One of the worst jobs a manager or business owner ever has to do, is terminate employment with a team member. No matter how many times you do it, or how good you get at doing it, it always feels terrible. Even if the person has done something to “deserve” getting fired, there is a person behind the behavior who is losing their livelihood, and that’s hard to forget. While this task is never easy, there are some ways you can prepare (and protect yourself) from potentially damaging liability. Implement these ten steps to ensure this difficult task goes as smoothly as possible.
Plan Ahead – planning the meeting ahead of time will give you the best chance of having a successful meeting. If you’ve planned your agenda, timing and know what you’re going to say, you’ll be more confident and in control of the meeting.
Always consult a lawyer – whether you are dismissing for or not-for cause, seek the counsel of an employment lawyer to ensure that you are not conducting a wrongful dismissal, or are offering inadequate severance. Don’t rely on the Employment Standards Act to determine all your legal obligations to a dismissed employee. In many cases (particularly for long serving employees or employees in senior positions), your liability for severance to the employee may be much higher than the minimum severance prescribed under the Employment Standards Act as expressed in the common law of the Province. The money you spend on this advice can more than compensate for a potential claim against your company. If you are offering the employee any severance over and above the minimum severance prescribed under the BC Employment Standards Act, then it is generally a good idea to require the employee to sign a “Release of Claims” before paying any additional severance.
Keep it simple – don’t waste time with small talk. It only postpones the agony for both of you. Get to the point quickly. Follow your script. Leave no doubt as to the fact that they are being let go, and as to your expectations of what is to happen. If you are letting the person go for cause there should be documentation on the performance issues you’ve been working through and you have followed progressive discipline procedures. In this case you can let the person know why they are being terminated. If it’s a not-for-cause dismissal, keep your message simple (“This isn’t working out.”) and provide information on severance and notice. Don’t allow the person to push you with questions about why, as it heightens emotions and can end in a defensive argument.
Have a Witness – there should always be a third person in the room; this could be an HR person, the person who does your payroll, or another manager. The witness doesn’t contribute to the discussion, but simply observes the meeting in case there is any contradiction between what you have said and what the employee has heard (or says later).
Use a Neutral Location – if possible, the meeting should not be held in your office or the employee’s office, but in a neutral location such as a boardroom. Make sure that the room will not be used by anyone else during that time.
Control the Interview – be careful not to allow the employee to derail the meeting with questions, comments, pleas, or something totally unrelated. Stick to the agenda you have set. Have a letter outlining the basic terms of the dismissal, e.g. the reason for the dismissal, the final payments being made for wages, vacation pay and severance, the termination of any benefits and the obligations on the departing employee to return all company property. Have the ROE and severance check (if applicable) with you at the meeting, along with any documentation (release of claim etc.) you want the person to sign.
Be prepared for any reaction – the employee may or may not respond in keeping with their character; it’s hard to predict how people will react to this type of news. Be prepared to handle any situation that may arise. Keep in mind that how you say something is as important as what you say. Be empathetic and respectful. Regardless of the circumstances, you want to help preserve the person’s dignity.
Plan the exit – ensure your IT department is coordinated to ensure computers are being locked during the termination meeting. Ask the employee for the return of all company property (like keys or security cards) the employee may have in his possession. Give them at least thirty minutes to clean out their personal property. It’s up to you whether you would like to have this done under observation. Try to schedule the meeting at the end of the day so that – if possible – the person can clean out their office when other staff have gone. If this is not possible schedule a time after hours to meet the employee so that they can clean out their office in private. If possible, don’t schedule the meeting on a Friday as next steps are difficult for the employee to take on a weekend.
Plan your communication with staff – this is always touchy, as you don’t want to give too much information, but you also don’t want your staff making assumptions about what happened. However, less is better in most situations. Anything you say to staff could potentially get back to the terminated employee and give them a reason or evidence to come back with a claim against you. Simply telling the staff that the person has been let go is typically sufficient.
Document the meeting – either you or your witness should write a brief report documenting the meeting that is kept on file. Simply record what was said, how the employee responded, and what was asked of the employee.
Here are some things to avoid in a termination meeting:
Giving employees false hope or say you’ll help them find a job.
Saying, “I feel really bad about this.” It makes the person think you may have made a mistake and could change your mind.
Trying to defend yourself or the company. Arguing will only create resentment and frustration on the part of the employee.
Apologizing – you can express regret that the employment relationship didn’t work out, but don’t apologize.
Making value judgments or attempt to analyze the reasons for dismissal. Cite the reasons briefly and factually.
Using words like “incompetent” or “dishonest”. Focus on performance issues that have been documented.
Planning and consultation with an attorney will help you to mitigate the risks inherent in employee terminations, and will help you be more confident in navigating this challenging task. You can’t change the fact that the news will likely be difficult for the employee, but your preparation and respectful delivery can go a long way to ensuring their dignity is upheld, and reduce the chances of a lawsuit.