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The complete guide to terminating an employee, remaining human, and protecting your company

(BUSINESS NEWS) Employee terminations are never a pleasant task, but they are a necessary one.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Transition forward

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”.

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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.

#FireRight

Roger is a Staff Writer at The American Genius and holds two Master's degrees, one in Education Leadership and another in Leadership Studies. In his spare time away from researching leadership retention and communication styles, he loves to watch baseball, especially the Red Sox!

Opinion Editorials

Basic tips on how to handle common (and ridiculous) interview questions

(EDITORIAL) There will always be off the wall questions in an interview, but what is the point of them? Do interviewers expect quick, honest, or deep and thought out answers?

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We’ve all been asked (or know of friends who have been) some ridiculous interview questions:

  • What type of fruit would you be in a smoothie and why?
  • If you were stuck on a deserted island, what is one item that you couldn’t live without?
  • Could you tell us a joke?

Sound familiar? You may have worried about stumbling in your response, but the reality is, you will receive questions in an interview that you may not know the answer to. Many of us sweat bullets preparing for interviews, trying to think through every possible scenario and every question we might be asked. Usually the hardest part about these questions is simply that you cannot prepare for them. So how do you approach questions like these?

First and foremost, you have to be comfortable with the uncomfortable and do your best to answer them in the moment. Interviewers are not expecting you to know the answer to these question. Instead, they are literally looking to see how you handle yourself in a situation where you may not know the answer. Would you answer with the first thing that comes to mind? Would you ask for more information or resources? What is your thought process and justification for answering this question? Please know that how you answer this particular question is not usually a deal-breaker, but how you handle yourself can be.

Now, with more common questions, even though some can  still feel ridiculous, you have the opportunity to practice.

“What are your strengths and weaknesses?”

They want to be able to see that you have confidence and know your strengths – but also that you are human and recognize where you may have areas of improvement, as well as self-awareness. This isn’t a trick question per se, but it is an important one to think through how you would answer this in a professional manner.

If you’re not feeling super confident or know how to answer the strength question, it may be worth asking your friends and family what they think. What areas of business or life do they feel comfortable coming to ask you about? Were there subjects in school or work projects that you picked up really quickly? This may help identify some strengths (and they can be general like communication or project management.) One great way to delve in to your strengths is to take the CliftonStrengths Test.

“Your CliftonStrengths themes are your talent DNA. They explain the ways you most naturally think, feel and behave.” It gives you your top 5 strengths (unique to you), as well as a detailed report on how those work together and amongst groups. Per the research from Gallup, they say time is better spent on growing your strengths than trying to overcome your weaknesses.

The thing with the “What is your weakness?” question is that you cannot say things like “I really cannot get up in the morning!” or “I absolutely hate small talk!” – even though those may be true for you. They are looking for a more thoughtful answer demonstrating your self-awareness and desire to grow and learn.

They know you’re human, but the interviewer is looking for what you’re doing to address your weakness. An example of a response may be, “I have struggled with advanced formulas in Excel, but have made sure to attend regular workshops and seek out opportunities to practice more functionality so that I can improve in this area”. Another example might be, “I have a very direct type of communication style and I have learned that sometimes, I need to let the other person share and speak more before I jump to a decision.” Many times you can also find some great insights in self-assessment tests too (like DISC, Myers-Briggs, Enneagram for examples).

“Why do you want to work for this company?”

Let’s be real. Companies want people that want to work there. They want you to be interested in their products/service because that usually means you will be a happier employee. You should be able to answer this question by doing some company research, (if any) drawing from your personal experience with the company, or getting “insider insight” from a friend or colleague who works there and can help you understand more about what it’s like to be employed by that company.

“Where do you see yourself in five years?”

All companies have goals and plans to make progress. They ask this question to see if you, a potential future employee, will have goals that align with theirs. Jokingly, we are all curious about how people answered this question back in 2015…but in all seriousness, it is worth asking yourself and thinking through how this company or role aligns with your future goals. This question is similar to the weaknesses question in that you still have to remain professional. You don’t want to tell them that you want to work there so you can learn the ins/outs to then go start your own (competitive) company.

Take a few minutes to think about what excites you about this job, how you can grow and learn there, and maybe one piece of personal (hope to adopt a dog, travel to India, buy a home) but it doesn’t have to be anything super committal.

When it comes to behavioral interview questions, these are also much easier to prepare for. You can take out your resume, review your experience, and write out 3 examples for the following scenarios:

    • Handled a difficult person or situation
    • Decided steps (or pulled together resources) to figure out a problem/solution that was new to your team or organization
    • Brought a new idea to the table, saved expenses and/or brought in revenue – basically how you made a positive impact on the organization

These are very common questions you’ll find in an interview, and while interviewers may not ask you exactly those questions verbatim, if you have thought through a few scenarios, you will be better conditioned to recall and share examples (also looking at your resume can trigger your memory). Bring these notes with you to the interview if that makes you feel more comfortable (just don’t bring them and read them out loud – use it as a refresher before the interview starts).

