Terminating an employee is never easy, even if you know it’s the right decision. It’s often a traumatic experience for the person being let go, and guilt-inducing for the person initiating the conversation.
But termination can be handled with genuine compassion.
“…compassion is a more objective form of empathy. This idea of seeing things clearly through another person’s perspective can be invaluable when it comes to relating with others, particularly in tense work situations.”
Indeed, how you choose to handle this conversation will have a tremendous impact on the departing employee, the remaining team, you, and your company. How you treat your employees at the point of termination is a litmus test of your leadership skills.
What are some things to be aware of?
1. Prepare, prepare, prepare
It goes without saying that termination should occur after a documented process of attempted performance improvement. Ensure that you have spoken with an HR professional and/or lawyer about what this should include (it can vary). Collect these documents and take them to the termination meeting. It’s a good idea to have HR present in the room, though you’re the one that needs to take ownership of this whole process.
Also, take the time to go through the questions your employee may have regarding severance pay, their last date, any company property, or unemployment insurance. Think through when you’ll have the conversation and how the person will be asked to leave the building. Can they come back to collect their things after hours? Can they say goodbye? Opt to resign? Have these points set out in a termination contract, as they won’t be able to absorb everything face to face.
2. Be intentional about how you ‘show up’
As the Harvard Business Review recently suggested, go over your intentions before the meeting.
What outcome do you want?
How do you want the person to feel?
How will you need to show up?
Be aware of your intention, energy and presence before you enter the room.
If you are unprepared, fidgeting, awkward and clearly wanting to end the meeting as soon as possible, you will convey disrespect and belittlement. If you shame the person or let loose with your own feelings, you may cause long-term damage (quite apart from leaving yourself open to legal action).
How you show up will also have a ripple effect in your company. Other employees are watching. What elements of the termination are they are exposed to? Do you honour their colleague in how you speak to the team about their departure?
Your actions will also impact your brand reputation further afield. Choose to act with compassion, integrity and respect so that regardless of how the employee responds, you have no regrets about what was within your control.
3. Let them be heard
This doesn’t mean that their termination is up for discussion. Nor is this a time to rehash disputes or have them plead their side of the story. The decision has been made and it’s final. It also doesn’t mean that you condone their behaviour if they’ve acted unethically.
It does mean that you’re giving the person a chance to ask questions, process the news, and feel heard, even if these issues aren’t up for discussion or negotiation. Allow silence for them to process; they may be in shock. After they have asked any questions, wrap up the meeting within a reasonable timeframe. Letting it drag on can be unhelpful.
Terminating someone is never easy, but it can be done in a way that is as human as possible.
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