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Have to Let Go of an Employee? Here are Five Tips Every Manager Should Know

by John Slavich, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, on April 04, 2017
Terminating or laying-off an employee is often the most difficult downside of being the boss. There is no easy way to do it, because regardless of whether the employee deserved to be terminated, or was caught up in a reduction-in-force (RIF), you are changing that employee’s life forever. However, there are steps that you can take to make sure that you are protecting yourself and your company from potential litigation, loss of employee morale and a bad reputation in your community.

First and foremost, remember that terminations should never be easy.
Always put yourself in the shoes of the employee who is being terminated, and remember that it is just as important to treat these employees with as much dignity and respect when you are letting them go as you showed them when they were being hired. Losing a job is a life-changing event, and how you communicate the difficult news matters in ways that you may not have considered:

• Your reputation is on the line every time that you conduct a termination. Employees talk – especially those that have been terminated. They talk to current employees. They talk to their friends, family and neighbors. They talk on social media and at networking events. They talk at ball games, parties and probably to your boss or the owner of the company. If you handle the termination poorly, failing to display professionalism and sympathy, people will find out. Statistics show that people leave a boss much more often than they leave a company. If you or your company have a reputation for terminating poorly, you will have difficulty ever recruiting or retaining top talent. No one wants to work for a company or a boss who doesn’t care for their well-being.

• You could put your company – or yourself – in a position to face legal action. Even in employment-at-will states, there are consequences for unlawful terminations. Before you fire an employee, talk to a human resources or legal professional to ensure that you or the company are not breaking the law! Almost 90,000 complaints are received by the EEOC every year, and the majority of those are discrimination cases based on a protected class or retaliation claims. Do not be one of those employers who find themselves on the front page of every newspaper or news site after losing a $10M claim.

• Terminations affect the culture of your workplace. Terminations always make the remaining employees nervous, even when the termination is justified. A workplace’s culture is a dynamic entity, ebbing and flowing from positive to negative with every gained or lost sale, client interaction or even day of the week. A leader must understand that the culture of the workplace is based on structure and trust, and when either is altered, the culture shifts accordingly. Employees may cheer when an under-performing employee is terminated, but in the back of their minds, they wonder if they are next. When they feel that an employee is unjustly fired? Then you not only have fear that enters their minds, but they may no longer trust you or the company to do right by them. Once trust is lost, the good employees will jump ship the first chance that they get.

Second, utilize a progressive disciplinary program in your workplace.
While there are certainly instances where an immediate termination is warranted, in most cases, the better practice is to utilize progressive discipline to address unwanted employee action or behavior. Good companies and bosses understand that employees make mistakes, and will address those mistakes through progressive discipline with the expectation that the employee will correct the behavior and become a better employee. Great companies accept mistakes as opportunities to grow, and as long as mistakes aren’t egregious, they might simply counsel that employee to try something different the next time he or she is in that situation again. Regardless, employees, and more importantly, state and federal agencies, expect that you will give an employee an opportunity to correct his or her mistake or behavior before deciding to terminate employment.

The normal progression usually entails:
1) Verbal Warning 
2) Written Warning 
3) Final Warning / Suspension
4) Termination of employment

Just as important as utilizing progressive discipline, ensuring that you document your communications with employees will offer you and the company some protection in instances where an authority questions the lawfulness of the termination. Whether that is an attorney hired by the terminated employee, an Administrative Law Judge in an unemployment hearing or other state or federal agency, having documentation that clearly shows the progressive disciplinary steps that were taken to try to modify unwanted employee actions or behavior will be your best defense in any legal setting.

Clear documentation is key, but it cannot be one-sided. Formal disciplinary notices should always be signed by the person presenting the disciplinary notice, the employee being disciplined, and a witness if possible. Also, stick to facts when creating a disciplinary notice – no opinions. Remember that during a lawsuit, everything is discoverable. If you have written opinions in your disciplinary notices, or added off-handed comments to the notice or in investigation notes, those comments can and will be used against you. Clear, concise, timely and factual should be your goals for documentation.

Third, make sure you prepare for a termination meeting.
Informing a person of a job loss is a difficult and stressful task, and a successful outcome requires preparation and good instincts.

Good pre-meeting preparation should include:
• Making arrangements to meet with the employee (time, date, location)
• Practicing and rehearsing the message that you will deliver
• Anticipating questions that could be asked and finding the answers
• Assessing the impact of losing the employee on co-workers and customers
• Ensuring that the meeting will be private and uninterrupted 
• Coordinating with appropriate personnel in departments affected by the termination (HR, payroll, IT, benefits, operations)
• Arranging the details of the severance/separation agreement (if applicable)
• Creating an exit strategy for the employee (how they will leave, collect their belongings, etc.). Having to fire someone is a difficult and stressful task, and a successful outcome requires preparation and good instincts. Good pre-meeting preparation should include:
• Do not make any comments, even well intended, that could compromise the decision
• Although you should be sensitive to the employee’s situation, be direct and firm and assure the employee that the decision is final
• Do not blame others for the actions being taken
• Do not become defensive, argumentative or confrontational
• Listen intently, and document anything that could lead to a potential problem
• Review and complete all required forms with the employee
• Collect or make arrangements to collect all company property
• Arrange for the employee to be able to exit in a dignified manner
• Inform all affected departments that the termination has occurred.

