Terminating Employees Without Trepidation

by Mike O'Neill

If you’re an HR professional or manager, your leadership role will eventually lead to employee termination. It comes with the territory and should be handled with care as it can cause severe problems for your company if something goes wrong.

Some people go to great lengths to avoid terminating an employee because it’s highly uncomfortable. They’re hesitant to do it because they aren’t sure how to approach it correctly, or they’ve waited too long to do it.

As a manager or HR leader, you’re used to job postings, interviewing, and the hiring process. But what about the firing process? Most people quit their jobs, so terminations are somewhat rare for managers to deal with, and they might be inexperienced. 

After handling terminations for many years from an HR and management standpoint, I’ve mastered the uncomfortable process and counseled many others on how to do it. 

There’s a correct way to approach the situation, which I’ve detailed below. It isn’t a complete list of everything you need to know when terminating an employee, but it contains the key points to ensure it goes smoothly without legal exposure.

Terminating Employees the Right Way

1. Always Terminate in Person (If Possible)

When you terminate an employee, the first thing to remember is to do it in person. Avoid doing so over the phone or virtually unless necessary. When you handle such an important conversation over video conference or a phone call when you don’t have to, you’re not presenting yourself in the most professional way possible. You don’t want to be known as the boss who fires over video conferences, as this could prevent you from having a more robust professional network and hiring the best talent in the future. 

If you have to have the conversation over the phone or virtually, always have someone else present on a separate line or computer. It would be best if you had someone else present regardless of the circumstances, but it’s even more critical when done virtually. This witness is an observer who will document the conversation. 

With remote employees, it’s best to use a video conference platform. They should see your face and the compassion you feel towards them at that moment because it’s harder to convey your empathy over the phone.

For a smooth in-person termination, have the conversation with the employee in a private, discreet place with a member of HR with you. HR can coach you through the process and serve as a witness.

2. Don’t Wait Until Friday

Terminating an employee is an awkward experience you want to mitigate as much as possible. Choosing the right day and time to do it is essential and may affect how the employee responds. 

Friday may seem like the best day to do it because you won’t have to deal with any possible repercussions over the weekend, but this may leave your newly terminated employee confused about the processes, like ending benefits, and unable to contact HR with questions until Monday. Terminating an employee on Friday can build resentment as they may feel dumped to the side without being considered a human being.

If you terminate them on a Friday, your former employee might also feel you’ve wasted their time knowing they would be terminated all week without telling them. They could’ve spent the rest of their week searching for another job, but now you’ve pushed them to wait two days before making calls and starting that process.

It’s not good for your other employees, either. They shouldn’t hear about the employee’s termination from anyone other than you. The former employee may talk to them over the weekend, giving them their point of view and leading your current employees to possibly have an incorrect assumption of what happened.

And when you wait until Friday to do your terminations, your employees might grow to feel uneasy every time they see you or HR walking around on a Friday. They might feel paranoid that they’re the next ones to be terminated and become distrustful of those days.

Mondays aren’t always the best days because your former employee may resent that you wasted their morning getting ready and commuting just to be terminated and sent back home.

The best time to terminate an employee is from Tuesday to Thursday, with the ideal time being Wednesday in the morning. It isn’t too early or late in the week, giving your former employee plenty of time to ask questions and begin the job search before the weekend. You’ll also have two full days to meet with your other employees, explain why it happened, and answer any questions they have about the change.

3. Don’t Keep Other Employees in the Dark

Your employees should not hear about the termination from the former employee. It can lead to a host of problems, including resentment and the spreading of misinformation.

A terminated employee is likely to feel hurt and angry, so their reactions to the other employees may be exaggerated and, if your remaining employees believe them, will cause them to look at you in a bad light and feel worried that they’ll be treated the same way. They may not even want to work with you anymore, or at the very least, they won’t perform as well as they used to. If you don’t tell your team what’s happening, they might also think their jobs are on the line. These thoughts can lead to mistrust and paranoia in the office.

Meet with your team as soon as possible after terminating an employee. Again, make it in person. If the terminated employee didn’t work closely with other people or your company is large, an email is good enough, but you should at least meet in person with the former employee’s close associates or department. 

When you meet with your employees, don’t use the word “fired” or “terminated.” Say they are no longer with the company. And don’t badmouth them or criticize the former employee. They don’t need to know why they were terminated, only how you handled the transition. Say they are no longer with the company and explain how you’re moving forward. Please don’t go into great detail, and keep it concise.

Stick to these three things when announcing the termination:

  • Simply saying the employee no longer works for our company
  • Explaining how the company is moving forward
  • Encouraging employees to speak to you or HR if they have questions

4. Cover Your Bases

When you’re having the termination conversation with the employee, be sure you have documentation to back it up, or you could be at risk of a wrongful termination lawsuit. This could include write-ups or performance reviews. The more documentation you have, the better.

