Dismissing an employee — it’s the most difficult and painful decision most managers ever have to make. How, exactly, should a manager break the news to the person who must be dismissed? What if the manager makes a mistake that has legal ramifications? How will the dismissal affect the rest of the employees on the team?
Managers are right to be worried. A poorly handled dismissal can create big problems. For one thing, it can hurt a company’s reputation. And that makes it harder for managers throughout the organization
to attract and retain talented employees in the future. A badly handled dismissal can also lead to lawsuits. And it can destroy trust and morale among colleagues of the person who has been dismissed. For all these reasons, managers must take pains to handle dismissals correctly. The most effective managers do this by excelling in three areas:
First, they know when it’s legally permissible to dismiss an employee — and when it isn’t
Second, they conduct the dismissal meeting skillfully
And third, they lead their team effectively following the dismissal
How does all this work in practice? Let’s look at the first area: knowing when it’s legally
permissible to dismiss an employee — and when it isn’t. In many companies a manager can dismiss
an employee immediately for specific egregious behaviors. These behaviors include breaking major company rules — such as giving away trade secrets to a competitor — or lying about expenses or
A manager may also dismiss an employee after bringing certain behavior or performance problems to the person’s attention and trying to help that individual address the problem. If the employee persists in this behavior, dismissal is warranted. Such problems include poor job performance, a persistent negative attitude, and chronic lateness or absences.
Some actions do not constitute legal grounds for a dismissal. These include “whistle-blowing”
(complaining about illegal activities on the part of the company) and taking time off to perform a civic duty, such as military service or jury duty. A manager who dismisses an employee for these actions puts his or her company at risk for a wrongful-dismissal lawsuit.
Consider Maia, a manager who is wondering whether she should dismiss Tom, one of her employees. For six months, Tom has been delivering less-than-acceptable performance and has frequently bad-mouthed the company’s strategic direction to his colleagues. Maia has tried to coach Tom to address his substandard performance and destructive attitude, but these efforts have failed to produce any improvement. Maia describes the situation to the human resources director and her company’s legal expert. Together, they agree that Tom should be dismissed and that Maia has legal grounds for doing so.
Let’s look at the second area important in dismissing an employee: conducting the dismissal
meeting skillfully. The most effective managers clearly explain the reasons for the dismissal, take steps to preserve the person’s dignity, and avoid discriminatory language.
For example, before meeting with Tom to inform him of her decision, Maia documents Tom’s
performance and behavior problems, as well as the steps she has taken to try to help him improve. She
also documents the lack of positive results from these efforts. She will refer to this information during the dismissal meeting, and it will later go in Tom’s personnel file.
Then Maia asks Tom to meet with her. To ensure privacy, she sets up the meeting in a conference room well away from the flow of traffic in their department. She has Bertram, a manager from HR, sit in as well. That way, Bertram can be on hand to answer any questions Tom may have about severance pay, noncompete agreements, and other post-dismissal logistics.
In dispassionate and direct language, Maia tells Tom that she has decided to dismiss him as of that day and explains why. She focuses on the problematic performance and behaviors he has exhibited, as well as the lack of progress in addressing them. She avoids making any judgments about his character. She also steers clear of any references to Tom’s age, ethnic background, or other characteristics that could suggest a discriminatory attitude on her part. Finally, she avoids apologizing for the decision or saying anything that might suggest the dismissal is negotiable.
Tom is initially upset and hurt at being dismissed. But thanks to Maia’s careful handling of the meeting, he eventually accepts her decision. He packs up his belongings, says a brief farewell to his former colleagues, and heads home.
Maia has now come to the third area where she must excel in order to handle Tom’s dismissal
effectively: leading her team afterward. Effective managers communicate the dismissal effectively
to the rest of their employees, redistribute work for which the dismissed employee was responsible, and close any skill gaps left by the person’s departure.
Maia calls the rest of her employees together and tells them that she has dismissed Tom. She provides a brief explanation for her decision. Again, she focuses on Tom’s problematic performance and
attitude, not Tom’s character or worth as a person. She acknowledges the pain of the situation and reassures her direct reports that her decision to dismiss Tom had nothing to do with their performance. Then she explains that she will immediately begin searching for someone to replace Tom. She also invites her employees to meet with her individually to address any concerns they might have. After the meeting, Maia thinks about how to redistribute the work for which Tom was responsible. She reassigns his projects to several employees who have the expertise and time to handle them. For some projects, she decides to hire a temporary contractor.
Maia has made sure that Tom’s dismissal was legally permissible. She conducted a skillful dismissal meeting. And she led her team effectively following the dismissal. She handled the unfortunate situation as well as possible — thus avoiding negative repercussions for her company. Hopefully, you will not need to dismiss an employee. But if you do, following these guidelines will help you through a difficult task.