No one, except perhaps Donald Trump, likes to fire people. Typically it is a stressful, scary and upsetting experience for everyone involved. So is it possible that there is actually an “art” to firing an employee? In a word, yes.
There are not enough fingers and toes in my entire household to count the number of people I have had to fire over the years. It has never been easy, and I fret before each and every one. But as unpleasant as terminations are, I have learned a few things along the way that have made the process less difficult for everyone involved. Here is my best advice:
Plan the Termination Well
It is always important to be confident that terminating the employee is absolutely the right thing to do. I always seek the advice of others before proceeding and take the time to make sure I have the facts right. I make certain I have sufficient documentation to support what I am about to do, and that there are no other alternatives to firing the employee.
Once I decide to proceed, I carefully plan out the best time and place to conduct the termination in order to minimize humiliation for the employee and disruption for others in the workplace. And, importantly, I plan to have someone join me in the termination discussion—this provides another set of ears and eyes and can add to the safety of the discussion.
Be Committed to your Progressive Discipline Process
The key benefit to having a progressive discipline process—where all infractions and issues are logged and reviewed in disciplinary meetings with the employee—is to help employees know at all times exactly where they stand in terms of discipline. If done correctly, by the time you have to terminate someone he or she should have received multiple warnings and the termination should not come as a surprise. No one likes surprises like this, and a progressive discipline process ensures that employees know that the path they are walking is likely to lead out the door if their behavior does not change for the better.
Be Compassionate and Be Honest
No matter how much it is deserved, losing a job is a profoundly unsettling experience for anyone. Knowing that and treating the employee with dignity, respect and understanding—even if you are not feeling charitable about it at the moment—is highly critical. Also important is being completely honest about why you are terminating the employee. Resist the temptation to say it is a downsizing when the real reason is the employee’s own behavior. This will help the employee to process what is happening to them, and it will help keep the company out of trouble if the termination is ever legally contested. In the end, it comes down to the basics. Follow the Golden Rule. Be nice and tell the truth.
Help Them Look To the Future
Once they are let go, employees who respond with anger and indignation are often likely to suffer depression, to have a difficult time finding a new job and to take legal action. The more assistance you can provide—a severance package, not contesting unemployment insurance, providing a positive reference—the more likely they will be to focus their energies on their future rather than on retaliating against you.
Remember Your Other Employees
Sometimes we focus so much on the needs of the terminated employee that we overlook the needs of others who are remaining at their posts and doing their work. Sometimes the termination is a shock and can leave other employees upset, confused and in a state of mourning. In such cases, do and say what you can (without harming yourself, the terminated employee or the company) in order to reassure your employees that your actions were just, necessary and appropriate, and that you understand their feelings. But don’t go into details—everyone will want to know why, how, when and what happened. Don’t over-share. What they need to know is that you care about them and are a fair employer.
Employees who are fired can become emotionally and financially stressed to the point that they will sue you even if there is no basis for their lawsuit. Even if you’ve done everything correctly, you could still find yourself in a court of law. And if you do, as in every HR challenge, the best defense is a really well prepared defense. By documenting all of the conversations and actions that lead to the termination and having a clear record of the termination itself (including a statement by the person who participated in the termination discussion with you), you will be better able to press your case and successfully defend your employment action.
Firing people is never easy. That’s why one of my proudest professional moments occurred when someone I had terminated called me six months later to thank me for the way I conducted the termination and for helping him move out and move on. I’ve never forgotten that experience and it is why I strongly believe that firing someone is an art—and a very important one to learn.
Claudia St. John, SPHR, is the President of Affinity HR Group