Fourth, communicate with those employees affected by the termination.
In general, it is better to bring about “group closure” when there is a termination. It gives remaining employees a chance to express their concerns while they can hear directly from you what occurred. This not only minimizes concern related to employees’ own job security but also diminishes the rumor mill. It is generally not necessary or wise to share details regarding the reasons for an employee’s termination. If there are specifics that may help employees understand the reasoning behind your decision, you may choose to communicate that with your group. However, knowing that people talk, and that some of the remaining employees may be close with the employee who has just been terminated, it is usually best to say something like the following statement:

“I wanted to meet with you all to inform you that (ex-employee) is no longer with the company. While I’m not going to share all of the details with you, I do want you to know that I genuinely wish only the best for (ex-employee) and that I will help (ex-employee) in any way that I reasonably can. If you have any questions for me, I will do my best to answer them.”

Remember, how you treat employees on the way out is just as important as how you treat them when they are hired. If you act professionally at all times, and treat departing employees with dignity and respect even when they are no longer employed, your remaining employees will take notice. More important, when the terminated employee invariably hears through the grapevine that you were respectful of their situation, it takes away much of the anger that the employee may feel towards you or the company. Thus, they are less likely to sue, or to bad-mouth you or the company to others.

Last, layoffs are handled a bit differently than terminations.
If an employee is being laid-off because of a job elimination, extra care must be taken by an employer to ensure a smooth transition for the affected employee, the company and the remaining employees.

There are many things you should consider in the event that you have to lay off employees:
• If there are multiple layoffs occurring, ensure that you are in compliance with the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN Act) if applicable
• Be cautious how you choose who to lay off. Consideration should be given for employee tenure, client relationships, performance appraisals, progressive discipline warnings, attendance records, education levels, skills, technical certifications and who would work best in the post-layoff environment
• Make sure you have a complete understanding of the skills, abilities and relationships that may be affected by a layoff. Job duties must be absorbed by the remaining employees, and client relationships may suffer in the short-term without ample planning
• Communicate layoffs in person if possible
• Once all layoffs have been completed, assemble your remaining team and hold a group meeting. Your employees will be very nervous and emotional, so it is best to communicate directly with your team and allow them to express their concerns.
You could say:
o "I wanted to call you all into a meeting to follow up regarding the layoff(s) that took place earlier today in our department. As you may know, (ex-employees) of our department have been laid off. The company has provided the affected employees with a severance package and is working with them through this transition. o Of course, no guarantees of job security can be given, but as far as we understand, there aren’t any other planned layoffs in our department at this time. I wanted to let you all know to allay any fears you might have about your own job security right now.
o We wish those laid off well, and we have treated them with the respect and dignity that they deserve. If there are any questions, I will do my best to answer them for you now. I appreciate your patience and understanding, and I look forward to moving beyond this difficult period.”

• Know that your remaining employees will be affected, and you may lose some key contributors who either feel overwhelmed with additional responsibilities, or no longer feel that they have job security within your company
• Trust will have to be re-earned, as employees will question (publicly and privately) what comes next.

In the end, the goal of any termination should be to ensure a successful transition for both the company and the affected employee.
If done properly, the company will benefit by maintaining a strong workplace culture while potentially replacing the affected employee with an even better candidate, or allowing other employees to grow by incorporating new job responsibilities within their scopes of work. The affected employee will benefit by looking forward to new and potentially better job opportunities where his or her potential and skillset can be maximized. It never has to be a win-lose proposition.

Many highly successful people have been terminated or laid-off for a variety of reasons. Many times, that person just wasn’t a fit for a particular boss, industry or workplace culture. As employers, the best that we can do to help those that we terminate or lay off is to treat them with dignity and respect while helping in any way we possibly can to ensure their successful transitions to new opportunities. If you treat employees as well when they are being terminated as you do when they are being hired, chances are that you will have an excellent workplace culture with employees who are loyal to you and the company. As an added bonus, you just might avoid a lawsuit that could bankrupt you or your company!
John Slavich, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

John A. Slavich is the Director of Human Resources for the Columbia, South Carolina branch of LandrumHR. A long-time resident of Columbia, John is an experienced human resources professional specializing in employee relations, leadership development, safety, training, labor law and strategic planning. John is SHRM-SCP and SPHR certified, and holds a Master’s Degree in Industrial and Labor Relations. His most recent position was Human Resources Manager for A O Smith of McBee, South Carolina where he was responsible for all human resources, employee relations and safety functions for the 450 employee facility.

View more blogs by John Slavich, SPHR, SHRM-SCP