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The Right Way & the Wrong Way to Fire an Employee

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Charlotte Miller is a former state bar president, corporate general counsel, chief administrative officer and global chief human resource officer. In her career, she has been involved in planning and carrying out over 5,000 employee terminations. Yet not a single one has resulted in a lawsuit.

Currently Senior Vice President of People & Great Work for O.C. Tanner, a worldwide leader in employee recognition programs, Charlotte shared her observations on employee discipline during my interview of her, which can be read in full here. Regarding terminations, Charlotte made the following points:

Don’t start the process at the point of firing someone.

Too often managers procrastinate when faced with an employee problem. They put off dealing with it until it becomes intolerable. Then they start the process. The operative question should never be, “How do we get rid of this person?” It should be, “What have we done to keep a potentially valuable resource?”

Ban the word “documentation.”

If you work for Charlotte, you’ll quickly learn to replace the word “documentation” with “communication.” It’s not, “Have we properly documented this termination?” It’s “Have we adequately communicated with the employee, both orally and in writing?”

Eliminate labels such as “reprimand,” “warning,” “formal” or “informal.”

The question shouldn’t be whether you’ve properly labeled discipline. It should be whether you’ve communicated clearly to the employee the gap in expectations and results, and, with your help, given the employee a fair opportunity to close the gap.

Plan the termination meeting carefully.

Decide who should be present and when the meeting will occur. Charlotte recommends early in the day and early in the week and that you make sure the day doesn’t coincide with a significant date for the employee such as their birthday or employment anniversary date. Don’t go into detail about what led to termination. You can give them an opportunity to follow up with you a couple weeks afterwards if they still have questions. The key point to make is that the decision is final. Also, follow the “no-cry” rule, which doesn’t apply to the employee, who’s entitled to feel loss, pain and sadness. The rule applies to you. Don’t pretend to be in their shoes.

Exiting the terminated employee.

Generally speaking, employees should leave right after the termination meeting. You can arrange with them a subsequent time to pick up their personal belongings. It’s usually better to let them get over their initial shock before doing so. It’s also good to allow employees to process the termination experience more privately so they don’t say anything that would embarrass them or be problematic for you. Depending on circumstances, including the comfort level of co-workers, you may allow the departing employee to say goodbye to others. However, don’t let them continue working after they’ve been told they’re losing their job. Work transition should be covered in the pre-termination planning process. The longer the exit’s delay, the greater the employee’s pain.

Severance?

Charlotte recommends that as a general rule, severance and outplacement assistance should be offered. The severance doesn’t have to be large. Sometimes it’s comforting to know that the next rent or mortgage payment will be covered. Outplacement assistance should be at the employer’s cost so that’s it’s “use it or lose it” for the departing employee. You want them focused on their next job vs. dwelling on the one they just lost. These benefits should come with a release of claims but don’t over-lawyer it. Keep it simple and clear.

It’s not about punishment.

The philosophy should never be about punishment–good vs. bad, virtue vs. vice, etc. Rather, in a humble and resolute way, you’re carrying out your responsibilities as a manager. Charlotte cites her company’s founder, O.C. Tanner, who told his management team: “Your most difficult job is to see that the Company gets the best performance from its people.” Sometimes this means making the tough decision to end someone’s employment. However, terminations can be done well. You can treat the departing employee with dignity and respect while protecting the employer and allowing it to move forward constructively.

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