Fond Farewells

Aug 01, 2001 9:30 PM  By

‘You can’t solve the problem by using the prayer routine until everything goes bad’

Have a plan in place for how the workload will be divided among remaining employees

Juliet found her parting from Romeo sad but sweet because she had every expectation of seeing him again — unlike those of us who deal with the unpleasant task of letting an employee go

Can there ever be such a thing as tactful firing, or is this an oxymoron right up there with “military intelligence”? Managers and business consultants agree that from the viewpoint of most terminated employees, there is no inoffensive way to end someone’s tenure with a company. They also agree, however, that the process can be made less painful for everyone involved, and that when there is no gross violation of company policy, it can even be a win-win for everyone.

“For many managers, this is the hardest thing they do, and it takes an emotional toll,” according to Alan Horowitz, author of The Unofficial Guide to Hiring and Firing People (Hungry Minds, Inc., 1999). “It never gets easier.”

Ann Kiernan, an attorney and trainer at Fair Measures, Inc., a Santa Cruz, CA-based firm that teaches managers to manage effectively, believes that how the terminations are handled can be a serious indicator of other business practices. “If you as a manager can’t think of tactful termination as simply being a good human being, think of it as good resource allocation or cost prevention,” she says. “In the California Bay Area alone, it has been estimated that the cost of termination litigation averages about $200,000 per case when the employer defends a termination action and wins. You can only imagine the cost when there is a loss.”

Termination should never be a joyful occasion for anyone, she adds. The goal should be a departure with dignity and the feeling that the employee was treated humanely and with consideration for him and his family.

One way to accomplish this is for employees to “essentially fire themselves,” according to Christopher Fisher, director of customer relations for Broomfield, CO-based natural living products retailer Gaiam, Inc.

“Termination should never be a surprise to the employee,” Fisher says. “When he walks into that meeting, the person should already be anticipating what is going to happen. There should have been so much coaching, counseling, communication, and documentation for months before so that everyone can rest assured that everything possible has been done to make the relationship work.”

Fisher adds that when the problem is simply a wrong hire — which can happen even with the best of screening — it’s important to act quickly to make things easier for both the company and the employee. He advises taking a close look at any concerns during the employee’s 90-day probation period and coaching and counseling the person in that time. “If it is a poor fit in 90 days, it will probably never change, and it is best to let the employee go while there is no penalty on either side,” he says. “Remember, you hired that person for a reason. Unless they completely misrepresented themselves, you share the responsibility for the mismatch and that person is owed the dignity of a respectful departure.”

A hope and a prayer

Ron Eike, director of operations for multichannel merchant Omaha Steaks, headquartered in Omaha, NE, believes that weak performance issues constitute a gray area for termination. “We, as managers, need to recognize performance concerns long before termination in these cases and communicate them to the employee, he says. “If it is a health or personal problem, there may be a way to work it out. If it is work-related, like a personality clash or a supervisory, resource, or training issue, you especially need to know what is going on.” Gaining this type of information may enable the manager to improve not only a particular employee’s situation but to explore the cause of other personnel or performance issues, Eike adds.

He also notes that managers must help terminated workers find other employment, to salvage both the company’s and the employee’s reputation.

Human resources consultant Nancy Combs of HR Enterprise, Inc., located in Louisville, KY, describes this approach as a “no-fault termination,” and says that companies need to use this tactic whenever the reason for termination is not immediately apparent. “These are not misconduct cases which are clear-cut, but rather situations where an employee is not living up to the company’s expectations.”

The person was hired in good faith, Combs points out, and believed, along with one or more people in the employer’s organization, that he could do the job. But all sorts of things can go wrong, from bad chemistry between the employee and his supervisor to serious glitches in the employee’s personal life that affect performance. In such cases, parting amicably is a more humane thing to do than putting off the inevitable because it is unpleasant. “You can’t solve the problem by using the prayer routine — that’s the one where you hope and pray that things will improve — until everything goes bad.”

Combs says that the message a company should give to anyone who has been terminated is that the employer doesn’t want the person to be harmed by the action. “You want to leave them with dignity and the capability to move on,” she counsels. “Making them understand that the termination is warranted and that everything possible has been done to work with them for another outcome will help to head off the kind of burning anger that looks for a face to shoot at.”

