Five Don'ts When Handling an Employee Termination

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Terminating an employee is one of the most difficult tasks to undertake as a manager. Done well, and you will help move your former employee out of the organization with a clear, fair message about why he or she is leaving. Done poorly, and you may send your former employee packing with (at least the specter of) potential claims against your company. Below are several steps to avoid to help ensure that your former employee transitions smoothly.

Don’t fire an employee without warning.

If possible, give the employee an opportunity to correct subpar behavior before resorting to termination as a disciplinary action. Though there are some actions that require immediate termination (theft or violence, for example), many performance issues can be addressed with proper coaching and a bit of patience. Provide written warnings to allow the employee to correct his or her behavior. Consider placing the employee on a Performance Improvement Plan []. These steps will help determine whether the employment relationship can be salvaged and create documentation that will support the reasons for termination. Additionally, this will ensure that the employee is not blindsided with termination, allowing the employee to make transition plans of his/her own to minimize disruption in work and income.

Don’t fire an employee over email or another form of communication. Face-to-face is highly recommended.

Have the courtesy (and courage) to fire the employee face-to-face. If an in-person meeting is not feasible, find a way to video conference. Written communication is devoid of emotion and could lead to mixed or unintended messages. Terminating an employee solely in writing precludes the expression of any non-verbal communication (such as facial expressions that convey empathy or compassion) that could help to soothe an otherwise disgruntled person. This is not to say that you should not memorialize the termination by letter; indeed do. Nevertheless, deliver the news in person, too. Face-to-face communication is truly the only respectful way to have a serious conversation about one’s livelihood.

Don’t deviate from your script.

Prior to meeting with the employee you will terminate, work with your attorney and/or HR person to draft talking points to communicate the reasons for termination to the employee. Though you should not read to the employee, do not deviate from these reasons, even if you feel that there are multitudes of others that legitimize the employee’s firing. It is important that you (and other members of your team) remain consistent about the reasons for termination, especially since in some circumstances courts have viewed shifting explanations for an employee’s termination as circumstantial evidence of discrimination.

Don’t allow the employee to leave with any company possessions.

Ensure that you have recovered all items belonging to the company from the employee before he or she leaves the premises – including electronic devices (phones, computers, hard drives, flash drives), keys, documents, supplies, and any other proprietary items or information. Obtaining these items prior to separation is much easier (and less expensive) than after.

Don’t allow the employee to have continued to access to any company applications or information systems.

A disgruntled former employee could potentially wreak havoc on your organization if he or she is left with unfettered access to your company’s applications or information systems. From obtaining confidential customer/client information to removing sensitive proprietary data from your organization, the ways an employee could exact revenge for his or her firing are endless. A best practice is to eliminate access to company data simultaneously with the termination conversation and offer to collect any non-company data the employee may have stored on company devices following the meeting.

Don’t end the termination with a sour note; try to provide words of encouragement.

Having a genuinely empathetic attitude and demeanor will help convey to the employee that you understand the seriousness of the action that you are undertaking and the impact that it will have on that person’s life. Offer the employee encouragement by identifying a trait, skill, or strength that might help lead the employee to his or her next endeavor. The adage, “it is not what you say, but how you say it” could not be more true when it comes to employee terminations. Choose your words carefully to minimize the possibility of liability to your company.

It is always best to consult with an advisor prior to undertaking a difficult employment-related task such as an employee termination. He or she can help you determine when termination may be appropriate, craft an outline of the termination conversation, and determine whether to offer severance or some other benefit in exchange for a release of any claims the departing employee may have against your company.