It’s part of the job
Let’s face it: no one likes firing an employee, but we all know that it has to be done when the circumstances call for it. When that time comes, how do we do so effectively and in a way that preserves both the integrity and safety of the company with the dignity of the soon-to-be former employee?
Make your case
Before you consider terminating an employee, study up. Make certain that you’re familiar with your employee handbook, your company policies, and applicable employment laws. This isn’t an act that you should do alone if you can avoid doing so. Reviewing your firm’s employment policies and their interaction with federal, state, and local laws with a qualified employment lawyer and/or your human resources staff can save you much time and heartache down the road.
While D.L. Roth may have once said, “You know you’ve made it when you can spell subpoena without thinking about it,” protracted battles with ex-employees can be expensive and time-consuming. This is true even of at-will employees in right-to-work states, such as Texas. An at-will employee is one whose employment can be ended for any reason, or no reason, as long as it is not an illegal reason.
Age discrimination? Yep, illegal reason. Gender discrimination? Same story, unless gender is a Bona-Fide Occupational Qualification (BFOQ). Terminated for absenteeism during a USERRA or FMLA leave? Probably, but many shades of grey exist there. Even the prima facie appearance of a termination decision based on a prohibited reason can be time consuming to defend against.
So, does this mean that you should avoid terminating any employees who may fall into a protected class? Not at all.
After the review of your company policies, review the employee’s disciplinary history. The documentation that exists in their employee file will be the basis for which you make your decision for which you can defend yourself, if the need arises.
You’re looking for the point where the employee’s behavior or lack of performance have run afoul of company policy and can cite that violation of expected standards to them as a way to defend your decision.
In law school, there’s a way of thinking about cases popularly known as the “IRAC” method: Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion. You can apply that here: the employee’s behavior is the issue, and the company policy is the rule, with application and conclusion being next steps in the termination process.
Documentation is king
If policy changes or ongoing employee performance problems haven’t been documented in writing, consider whether or not now is the right time to terminate the employee. It’s an old maxim — without documentation, it didn’t happen. If you or your front-line managers aren’t in the habit of documenting employee discipline and performance concerns in a timely fashion, you need to address that first.
It doesn’t look good if you’re making the claim that your employee has had Problem X for the past six months, but all of the disciplinary documentation you’ve provided them is from only the past week, in a last minute effort to throw together something. It’s better to take a step back and clean up your processes first. This is also a good point to review what remediation steps you’ve offered an employee to improve their performance, especially if the problem is an ongoing one.
Remember, you’re not just taking care of a performance or behavior issue at your office. You’re also gravely impacting the entirety of someone’s life and livelihood.
That gravity doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t act, but it does mean that you need to be fair and just throughout the process.
State your case
Once a review of company policy, the employee’s performance and behavioral history, and any remediative steps have justified the decision to terminate employment, it’s time to schedule the meeting. If your company has an HR business partner, have them there; you’re doing the firing, though. It’s your decision, and HR is there to handle the exiting process for the employee, with the inevitable questions that will arise, as well as to serve as witness in case of litigation later.
Experts differ on whether people should be fired early in the week or late in the week, and whether or not the meeting should be held in your office or the employee’s private workspace, if they have one. In reality, these decisions vary by workspace. Take into account that you want to treat the employee with dignity and privacy as you transition.
The meeting should be direct and to the point; fifteen minutes is a long time when there’s only one message being delivered, and a prolonged conversation isn’t going to change anyone’s minds about the outcome.
When the employee sits down, they well may wonder why HR is there as well. It’s best to acknowledge their presence in the room, and let the employee know that you’re all there today to review the status of their employment. When transitioning to the discussion of performance or behavior, be direct and clear about the types of problems that have occurred, the length of time, severity of the behaviors, and any remediative steps that have been provided. Doing so allows the employee to understand that you have been dealing with ongoing concerns for some time that have not improved, or that their behavior, even if only a one time occurrence, was so severe that you had to address it in this fashion.
After the review of performance, you’ve now got to tell the employee that, based on this behavior, or lack of improvement, their employment has been terminated, effective today.
Be prepared to experience a gamut of emotions from the employee: shock, anger, denial, disbelief, bargaining for another chance.
You may well be empathetic to the employee’s circumstance; I know that I’ve been when in this position. However, empathy aside, now is the time for what I refer to as “kind clarity”. You’re using precise language, so as not to confuse the employee or to give them the false impression that there’s another avenue at this point. While not belaboring the point of every violation of rules that they committed, you’re also remaining steadfast to their performance issues. It’s natural, when faced with a strong emotional reaction from the employee, to want to minimize the problems that existed that led to their termination.
While it’s tempting to want to console an upset employee, overly kind words that seem dismissive of their problem today may be used as evidence tomorrow. You can go into broken record mode when an employee disagrees with the decision: “I acknowledge your position, but the decision is final.” And, while it’s understandable that you’d possibly be emotional as well, don’t say that this decision is difficult for you. That’s not going to make anyone in the room feel better, most especially the now ex-employee.
Once the termination has been delivered, utilize the skills of your HR business partner, if possible, to answer the expected questions about benefits, pay, references, unemployment claims, etc. If your company is upscaling and doesn’t have a dedicated HR department, think about all of the questions that you would have in a similar circumstance, and be prepared to answer them.
Provide the employee with a point of contact for any questions or needs that come up after the meeting is ended, and make certain that that point of contact provides them with the same high level of customer service that you would expect for any employee.
At the conclusion of the meeting, escort your former employee to pick up their essential belongings and then directly off property. Even for employees for whom there is no expected risk of becoming violent or disruptive in the workplace, you want to protect your team against any unnecessary distraction of a visibly upset colleague who may have been popular among them.
For employees who have a large amount of personal property, allowing them to come back after hours when you or your HR partner can observe them packing is kinder than asking them to do it in front of an audience of their former colleagues. You’ll also want to provide notice of the termination to your IT department to have e-mail and other proprietary technology shut off at the time of termination. This avoids the risk of the former employee sending out any messaging that would be harmful to the company as a “parting gift”.
After the employee has been terminated, the work goes on. You’ll want to maintain the employee’s privacy and confidentiality as you transition their projects to other team members and, eventually, interview for their replacement. Maintaining the same levels of empathy and reassurance with them as they transition without their co-worker, as well as rolling up your sleeves to take on some of the additional workload if necessary, will ensure that the mission goes forward.