Most people do not look forward to having to fire or lay off someone. Whether you are human resources professional, a labor attorney or a seasoned business owner the experience can be difficult and emotionally draining. However there are ways of making the task of employee termination easier.
The two most common causes of employee terminations are poor job performance and staff reductions due a downturn in company revenue. These two issues are handled somewhat differently. In either case it will reduce liability to have corporate policies which have been reviewed by an attorney.
In the case of poor performance it is essential to keep accurate records and follow certain procedures. The typical protocol is to have a meeting with the employee explaining the performance issue and the necessary changes to correct it. It may be necessary to emphasize the seriousness of the issue by stating that failure to improve performance may lead to termination. Then after a certain time period a second meeting is held to determine if the corrective measures have been implemented and if the performance is still an issue. Depending on nature of the performance issue and whether there is some improvement another meeting may be required before a decision on termination is made. These procedures vary by state and therefore it is critical to seek council of a labor attorney in your state to make sure you are following all required legal guidelines.
That is the first step towards obtaining peace of mind, knowing that you have followed legal protocol and in the event of a termination hearing there is a basis to defend yourself. Sometimes this step alone can fend of frivolous law suits. I once terminated an employee for poor performance and got a letter from the employee’s attorney a few weeks later threatening an age discrimination suit. She said she was willing to settle out of court. I had my attorney call the employee’s attorney informing her of the legal procedures I followed, the meetings I had discussing the specific performance issues and the documentation I had to prove it. Therefore there was no legal basis to challenge the termination. The employee and her attorney were never heard from again. It’s not always that easy. However following the required procedures and obtaining competent legal counsel can reduce your liability or avoid a potential nightmare.
Handling the legal liabilities can often seem easier than dealing with the anxiety and energy drain of having the conversation to fire someone. In the movie “Up in the Air” George Clooney plays a man who makes his living firing people on behalf of employers who don’t have the stomach to do it on their own. He does this by being detached and indifferent to the plight of the terminated employee. That doesn’t work for most people. Human nature causes most people to care about others to some degree and therefore feel bad when you know you are the cause of someone’s pain. The important thing to realize is that every employee is talented at something. If they are not doing well in a particular role it means they are not a good fit for the job. It would be in their best interest to be in a position they are better suited for and have the potential to excel. When it is explained to the employee in this manner it is usually easier to accept the bad news. It often relieves the anxiety of the supervisor when they realize it is in the best interest of both parties for the employee to move on. Depending on budget and available resources offering the employee outplacement services may be appropriate. Other reasons the manager may be concerned about terminating someone include things like they really need health care coverage or they have financial challenges. These can be addressed in the severance package that is offered to them. While it is important to follow company policies and guidelines regarding severance pay there is usually room to modify it to accommodate the needs of the individual situation.
The other common cause for termination is reduction in revenue requiring staff reductions. Most employers don’t like to share the bad news with their employees. However when a company is not doing well the employees usually already know. They just don’t know how bad it is or how it affects their position. I have found that for many reasons that it is best to have transparency about the company’s financial health. It is important to let the employee to be terminated know it is not their fault. It is just an economic necessity. Open honest communication with employees at all levels will be a benefit to everyone. It creates an atmosphere of respect and cooperation. You may find out who is planning to jump ship. Those remaining may work harder to help the company improve its financial situation. Some employers offer employees time off to interview during working hours. Others do symbolic gestures like helping employees pack up their desk then help carry it to their car. These visible signs can reduce animosity and increase morale.
Laying off an employee does not have to be a negative experience. Many decades ago I worked for a twelve employee company where everyone got along so well it felt like family. After five years due a major downturn in revenue the company laid off half its employees. The owner found jobs for all displaced employees through friends and connections in the industry. Ten years later a reunion was organized by one of the displaced employee to celebrate the owners 70th birthday.
This is above and beyond what many people are willing to do. However showing empathy and respect for the terminated employee will create a more positive experience. Transparency and effective communication are the key components that can make an unpleasant situation tolerable.