Terminating an employee is one of the most difficult things to do in business. But, sometimes it's necessary. When that happens, we suggest you follow a few best practices that are applicable regardless of the reason for the termination.
1. Minimize the employee's embarrassment.
Hold the termination meeting at a time and location that will reduce the likelihood of contact with the employee's coworkers. Hold the meeting at the end of the day and allow the employee to pack up his or her personal items after others have gone home. Make sure you, or someone you trust, stays with the terminated employee at this point.
Don’t allow the terminated employee to touch the company computer or throw documents away. We kept a newly terminated employee from destroying what later became evidence by not allowing her to “straighten her desk” and “shut down her computer.” The employee tried several times, arguing that she wouldn’t feel right if she left things in a mess.
We discovered her embezzlement three days later. If we had let this trusted employee pack up her own things, we probably never would have discovered her crime.
2. Don't spend time debating your decision with the employee.
If the employee requests more information or wants to argue about the termination, politely tell him or her that the decision has been made and that it is not changeable. You aren’t going to convince the employee that the termination is justified. Don’t waste time trying.
Instead, turn the conversation to next steps. Explain what will happen to the employee’s benefits and if and how those benefits can be continued. Tell the employee if he or she is entitled to any unused vacation pay. Explain when the final paycheck and any severance payments will arrive. Try to keep this information brief and uncomplicated.
Understandably, most employees have a hard time focusing on details at this time. However, talking about them may help the employee focus on the future.
3. Don't apologize for your decision.
We've heard too many managers say, “I’m sorry that I have to let you go.” But this won't help the employee. It may make you feel a bit better, but it’s confusing to the employee, especially in a for-cause termination. In one termination meeting we know of, an employee responded this way to his manager’s comment: “If you are so sorry, pick someone else to fire.”
Sometimes, it helps to write out exactly what you plan to say. We are not suggesting that you read the statement to the employee. However, the act of writing can help you think through exactly what you want to say. In addition, the document can serve as notes during the meeting.
4. Have another manager, owner or HR professional present for the meeting.
Having someone else present can help to diffuse a bad situation and give you a witness who can attest to what was said and done at the meeting.
In one particularly emotional termination, Polly had to physically step in between an angry employee and the manager. The employee was becoming aggressive and threatening. However, once Polly diverted the employee’s attention away from the manager, the employee was able to calm down and focus on next steps.
In that case, having a second person at the meeting probably saved the employee from an assault and/or battery charge.
The other reason to have a witness is the increasing number of employees falsely accusing their managers of harassment, retaliation and other behaviors in response to termination. Since 2000, the number of claims filed each year with the EEOC has roughly doubled. Retaliation represents about 38 percent of these claims, topping the numbers for both race and gender discrimination claims.
Without someone else to refute the claim, employees can say that they were terminated in retaliation for turning down sexual advances, for whistleblowing or for making a legitimate complaint -- among other reasons.
Employees may make false claims in the hope of either financial gain or gaining a job back in return for dropping the claim. So, having a witness at the termination meeting will give you some degree of protection.
5. Make sure you know the employment laws for your state and industry and for your organization size.
State laws vary, and the number of employees in your organization affects what laws apply to your business. Check with an employment law attorney or a competent HR professional to ensure you are compliant. We have all heard the line, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” Spend the time and money to learn what you need to do to treat your employees fairly yet still protect your business.
In our experience, employees are becoming more educated in the laws that govern employment. Don’t wing it. They aren’t.
Related: The Right Way to Fire an Employee
We know that terminating an employee is always tough, but following these suggestions can make a difficult situation more manageable.