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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!

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Opinion Editorials

How to sound more confident in your next interview or office email

(OPINION/EDITORIAL) After COVID, collectively, our social skills need a little TLC. What words and phrases can you use to sound more confident at work?

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In-person work communications are on the rise, and it’s no surprise that, collectively, our social skills need a little bit of work. CNBC shares some examples of common phrases people tend to use when uncomfortable – and what you should use to replace them to sound more confident in your next interview or office email.

After explaining a personal philosophy or situation, it’s all too common to say, “Does that make sense?” Aside from occasionally sounding patronizing, this question more or less implies that you believe your worldview or lived experiences to require validation. CNBC suggests saying “I’d like to hear your input” or – if you’re in an inquisitive mood – asking “What are your thoughts?” instead.

This invites the interviewer to give feedback or continue the conversation without devaluing your own perspective.

CNBC also recommends getting rid of weak introductions, listing examples like “For what it’s worth” and “In my opinion” in order to sound more confident. Certainly, most of us have used these phrases to recuse ourselves from perceived criticism in meetings or emails; the problem is that they become an indicator of lacking self-confidence, at least for employers.

Simply jumping straight into whatever it is you have to say without the soft-paws introduction is sure to be appreciated by higher-ups and colleagues alike.

Passive voice is another thing you should remove from your communication when trying to sound more confident. For example, saying “I performed this action because…” instead of “This action was performed because…” shows ownership; whether you’re taking credit for an innovative decision or copping to a mistake, taking responsibility with the language you use is always better than removing yourself from the narrative.

“I’m not positive, but…” is yet another common phrase that CNBC eschews, opting instead to start with whatever comes after the “but”. It’s always good to maintain a certain amount of humility, but that’s not what this phrase is doing – it’s getting out in front of your own process and undermining it before anyone else has a chance to evaluate it. Regardless of your position or responsibilities, you should always give your thoughts the credit they deserve.

Finally, CNBC suggests removing perhaps the most undervalued phrase on this list: “I’m sorry.” There is absolutely a time and place to apologize, but “sorry” gets thrown around the office when a simple “excuse me” would suffice. Apologizing in these situations belies confidence, and it makes actual apologies – when they’re necessary – seem hollow.

The language people use is powerful, and as arbitrarily contrite as the workplace may inspire many to feel, humility can absolutely coexist with confidence.

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Opinion Editorials

10 tips for anyone looking to up their professional work game

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) It’s easy to get bogged down by the details, procrastinate, and feel unproductive. Here are a few tips to help you crush your work goals.

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Self-reflection is critical to a growth mindset, which you must have if you want to grow and improve. If you are ready to take your professional game to the next level, here are some stories and tips to help you remain focused on killing your work goals.

1. Don’t compare yourself to others. Comparison is the thief of joy, as the quote goes. And, in the workplace it’s bound to make you second guess yourself and your abilities. This story explains when comparison can be useful, when to avoid it, and how to change your focus if it’s sucking the life out of you.

2. Burnout is real and the harder you work, the less productive you are. It’s an inverse relationship. But, there are ways to work smarter and have better life balance. Here are some tips to prioritize your workload and find more ease.

3. Stop procrastinating and start getting sh@t done. The reason we procrastinate may be less about not wanting to do something and more about the emotions underlying the task. Ready to get going and stop hemming and hawing, you got this and here’s the way to push through.

4. Perfection is impossible and if you seek this in your work and life, it’s likely you are very frustrated. Let that desire go and learn to be happy with excellence over perfection.

5. If you think you’re really awesome and seriously deserve more money, more responsibility, more of anything and are ready to drop the knowledge on your supervisor or boss, you may want to check this story out to see if your spinning in the right direction.

6. Technology makes it so easy to get answers so quickly, it’s hard to wait around for things to happen. We like instant gratification. Yet, that is another reason procrastination is a problem for some of us, but every person has a different way/reason for procrastinating. Learn what’s up with that.

7. Making choices can be a challenge for some of us (me included) who worry we are making the wrong choice. If you’ve ever struggled with decision making, you know it can be paralyzing and then you either make no decision or choose the safest option. What we have here is the Ambiguity Effect and it can be a real time suck. Kick ambiguity to the curb.

8. If you are having trouble interacting with colleagues or wondering why you don’t hear back from contacts it could be you are creeping folks out unintentionally (we hope). Here’s how to #belesscreepy.

9. In the social media era building your brand and marketing are critical, yet, if you’re posting to the usual suspects and seeing very little engagement, you’ve got a problem. Wharton Business School even did a study on how to fix the situation and be more shareable.

10. Every time you do a presentation that one co-worker butts in and calls you out. Dang. If you aren’t earning respect on the job, you will be limited in your ability to get to the next level. Respect is critical to any leadership position, as well as to making a difference in any role you may have within an organization, but actions can be misconstrued. There are ways to take what may be negative situations and use them to your advantage, building mutual respect.

You have the tools you need, now get out there, work hard, play hard, and make sh*t happen. Oh, and remember, growth requires continual reflection and action, but you got this.

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Opinion Editorials

The actual reasons people choose to work at startups

(EDITORIAL) Startups have a lot going for them, environment, communication, visible growth. But why else would you work for one?

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leadership Startups meeting led by Black woman.

Startups are perpetually viewed as the quintessential millennial paradise with all of the accompanying perks: Flexible hours, in-house table tennis, and long holidays. With this reputation so massively ingrained in the popular perception of startups, is it foolish to think that their employees actually care about the work that startup companies accomplish?

Well, yes and no.

The average startup has a few benefits that traditional business models can’t touch. These benefits often include things like open communication, a relaxed social hierarchy, and proximity to the startup’s mission. That last one is especially important: While larger businesses keep several degrees of separation between their employees and their end goals, startups put the stakes out in the open, allowing employees to find personal motivation to succeed.

When employees find themselves personally fulfilled by their work, that work reaps many of the benefits in the employee’s dedication, which in turn helps the startup propagate. Many aspiring startup employees know this and are eager to “find themselves” through their work.

Nevertheless, the allure of your average startup doesn’t always come from the opportunity to work on “something that matters.”

Tiffany Philippou touches on this concept by pointing out that “People come to work for you because they need money to live… [s]tartups actually offer pretty decent salaries these days.”

It’s true that many employees in their early to late twenties will likely take any available job, so assuming that your startup’s 25-and-under employee base is as committed to finding new uses for plastic as you are maybe a bit naïve—indeed, this is a notion that holds true for any business, regardless of size or persuasion.

However, startup experience can color a young employee’s perception of their own self-worth. This allows them to pursue more personally tailored employment opportunities down the road—and that’s not a bad legacy to have.

Additionally, startups often offer—and even encourage—a level of personal connection and interactivity that employees simply won’t find in larger, more established workplaces. That isn’t symptomatic of startups being too laid-back or operating under loosely defined parameters. Instead, it’s a clue that work environments that facilitate personalities rather than rote productivity may stand to get more out of their employees.

Finally, your average startup has a limited number of spots, each of which has a clearly defined role and a possibility for massive growth. An employee of a startup doesn’t typically have to question their purpose in the company—it’s laid out for them; who are we to question their dedication to fulfilling it?

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