Terminating Employees Respectfully
One of the most difficult actions any executive has to take is to look an employee directly in the eye and tell them that they will no longer be working for the company. Knowing that termination will end the employee's current source of income, and undoubtedly affect them in a number of ways personally, makes it infinitely more stressful to address the task.
In truth, although keeping the employee in question may be detrimental to the health of the company itself, many leaders keep people on longer than they should because they simply can't face firing them. Mass terminations can be even more stressful.
In order to avoid facing the devastation and disappointment of their employees, many companies have resorted to pretty appalling means of letting their employees know the score. Consider the company that allowed its employees to arrive at work one morning only to find that their key cards had been deactivated and the locks changed. Or the daycare where parents arrived to pick up their children on the Friday before Labor Day and were told that this was the last day the day care would be open. The staff hadn't been notified until that day, and the parents didn't know at all. Worse yet, the owner of the daycare did not bother to call parents or staff who had not been at the school on Friday to inform them that the school was closing. So they showed up with their children in tow on the following Tuesday to find the doors locked, lights out and a note on the door.
What brings leaders to this extreme kind of action? It's undoubtedly fear, stress, frustration and more significantly, a total lack of concern and caring for their employees. In the cases above, it's likely that the company had been having financial, legal, IRS or other problems for some time and the leaders had not shared this with the employees. Whether you're terminating a single employee who just isn't "cutting the mustard" or a mass layoff, it's crucial that a leader understands the importance of managing the termination in a respectful and responsible manner. What are the most common ways people are terminated?
Here are some examples:
- Depending on the size of the company, sometimes an HR designate handles the termination, either alone or in conjunction with the manager. This is more of a CYA tactic for the company than it is a helpful or caring attitude towards the employee. - Many states are 'at will' states, meaning they can fire at any time without cause. Some employers interpret that to mean they don't need to provide feedback to employees who are not performing well, and therefore, whenever the mood hits them, they simply terminate.
- Larger companies have what's called a PIP - performance improvement plan. They give the employee in question three months to demonstrate improvement in specified areas and if they don't, they are told up front that they won't have a job. This allows the company to easily terminate someone if their performance doesn't improve, and gives the employee the chance to turn the performance issues around.
- Termination for cause is obviously a different situation than termination due to a company closing their doors, downsizing, reorganizing or merging/being acquired. Cause is anything from not showing up for work, poor performance or sexual harassment to simply not doing what is required. Cause related issues usually play out with employers sitting down privately with the employee and telling them that they are terminated. In most cases (though not all) it should come as no surprise to the employee as they have been warned and the issue has been discussed previously. - Companies have been known to send an employee the news of their position being eliminated in an email. Some companies have actually sent blast emails (not individual ones) to staff letting them know they were no longer needed and not to come back to work.
Certainly, the only thing that could be considered worse than firing an employee who's not performing to requirement, dragging down co-workers and wreaking havoc with your business, is to avoid terminating them. Fear of an emotional scene shouldn't cause you to hold onto an employee who just doesn't fit your company. That being said, there are ways to terminate an employee with dignity and respect: - Communication is key. Explain the circumstances surrounding the decision for termination without sugar-coating the situation. The truth is still the truth, so be sure to be genuine and honest in your explanations. If the employee is not being terminated due to performance issues, let them know how valuable their work has been to the company and how much you've appreciated them.
- If the termination is performance-based, be sure that you give your employees clear and honest feedback. Discuss the performance issue with the employee and provide the specific improvements that need to occur including a time frame within which they need to turn things around - with the consequences of not improving to a specific level clearly stated.
- Be crystal clear about the reason for termination. Whether it's performance-related, a lack of "fit" in the company, a change in the needs of the organization or a mass layoff for financial reasons, the employee has the right to know why they are losing their job.
- Specifically explain the timeframe within which their departure will take place and what the company will be providing (if any) to the employee (i.e. severance pay, benefits) after they leave the company.
In order to show genuine concern and respect for your people, it's crucial to understand that most terminations are not the result of bad employees. Sometimes we have people where the job outgrows them and there is just no appropriate position in which to place them in the company. Sometimes the expectations or needs of the company change and the employee cannot adjust to the new expectations. And, at times, you may have people who simply cannot perform well. This may be skills-based rather than a problem with motivation or attitude. An employee may simply not fit the company. All of these circumstances are painful for the employee, and also for the caring employer.
Firing an employee is tough, and the territory comes with emotional fallout, but if it has to be done, you do both yourself and your business a great disservice by putting off the inevitable. Every company has to make tough decisions about staffing; it's the nature of business. However, if we forget that employees are people, with feelings, fears, concerns and families, we will simply dismiss them (both literally and figuratively). Perhaps it is easier for companies to forget that their employees are people. Certainly, not caring about the personal aspects of a termination builds a buffer zone that protects the emotions of the executive who is required to do the firing. Yet the only way to terminate productively is to treat your people with respect and dignity, regardless of the reason for termination.