To terminate is to bring to an end. And if you’ve ever had to figure out how to terminate an employee, you know things don’t get much harder or sadder. Most managers dread this part of the job more than any other.
And frankly, you should feel a little dread when parting ways with an employee — it’s what makes you human. Luckily, there are some steps you can take to ensure the conversation goes smoothly.
Due to feelings of guilt, uncertainty about the decision, legal concerns, and excuses by the team member, many managers don’t let poor performers go when they should (or at all). And when they do take action, almost every termination conversation is stressful.
But keeping poor performers on the team is a disservice to other team members, clients, the organization, and even to the employee in question. Lower standards are infectious and can bring down the aspiration level of other team members, and poor performers often incite resentment. Taking action puts other low performers on notice, helps managers meet goals, and ensures clients get the value and care they need.
Time and time again I have been told by colleagues and managers who have lost their jobs that the worst part wasn’t the termination itself but howthe message was delivered. To quote one colleague, “The message was dropped like a bomb.”
When it is time to let a team member go, the process you use — while it does not change the result — significantly alters the experience and reduces chances of litigation. Knowing how to terminate an employee properly makes managers more confident and compassionate, and team members more accepting of the person’s exit.
1. Inform the human resources team.
Having made the decision to let someone go, review the employee handbook first. Make sure your grounds for termination are in line with company policy and that you’re ready to inform the right people beforehand.
Usually, the first people you notify of a firing are human resources (HR) and legal. Both teams will explain how to terminate the employee, and inform IT and security so they can disconnect the employee’s office equipment after they leave. Work with HR to calculate final compensation and/or severance, and collect all documentation and paperwork you’ll need for the employee’s departure (we’ll go over paperwork in Step 7).
Don’t have the termination conversation alone. Ideally include a colleague from HR or one of your peers as a witness during the termination.
2. Set up a meeting with the employee.
Once HR has been notified of the intended firing, set up a meeting with the employee. Having the meeting right away is ideal, but if their schedule simply doesn’t allow, it should be fairly soon after the meeting invitation. If asked what the meeting is about, use your discretion, but say that you prefer to flesh out the details during the meeting.
Or, if the discussion will be by phone, focus the exchange on when there will be adequate time to talk (we’ll talk about how to fire someone over the phone following the final step of this process).
If you have the choice, firing an employee is best done face-to-face in a private setting. This allows you to set a serious but supportive tone and present everything the employee will need to know — including any relevant paperwork about health insurance, severance, or unemployment.
3. Lead with the bad news.
The very first thing out of your mouth in the termination meeting should be to let the person know he or she is being let go. Offering too much context or lead-up before the firing itself might seem mature, but it can ultimately make the termination feel unofficial and leave the employee with too much to dwell on after they leave.
Do not rescind the decision to fire this person unless new and compelling evidence is presented. But don’t go looking for this information. You may let the employee offer their point of view, but it’s unusual for it to invalidate a firing at this point in the process.
4. Reference previous performance goals.
The fourth step in a proper firing process depends on something you were (hopefully) doing in advance of this meeting: tracking their performanceand supporting them every step of the way. When letting someone go, it’s important that you politely allude to the warnings and guidance they were given at various points during their employment.
With enough coaching sessions, the termination meeting will have followed a ‘final consequence’ meeting, where you clearly spell out the objectives to be accomplished, the time frame in which to accomplish them, and most importantly, the consequence if the objectives are not met — i.e. the person will lose their job.
Document all of these coaching sessions in writing prior to the termination meeting. Don’t have documentation? Meet with HR and consider putting the person on a 30-, 60-, or 90-day performance plan before officially severing them from the company. This gives them a chance to actually improve, while providing you with the right paperwork if the person ultimately doesn’t.
The value of a performance improvement plan is, among other things, to ensure the employee doesn’t feel blindsided if they end up getting fired. In fairness to the person, termination should never come as a surprise (unless it’s due to an egregious act or part of corporate downsizing).
5. Keep your explanation short but specific.
When referencing the employee’s past performance, there’s a fine but important line between explaining why they’ve been terminated and simply making them feel worse. Keep your reason brief and clear.
For example, “We set [objective X] to be accomplished by [date Y] and unfortunately this wasn’t met.” More detailed feedback on this objective should have been given in performance reviews.
There are two reasons to keep the meeting short:
- You don’t want to get into an argument or long discussion. The decision has been made and is non-negotiable. While clear feedback is very important for growth, it should have already been given at this point.
- There’s no need to further hurt the person’s feelings. The employee may vent and ask questions, but just listen and repeat your concise message.
Don’t give a long list of failures. It will only pour salt in the wound, create resentment, and provoke an argument.
6. Listen and repeat your decision.
Despite your best attempts at making a termination quick and painless, you might still receive lengthy responses of rebuttals from the employee. That’s alright — they should feel willing to express themselves. What they shouldn’t feel is that the decision to fire them is still being made.
Listen to what your employee has to say and genuinely take heed in their feedback — this is probably a conversation you’ll have again in your career, and the employee’s viewpoint is valuable. But unless they offer any substantial evidence that there’s been a mistake, continue to reiterate that their employment is no longer needed.
7. Provide continued healthcare paperwork and related next steps.
Clearly define next steps with the terminated employee (yes, there are some important ones you need to take). The first is to clarify the effective date of termination; in many companies, this means immediately.
Then, communicate your severance policy, if you have one, and explain how the employee may continue their health insurance for a limited timeafter they leave. The Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1986 — commonly referred to as COBRA — allows terminated employees to extend their health insurance coverage after they depart. HR normally hands over COBRA paperwork during terminations, but it’s important that you show your awareness of this crucial step, too.
Once you’ve gone over each next step with the team member, identify who will accompany them back to their desk to gather their things.
8. Thank the employee for their services and wish them luck.
Your last step during a firing is to thank the person for the services. Don’t apologize, but say you wish things had worked out differently and extend best wishes for the future.
One last tip: Avoid Friday terminations. Monday is widely preferred because the employee can start making contacts more easily during the week.