Corporate culture and workplace diversity have an impact on how terminations are handled and what approach should be taken. The workplace has changed radically in recent years, and that includes how people view their careers and job situations, says James Walsh, author of Rightful Termination (Silver Lake Publishing, 1997) and Mastering Diversity (Silver Lake Publishing, 1995)

“Workers today have different opinions about what a job is,” says Walsh. “As the workplace becomes more and more diverse, there is a need to be aware of the pervasive multicultural conditions that are part of the web of personal issues that employers are going to encounter. There are cultural biases that are not part of the realities of the workplace or the economy.” Walsh cites the example of first-generation immigrants who are new to the expectations of American business. He points to the cultural, generational, and gender issues that are integral to how companies manage business today, and notes that although company policy cannot be tailored to individuals or groups, managers must be sensitive to the issues that these can raise.

“But remember,” he adds, “employees’ lives are their property, not your turf. You probably shouldn’t be offering career advice to someone that you are firing. It can often cause you to step into a snare.”

Walsh encourages a minimalist approach, encouraging employers to say as little as possible “Don’t be abrupt or nasty, but being friendly with an employee that you are terminating is simply a bad idea.”

Gaiam’s Fisher disagrees. He prefers to provide an employee with useful information about how to move on. “We are a lifestyle company, with a casual yet demanding culture. It’s reflected in our workspace and our policies. When I terminate an individual I don’t want them to leave with the feeling that they will always be a failure. I want to help them to mature professionally and become successful over the long term.”

Paper trail

It may be debatable whether and when you should terminate a non-performing employee, but human resource consultants are in full agreement that firing someone is not an overnight process unless you can prove gross misconduct. To ensure that the company’s interests are considered along with the employee’s, the four key words that experts use over and over again are: coach, counsel, document, prepare.

“If a company effectively communicates concerns and creates a comprehensive paper trail prior to terminating an under-performer, the employee will never be blindsided, and they will be fully aware of their shortcomings in advance of the termination,” says Alan Horowitz, author of The Unofficial Guide to Hiring and Firing People. “If not, the company has done a poor job and is leaving itself open to action by the terminated employee.”

Annual or semi-annual performance appraisals are not the right time for an under-performing employee to hear about problems for the first time. “When there is a problem, the employee needs to be told immediately in a helpful way,” says Judith Starr Kitchen, a human resources manager in Austin, TX, for Ryder System, a Miami-based logistics provider. “If it continues, the message needs to be reinforced, focusing on the behavior or action, not the person. If it doesn’t improve and leads to termination, there should still be both implicit and explicit respect.”

The human factor

Virtually every manager and consultant has a particular way that they find comfortable and appropriate for terminating an employee. Fisher, for example, always coaches managers to handle a termination at a time of day when they will not need to return to work themselves because the situation is so emotionally charged. “I never walk away from a termination feeling good no matter how justified it was,” he explains. “Unless it is for gross misconduct, a manager should never get to the point where he enjoys letting someone go. This is people’s lives we are dealing with.”

Ron Eike says that he encourages managers and supervisors to develop a compassionate approach to terminations and consider the employee’s continuing employment needs. “There is no reason for an employer to go into bad attitude mode,” he says. “This is something that is better for both the organization and the employee, and it should be approached that way.”

The Omaha Steaks director firmly believes that it is more humane to terminate on a Monday. “Terminating late in the week means that the employee can’t immediately start to look ahead at finding a new job. The weekend is apt to present a problem because all momentum has been lost and there is nothing to do but give in to emotion and pain about what has just ended.”

Other managers feel that terminations should be handled on Thursdays or Fridays if the work spans the traditional five-day week, or just before the employee completes his or her workweek if the operation runs on a flexible schedule.

By terminating on a Thursday, some managers say, the employee has an opportunity to leave and the manager has a chance before the week ends to handle any information that must be relayed to the rest of the work team. Others feel that Friday terminations present more of a sense of finality and give the terminated employee a chance to compose himself before moving on.

