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July 31, 2014

Terminate with Dignity: Minimizing Personal and Professional Pain When an Employment Relationship Ends

A human resources director who I regularly counsel received a phone call from an employee who had been terminated recently. Upon hearing the director’s voice, the former employee began to cry and said, “I want to thank you so much for the way you handled my termination. You were very compassionate as you gave me the news. You walked me through the process with a sense of concern and direction. You instructed me to go home and read the separation agreement and to seek the advice of my attorney. I did that and I have just a few questions before I sign. You have been a good friend to me all these years. Thank you so much for helping me through what could have otherwise been a much more painful experience.”This HR director recognizes that, inevitably, each termination decision she carries out on behalf of her organization bears a profound impact on at least one human being’s life. With that in mind, when she needs to implement such an employment action, she makes it her mission to treat the employee with dignity, respect, and empathy. However, not everyone is like the professional I describe.Many terminations turn into lawsuits when the affected employee feels that he or she was treated unfairly. Here are some typical examples:

  • An employee learns for the first time, during the termination, that he has not been meeting expectations.
  • An employee is terminated for disciplinary reasons without being given an opportunity to explain her side of the story.
  • An employee learns of his impending termination via his coworkers or by reading about it in an email or text message.
  • An employee is fired by her supervisor in a fit of anger, is informed in front of coworkers, or escorted off premises by security.
  • An employee perceives that the supervisor who communicates the termination decision is dispassionate, reads from a script, fails to look the employee in the eye, or rushes through the meeting.

Not surprisingly, each of these scenarios has the potential to cause anger, resentment, claims for wrongful termination, and even violence. Many steps can be taken to mitigate the risk of such consequences, including the following:

  • Communicate expectations clearly, give an underperforming employee notice of deficiencies (verbally and confirmed in writing) and provide a reasonable opportunity to improve performance.
  • Give the employee a chance to be heard before a termination decision is made, even where misconduct seems indisputable (except in extreme circumstances such as health or safety risks).
  • Keep termination decisions as confidential as possible and communicate them privately to the employee, out of earshot of coworkers, customers, and vendors.
  • Communicate the decision to the employee face to face, in the presence of her supervisor and a member of human resources. Although extraordinary circumstances may require this communication to be delivered by alternate means (for example, to a telecommuting employee who cannot travel to company headquarters), use the telephone and avoid email and text messaging.
  • Avoid making termination decisions hastily or while angry or emotional. It is always best to think these decisions through.
  • Allow the employee to return to his work station to collect his own personal belongings (under your supervision) and refrain from involving security or law enforcement unless there is a threat to the safety of your workplace. Except in extraordinary circumstances, these steps can easily be taken even as the employee’s access to systems (including email) are discontinued during the termination meeting.
  • Speak directly to the employee when communicating a termination decision, use an appropriately compassionate tone, proactively provide information that any employee would want to know (such as final compensation and expense reimbursement, benefits, outplacement counseling (if offered), and references), and take the time to answer questions.

To put it succinctly, remember to keep the “human” in human resources. The decision to terminate may be in the best interest of your organization, but it will certainly also impact the life of the employee and her family. Heeding the wisdom of adages such as “treat others as you want to be treated” or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” can mean the difference between a protracted, expensive legal battle and a peaceful process that results in closure for both the employee and your organization. I recognize that the type of phone call that the human resources director received from her recently terminated employee may not be the norm — but it should be.

© 2014 Much Shelist, P.C.

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