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To terminate is to bring to an end. If you have ever had to figure out how to terminate an employee, you know things don’t get much harder or sadder. Most managers dread this part of the job more than any other.

Because of a sense of guilt, uncertainty about the decision, legal concerns, and excuse after excuse by the team member, many managers don’t let poor performers go. And when they do take action, almost every termination conversation is stressful.   

But keeping poor performers on the team is a disservice to other team members, clients, the organization, and even to the person in question. Lower standards are infectious and can bring down the aspiration level of other team members, and poor performers often incite resentment. Taking action puts other low performers on notice, helps managers meet goals, and ensures clients get the value and care they need.

Time and time again I have been told by people and managers who have lost their jobs that the worst part was not the termination itself but how the message was delivered. To quote a colleague, “The message was dropped like a bomb.”

When it is time to let a team member go, the process you use — while it does not change the result — significantly alters the experience and reduces chances of litigation. Knowing how to terminate an employee properly makes managers more confident and compassionate and team members more accepting. 

DO’s and DONT’S

Do: Prepare. Review the employee handbook. Consult with HR and legal on how to terminate an employee, and inform IT and security. Calculate final compensation and severance when appropriate, finalize all paperwork, and collect all materials and documentation.

Don’t: Have the termination conversation alone. Ideally include a colleague from HR or one of your peers as a witness. 

Do: Set an appointment, ideally face-to-face in a private setting. Set the tone with a serious voice.

Don’t: Share the reason for the meeting. If asked, say that you prefer to have the discussion in person (or phone, if necessary) when there will be adequate time.

Do: Start with the punch line. The first message you deliver should let the person know that he or she is being let go. 

Don’t: Change the decision unless new and compelling information is presented (this is not the norm). 

Do: Lead coaching sessions and a final consequence coaching meeting in which you clearly spell out the objectives to be accomplished, the time frame to accomplish them, and most importantly the consequence if the objectives are not met — i.e. the person will lose their job. Document all sessions in writing prior to the termination meeting. If you do not have documentation, meet with HR and consider putting the person on a 30, 60, or 90 day performance plan.

Don’t: Surprise the team member. In fairness to the person, termination should never come as a surprise (unless it is due to an egregious act or part of corporate downsizing). Any element of surprise will cause resistance and resentment.

Do: Keep your explanation short but specific. For example, “We set X objective to be accomplished by [date] and it was not met. Your performance has not …” Detailed feedback should have been given in performance reviews and shortcomings worked on in coaching sessions. There are two reasons to keep the meeting short: 1) You do not want to get into an argument or long discussion — the decision has been made and is non-negotiable. While clear feedback is very important for growth, it should have already been given by this point. 2) There is no need to further hurt the person’s feelings. The employee may vent and ask questions, but just listen and repeat your concise message.

Don’t: Give a long list of failures. It will only put salt in the wound, create hard feelings, and provoke an argument.

Do: Follow company policy. Clearly define next steps, clarify the effective date (in many companies this means immediately), communicate severance, and identify who will accompany the team member to their desk. Offer any resources you are willing to provide. 

Don’t: Apologize, but say you wish things had worked out differently and extend best wishes for the future. Avoid Friday terminations. Monday is actually better because the employee can start making contacts more easily during the week. 

A Termination Model

While termination is often the best thing for the person, it’s hard for most people to recognize this at the time. I have always favored models as a way to put a more simple frame around things that are complex. Here’s a model to follow on how to terminate an employee:

  • Prepare for the conversation/prepare your organization.
  • Set an appointment.
  • State the decision at the start of the meeting.
  • Give a short, specific reason based on previous feedback and objectives set in the final consequence meeting.
  • Avoid rambling off a litany of the person’s failures.
  • Listen and repeat as necessary.
  • Clarify separation terms and next steps.
  • Provide necessary paperwork.
  • Express best wishes and hope for the future.

What this model does not address is the approach you take. Be as considerate as possible. Compassion and making sure nothing in the meeting is a surprise are the keys to avoid burning bridges.

Concerns about litigation have tempered termination conversations and added another dimension of stress to these already challenging conversations. Nevertheless, I think it is important to express at the conclusion that you regret things worked out as they did and wish the person success in the future. When thinking about how to terminate an employee, keep your message objective but your tone human.

I started with the definition of termination — to bring to an end. Professionally, that is what you are doing. But the emotional tone you set — one of caring and respect — will make a difference in the short- and long-run. No matter how bad the team member has been, show you have heart.

This blog post has provided information designed to help our readers better understand the legal issues surrounding HR. But legal information is not the same as legal advice — the application of law to an individual’s specific circumstances. Although we have conducted research to better ensure that our information is accurate and useful, we insist that you consult a lawyer if you want professional assurance that our information, and your interpretation of it, is accurate. To clarify further, you may not rely upon this information as legal advice, nor as a recommendation or endorsement of any particular legal understanding, and you should instead regard this article as intended for entertainment purposes only.

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