Firing an employee is every boss’s least favorite part of the job. These days it can also be perilous from a legal standpoint - and occasionally physically threatening as well. Yet, sooner or later almost every employer finds it necessary to carry out this unpleasant duty.
Layoff decisions due to business conditions are somewhat easier to deal with than terminations for cause. The blow of a layoff can be softened with the promise of a good recommendation (if justified) and other considerations.
Getting rid of someone due to malfeasance or poor performance is a harder task, but oh so necessary. Missteps can be unpleasant and potentially perilous. Doing it right can minimize the sting both for the person let go and for the employer.
Human resources professionals will tell you that a person let go should never be surprised when it happens. There should be a trail of documentation, warnings and ultimatums telling substandard employees that unless they shape up, they’re gone.
In the real world, all of this sometimes does no good. Humans are capable of self-delusion and rationalization, and some people are adept at convincing themselves that the world is wrong and they are right. No matter how many warnings they are given, some may react with shock or anger when told to pack up and leave. Some may break down crying. A few may react explosively or exhibit other forms of emotional trauma.
To prevent the worst case scenarios, you need to be prepare for the moment of confrontation. Here’s a checklist with some recommendations to follow when dismissing an employee.
Do...• Have at least one other person with you when you deliver the news. This is not only for security reasons, but to have a second witness to exactly what was said during the termination session. Have the top-ranking person conduct the dismissal while the other takes notes. Ideally, the employee’s immediate supervisor should be present, along with an upper level manager. Large companies employ human resources specialists who are trained to deal with these situations and deliver the bad news. In small companies, the task will often fall to the owner.
• Fire on a Friday if practical, preferably late in the afternoon. The employee will have the weekend to cool off, and other employees won’t be hanging around the proverbial water cooler for the next few days discussing the event.
• Use forceful but unemotional language. Make sure the employee understands he or she is being fired and why, but avoid arguing or an accusatory tone. Phrases such as “I’m sorry things didn’t work out” can soften the blow.
• Make sure to collect company property. This includes computer records and paperwork, as well as tools and equipment. Don’t make a big deal about it. Treat the matter as routine procedure.
• Accompany the terminated employee to his or her work station and observe while he or she cleans out personal belongings. Make sure company documents, tools, etc., stay put. Ask, “Do you have everything?” before accompanying the person to the door and saying goodbye. This can be an awkward moment for other employees, so it’s a good idea to try to arrange it for shortly after quitting time. Consider sending staffers in the vicinity home a little early so the dismissed employee can clear out with privacy and save face.
• If the person being dismissed has keys to the office or other company premises, change locks immediately-not the next day. Where computer access issues come into play, make sure the IT staff is prepared to lock out the dismissed employee immediately.
• Settle money issues immediately. Have the final paycheck in hand when you let the employee go. Don’t waste time disputing small amounts. Give the dismissed employee the benefit of the doubt. Arguing over petty cash is likely to lead to nothing but trouble. You don’t want to put up with incessant phone calls or visits from the former employee, and certainly not legal harassment.
• Consider holding out a carrot, such as a half-day’s pay, as an incentive for a quick and smooth termination close-out.
Don't...• Don’t fire anyone in public. This demeans the employee and makes you look mean. It can also lead to an ugly scene. Do it in your office or some neutral, private location.
• Don’t fire someone when you are angry. No matter what the provocation, words said in the heat of the moment can come back to haunt you. Also, anger signals a lack of self-control and will diminish you in the eyes of other employees. Take time to calm down and evaluate your decision in a businesslike manner. Vengeance never pays off.
• Don’t back down. If it’s a termination for cause, the decision ought to be based on a paper trail of documentation. Once you’ve made up your mind after calm deliberation, don’t give in. Often people fired will plead for another chance or try to bargain their way out of dismissal. (“I’ll finish that job for free - just let me prove myself.”) If you relent, other employees will look at you as indecisive and find ways to manipulate you.
• Don’t dismiss anyone on someone else’s word. Both out of fairness and for your own legal protection, you ought to have concrete evidence of wrongdoing or unsatisfactory performance before you let someone go. Even if you suspect certain accusations may be true, suspicion is not the same as documentation. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
• Don’t promise a good recommendation if it’s not deserved. Back in the second paragraph, I said this is something that can be offered to an employee being laid off for economic reasons, but don’t do it to buy peace from a malcontent. In fact, there may be legal liabilities if you give a glowing recommendation to someone who ends up causing harm in a subsequent job.