Practicing is the best way to prepare, but there’s always a chance that you’ll get a question you might not know the answer to. Do your research and consider asking friends (or family) about how they’ve handled being in a similar situation. Ultimately,  you have to trust yourselves that you will be able to rise to the occasion and answer to the best of your ability, in a professional manner.

Whatever you do, please also have questions prepared for your interviewers. This is a great opportunity to help you decide if this is a right fit for you (projects, growth opportunity, team dynamics, management styles, location/travel, what they do for the company/what are they proud of/how did they choose to work here). Never waste it with “Nope, I’m good” as that can leave a bad final impression.

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Opinion Editorials

Be yourself, or be Batman? A simple trick to boost your self-confidence

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) “If you can’t be yourself, be Batman.” We’ve heard it before, but is there a way that this mentality can actually give you self-confidence?

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Batman symbol has long been a way to boost self-confidence.

The joke with scary movies is that the characters do stupid things, and so you scream at them. No you dumdums, don’t go FURTHER into the murder circus. Put down the glowing idol of cursed soda gods and their machine gun tempers. Stop it with the zombie dogs. STOP IT WITH THE — WHAT DID I JUST TELL YOU?

We do this as the audience because we’re removed from the scene. We’re observing, birds eye view imbued ducklings, on our couches, and with our snacks. Weird trick for horror movies to play — makes us feel smart, because we’re not the ones on meat hooks.

But if a zombie crashed through our window, like RIGHT NOW, the first thing we’re going to do doesn’t matter, because that thing is going to be stupid. So so stupid. You can’t believe how stupid you’ll act. Like, “I can’t leave behind my DONUT” stupid, as a zombie chomps your arm that was reaching for a bear claw you weren’t even really enjoying to begin with. “Oh no my DOCUMENTS I can’t leave without my DOCUMENTS.”

There’s a layer of distinction between those two instances — removed versus immersed. And really, this colors a lot of our life. Maybe all of our life. (Spoiler: It is all of our life.)

It’s Imposter Syndrome in overdrive — the crippling thought that you’re going to fail and be found out. And you tell yourself that all the little missteps and mistakes and mis…jumps are entirely your fault. Feedback loops reiterates, and then you get paralyzed. And man, what a time to be alive — what with the world on fire — to start up a self-deprecation engine shame machine. No way our self-confidence is suffering now, right?

The point is: You — as a being — experiencing things first hand is the perfect time to see your shortcomings. You can’t help but do it. You are living in your skeleton meat mecha human suit, and all the electronics in your head strangely remember all the times you struggled. And weirdly, if you look at someone else in the exact same situation you were just in, you suddenly have this powerful insight and awareness. It happens naturally. It’s why you think I would never head on down to the basement in a creepy mansion. Watch any cooking competition show to see this in action. Armchair quarterbacks, hindsight 2020. It’s all the same.

But when it’s just you and you’re doing things in real time? You lose focus, you stumble, and you wonder why it’s suddenly so hard to make rice, or why you fell for the really obvious fake punt.

So where does that leave you? How do you solve this problem? There are ways. But the journey is arduous and hectic and scary and difficult. Time tempers your soul over and over, you harden in ways that build you up, and you become better. The process is ages old.

I bet you’d like at least… I dunno, there’s gotta be a small trick, right? Life has secrets. Secrets exist. Secrets are a thing. Let’s talk about one to boost your self-confidence.

Stop seeing things in first person, and instead, talk to yourself in the third person. Yes, just like George did in that episode of Seinfeld. Don’t say, “I need to finish the project today.” Say “Bob needs to finish the project today.” If your name is Bob, I mean. Substitute in your name. In effect, you are distancing yourself from the situation at hand, as you begin to view it from outside yourself.

Studies have shown that doing this causes a fascinating side effect — an odd insulating barrier that can give someone just enough distance from the problem at hand, which in turn lets someone more calmly examine the situation. Once that is achieved, a plan can be written and executed with great results.

There’s some research demonstrating this concept, and as truly crazy as it sounds, marked improvement in behavior has been measured when participants are told to think of themselves as a different person. It’s like the “fake it ’til you make it” principle — suddenly you’re sort of cheering on this other person, because you want them to succeed. It’s just that in this case, the other person is still you.

I’ve heard the concept also said that “your current self can give your future self an easier life if you work hard now.” It seems like distancing functions on that wavelength — that by thinking you are supporting some other entity (and even when that entity is still you), some empathetic mechanisms spring into play, and your natural desire to see success rebounds back onto yourself. This is you eating your cake, yet something still having cake.

So that’s magic in and of itself, right? I want you to try it. Don’t think in terms of what you have to do, but what you watching yourself will do. All these fun tiny benefits concurrently happen — encouragement, pressure removal, controlled thought, drive, momentum, and motivation. It’s all there — a trail mix built out of emotions and psychological buffs. And they’ll all fire off at once and you’ll start noticing how much better you feel.

