over.
If you suspect the employee will have specific questions about the decision to terminate or will have complaints which they will voice in the meeting, be prepared to address those questions and concerns. Think through your response to any difficult comments or questions that may arise prior to the meeting.
Based on your work environment do your best to make it easy for the employee to pack up their things and go. For instance, clear the area of other employees by sending them on break prior to the termination meeting, have bags or boxes available for the person to pack up their things, and be clear about what the employee can or cannot do when they go back to their desk (i.e. communicate to them that they cannot go back on their computer etc.).
2. Keep it Short – Termination meetings generally shouldn’t last more than a few minutes. The meeting is taking place to advise of the termination, reason for the termination and communicate any applicable details of the termination terms.
Many employees will shut down during a termination meeting, or might be surprised/shocked that the meeting is happening. In those situations, don’t try and force all of the details on them. Communicate the reason and the high level details. Ensure they take the termination letter with all of the details with them and encourage them to take the letter home, think through any questions and concerns and contact you (or the HR representative if applicable) with questions the next day.
If the employee is angry or wants to challenge the decision, you can make a call on whether it will be productive and/or helpful to hear them out or not. In virtually all termination situations, the termination is a final decision and so discussing the reasoning in-depth and rehashing previous issues is often not helpful. This is not a time for debate. Leaders can communicate that they know this is difficult, but that ultimately the decision is final and that this meeting is to communicate details of the termination and not to discuss the past.
Most termination meetings that go long, are not productive. The employee may become increasingly upset and the leader/HR person leading the meeting may become more stressed and more likely to lose their cool. Keep it short, and encourage the person to think things through, review the letter, and call the next day with questions. By then they will have had some time to put their thoughts together and ensure a more productive conversation about the details of the termination package.
3. Keep it Neutral – Near the beginning of this blog, I identified that the termination meeting is not about you, it’s about the employee. Don’t bring your emotions or disappointments about how the employee has behaved or performed into the meeting. If you show anger, frustration, indifference or even worse disrespect, the meeting will go downhill quickly. Stick to the facts. Identify the overall reason for the termination and do not get into the details of all of things they did wrong in the past (this is on the assumption that we have not built a case for a cause dismissal where the timeline of past behaviour and warnings needs to be laid out).
Additionally, though we want to show empathy to the employee, we also don’t want to go overboard with our emotions. It can put the employee in an awkward position and realistically the employee may look at you thinking, ‘Yeah, sure I’m so sorry this is so hard for you. I’m the one getting fired!!’.
At the same time, you know your relationship with your employees and so you can make a call on the right approach with that employee, but where possible stick with the facts and keep it neutral. At the end of the termination meeting, if applicable (i.e. not a cause dismissal where there was significant wrong doing) take a moment to wish that employee well. Leave the door open for a conversation down the line if they want to have a more candid conversation about why it didn’t work out (again where applicable and based on your relationship with the employee).
Terminations are hard and our role as a leader is to try and make an already difficult situation as easy for the employee as possible. It’s a lousy situation for the employee no matter what, so do your due diligence to Be Prepared, Keep it Short and Keep it Neutral.
Interested in a Termination Checklist that walks you through things to consider when terminating employment? Sign up here for the monthly Acuity HR Newsletter here to receive a free download.
Jane Helbrecht is a Partner at Acuity HR Solutions. She leads the training and development function with a focus on Acuity’s Intentional People Leadership training program. For more information on Jane or Acuity HR Solutions, visit https://acuityhr.ca/.