?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
- 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.
Linda Finkle is a leading expert on organizational communication strategies and
human potential development. As CEO of her executive coaching firm, Incedo Group,
Linda has helped countless leaders build internal communication and conflict
resolution strategies. She brings about changes in attitude and leadership style that
yield dramatic results. Company profitability is an inevitable side effect. Learn more