Here’s the best part — we can take this further. At least two different studies have shown with children that thinking of an alter ego and then distancing creates even stronger outcomes. Now we’re not just hyping ourselves up — we’re hyping up an impressive figure. Batman is already taking down jerks. So what if you say you are the night and combine that with self removal? Even in children, the conclusion was fascinating. When they were given a menial task to complete, those who were told to believe they were Batman had an improvement of 23% in focus and productivity over a group who was given no directive. Even without the consequences of adult life and its inherent complexities, children naturally showcased that they work harder if they undergo an alter ego transformation. Now you’re not just there for yourself, you’re there for Batman himself.

“But that’s just children.” Ok, well, it works in adults too. Beyoncé and Adele would psych themselves up by creating onstage personas that were confident, successful, fearless versions of themselves. It’s an act within an act, with a performer further elevating themselves away from reality through the substitution of a personality built and engineered for success. Set aside that these are powerful, fierce, intimidating entertainers in their own right; the focus here is that they also used this mental trick, and it worked.

(There’s an aside here that I think is worth mentioning — in the midst of performing to a crowd, you are 100% in control, and I think this simple realization would help scores of people with their fear of public speaking; a concept to write about another day.)

Distilled down: If you think you’re a hero, you’ll act like one. Easier said than done, but give it a try by taking yourself out of the equation, even if for a moment. You’re not changing who you are so much as you are discovering the pieces of innate power you already had. You aren’t erasing yourself — you’re finding the hidden strength that’s already there. Having a way to kickstart this is perfectly fine.

The ultimate goal with all of this is to build the discipline that lets you begin to automatically engage this mode of heightened ability – that you’ll naturally adopt the good parts into life without the need for ramping up. Armed with that, you’re unstoppable.

Life — as a series of interactions and decisions — can be gamed, to a degree, with tiny and small shifts in perspective. Dropping a surrogate for yourself gives you enough room to have the chance to take everything in, and augmenting this concept further with the thought of having an alter ago creates even wilder possibilities. Psychologists are finding that this sidestep phenomenon can potentially help in different areas — improved physical health, learning how to better handle stress, emotional control, mastering anxiety, and a host of others.

So put on a mask, and then put on a whole new self. It’s almost Halloween anyway.

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Opinion Editorials

Don’t forget about essential workers in a post-COVID world (be kind)

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) As the world reopens, essential workers deserve even more of our respect and care, remembering that their breaks have been few and far between.

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Tired essential workers wearing an apron leans against the doorframe of a cafe, eyes closed.

Anxiety about returning to work post-COVID-19 is real. Alison Green, of Ask A Manager, believes “much of that stems from a break in trust in the people and institutions that have shown they can’t be counted on to protect us.” Green also goes on to remind us that a lot of people don’t have the luxury of returning to the workplace – the essential workers who never left the workplace. The grocery store clerks, janitors, garbage collectors, and healthcare providers, just to name a few. As the country reopens, we have to be more sensitive to these essential workers, who often are left out of the discussion about safety, work norms, and benefits.

Essential workers got lip service during the pandemic

At the start of the pandemic, the essential workers were hailed as heroes. We appreciated the grocery store workers who tried to keep the shelves stocked with toilet paper. We thanked the healthcare workers who kept working to keep people healthy and to take care of our elderly. I remember being more appreciative of the person who delivered my mail and the guy who came and picked up the trash each week. Now that the pandemic has been with us for more than a year, these workers are still doing their jobs, just maybe not so tirelessly.

Some of these workers don’t have sick days, let alone vacation days for self-care, but they are still making it possible for their community to function while being treated with less than respect. They’ve weathered the pandemic while working in public, worrying about getting sick, dealing with the public who threw tantrums for policies beyond their control, and managing their health while employers didn’t enforce safety measures. I’d hazard a guess that most of the C-level executives didn’t bring in any of their essential employees when writing new policies under COVID-19.

Bring essential workers into the conversation

In many cases, it has been the workers with the least who are risking the most. In Oklahoma, even though Gov. Stitt deemed many industries as essential, those same workers had to wait until Phase 3 to get their vaccine. Please note that elected officials and government leaders were eligible under Phase 2 to get their vaccine. Society pays lip service to the essential workers, but in reality, these jobs are typically low paying jobs that must be done, pandemic or not. In my small rural town, a local sheriff’s deputy contracted COVID-19. The community came together in fundraising efforts to pay his bills. It’s sad that a man who served the community did not have enough insurance to cover his illness.

As your office opens up and you talk to employees who are concerned about coming back to the office, don’t forget about the ones who have been there the entire time. Give your essential workers a voice. Treat their anxiety as real. Don’t pay lip service to their “heroism” without backing it up with some real change. As offices open up to a new normal, we can’t forget about the essential workers who did the jobs that kept society going.

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