Speak up

You will often be faced with telling remaining employees about a termination tactfully, while protecting the former employee’s privacy. Most managers agree that the people who worked with this employee won’t be surprised to hear about his departure. Do communicate, however. Let them know that the person has left the company. Your company’s procedures will determine whether the message is delivered in an e-mail, a hard-copy memo, or a meeting. Don’t elaborate, and don’t answer questions from nosy co-workers; suggest that they call the employee directly.

Managers frequently forget that when they terminate an employee, a customer may be left dangling at the end of the pipeline. That customer needs to be treated with respect, too. Have a plan in place for how the workload will be divided among remaining employees, remember to communicate promptly with internal managers who worked regularly with the terminated employee, and let any outside customers know how their business will be handled. Note, however, that none of this should ever occur before the employee has been terminated, or you may have to deal with leaks and people who may be less tactful than you are. Remember — don’t offer any information other than that the person has left the organization, and don’t answer prying questions.

In their shoes

No matter how accomplished you become at terminating an employee, it never gets routine. “If it does,” says Judith Starr Kitchen, “then there is something wrong with you. But as a manager or human resources professional, it is part of your job.”

James Walsh, the author of Rightful Termination, takes a positive view. “Just remember, when you become a manager, it’s because somebody thinks you can do this.”

Adds Nancy Combs of HR Enterprise, “The best way to approach it is to think about how you would like to be treated if the shoe was on the other foot and you were being terminated. It’s a simple way to ensure that you are acting from a position of tact and respect.”

Linda Water Nelson, an Austin, TX-based writer and founder of The Writing Source, a consortium of writers, regularly authors articles on a wide range of business topics. She can be reached by fax at (512) 238-8198 or by e-mail at

Good Housekeeping

  • The most tactful time for termination is at the end of the day or shift.
  • Conduct termination meetings in a conference room or human resource office. Always have a box of tissues handy. This meeting won’t generally be pleasant.
  • Work from a series of checklists for documentation. Don’t rely on doing things by memory.
  • The direct supervisor should attend the meeting, along with a human resources professional or another officer of the company to act as an uninvolved third party.
  • A male and a female should be present.
  • Briefer is definitely better. This is not the time for discussion. Make it clear, without abruptness, that the company has made a decision and it is final. Ensure that there is little or no dialogue.
  • Allow five to fifteen minutes for the termination and as much time as is required to deal with housekeeping issues such as benefits, COBRA, outplacement, and severance (if applicable) and other company-specific considerations. The manager or supervisor should terminate the employee, shake hands, and leave. Let the HR administrator do the follow-up job.
  • Have the final paycheck ready to give to the employee at the time of termination. It provides finality and ensures that the employee is not left entirely without funds.
  • Give the employee an opportunity to respond to the termination in writing, and provide a form for doing so. This gives the employee a chance to vent and provides a response on file if there is any future action.
  • The manager or supervisor should refer any calls from the employee to HR and not answer any questions.
  • Unless gross misconduct has occurred, the employee should be allowed to return to his or her work area, preferably after others have left, to retrieve personal belongings and return any company property. The HR person should accompany the employee.

Orderly Conduct

Consultants advise taking termination steps in the following order:

  • Verbally discuss performance issues and how to resolve them, including counseling and retraining assistance if it is called for. The manager should keep complete notes of the meeting and save them in case future action is required. This is the time to ask about the employee’s view of the situation, and it is the right opportunity to explore extenuating circumstances or workplace issues that may be at the root of the problem.

  • Provide written notification if the performance problem continues. Spell out everything, including a timeline for reevaluation (often 30 days) and the expectations for performance improvement. Nothing should be left to chance. Include the words “possible termination” to indicate what the next step might be. It’s also a good idea to provide positive written reinforcement if the employee has clearly made inroads toward improving his or her performance.

  • Document all performance issues from beginning to end, with dates and details. This is a company’s greatest advantage in dealing with any post-termination issues. Although employment today is generally at will, unless a contract or collective bargaining agreement is in force, an arbitrator or jury always wants to know that every effort has been made to salvage the employment relationship and that the employee has been treated fairly, Ann Kiernan of Fair Measures says.