When you gather your documents, always consult HR to review them. If it’s a sticky situation, like if the employee is in a protected class, have an attorney look over them to ensure you have an airtight case for termination.

5. Keep the Termination Conversation Short

When you sit an employee down to terminate them, don’t draw the conversation out longer than 15 minutes. Employees shouldn’t feel they can reason their way out of it, and you can give them false hope if you let the conversation go on too long and end up making them even more emotional when it ends.

Get to the point quickly. Tell them they’ve been terminated, and give them specific feedback on why it happened. List the facts and don’t give lengthy explanations for each reason. Make sure you’re clear and don’t leave room for the employee to argue with you by having documentation available to back up your decision. 

You or your HR colleague should also inform them of the effective date of their termination and any logistics regarding their final paycheck and benefits.

When it’s all said and done, allow the employee to respond. They shouldn’t be hustled out of the building as soon as you say, “you’re terminated.” Instead, let them say their piece. Use the opportunity to gauge how they’re feeling and reaffirm your decision if they try to argue it. Doing so lets them know you respect them but are also serious about the termination.

If the employee has company property that needs to be returned, request it at the time of termination. Requesting it then alleviates any further awkwardness or confusion the employee could have if they had to come back to return the items later.

6. Suspend, Then Terminate

If the issue or misconduct is very serious, consider suspending the employee pending an investigation. Knee-jerk reactions to misconduct allegations do not look good for your company, especially when situations aren’t clear-cut. 

Suspending an employee is a practical way to give yourself time to properly investigate and document the situation before making a final decision. 

Use the suspension as your neutral reaction to the allegations. Suspension shouldn’t be used as punishment, especially based on an assumption. Like termination, you don’t have to warn your employee that suspension is coming, but it’s best to have documentation to back your decision up. When you notify the employee of their suspension, include:

  • The reason for the suspension
  • How long it’s expected to last
  • Your assertion that the suspension is not for punishment nor an assumption of guilt but rather a necessary step to complete an investigation
  • Obligations or rights the employee has during suspension
  • Contact information for you or HR so the employee can stay informed of the situation

By including these details, you’re being as equitable as possible to your employee and avoiding potential conflicts when employees feel they’re being mistreated. 

7. Anticipate Emotions

Getting terminated is a very uncomfortable experience. The employee may be surprised by the news and not take it well. Many become visibly upset, and the situation can become volatile. You have to be prepared for anything.

First, never have the conversation one-on-one. Always bring a witness with you, the best choice being an HR professional. They can interject and show documentation if the employee makes false claims and can diffuse situations if they get too tense.

If possible, ensure the genders are balanced, so the employee doesn’t feel discriminated against.

You can anticipate your employees’ reactions by gauging their personalities and moods that day. If you think the employee may become violent, have extra personnel nearby if things go south. Sit the nearest to the door and do not engage in arguments.

The goal of anticipating emotions is to ensure a smooth conversation and transition. Remember, your terminated employee is human.

8. Be Compassionate and Respectful

The last and most important tip for successfully terminating an employee is to do it with respect and empathy.

Your employee most likely needed the job for an income, so any visceral reactions to being terminated probably stemmed from the fear of financial hardship.

If you approach your employees with empathy, it will help prevent any outbursts since they’ll know you’re not doing it out of hate or spite. Gently explain the reasons for the termination so they don’t come across as insults or a list of failures.

Recommend the employee to an outplacement program to help them find another job, but don’t give your own promises to help them as that can come back to hurt you later on.

When the conversation ends, try to do so on a positive note. Give them a warm handshake, smile, and wish them well. 

Being compassionate and respectful can go a long way for you, especially if the former employee encounters potential candidates or clients for your company. You’ll also be less likely to face repercussions or wrongful termination lawsuits.

Treating people with respect and empathy is a good practice at every level of communication, but it’s even more critical when you have to terminate an employee. Do not forget this tip.

Handling Terminations With Ease

When it’s time to terminate, it’s okay to feel nervous. It’s a highly uncomfortable situation for all parties involved, especially if the employee was pleasant during their time at the company.

To tackle the challenging conversation and avoid legal exposure, remember these tips:

  1. Always do it in person (if possible)
  2. Don’t wait until Friday 
  3. Inform your other employees promptly
  4. Gather documentation
  5. Keep the conversation under 15 minutes
  6. If the issue or misconduct is serious, suspend before terminating, if possible
  7. Anticipate emotions, and
  8. Treat the employee with empathy and respect

Contact me if you or your team leaders need to learn how to tackle terminations without trepidation. Our two-hour training module for successfully terminating employees is an integral part of our client’s management training, which spans from the interview to the termination conversation.

I’ll help you prepare for all of the business’s uncomfortable and challenging moments so you can be the best leader for your team.

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