SMART ABOUT TERMINATING EMPLOYEES
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According to the
U.S. Department of Labor, employers initiated 3,597 mass layoff actions
from January through February 2003, as measured by new filings for unemployment
insurance benefits during the two months. Each action involved at least
50 persons from a single establishment, and the number of workers involved
totaled 340,474. Unfortunately, terminating employees is one of the
most unpleasant and, sometimes, unavoidable parts of being an entrepreneur.
No one enjoys the
termination process. Firing an employee can be a painful, difficult,
and a potentially costly task. Not only do you lose your investment
of time, money, training and experience, but you can put yourself at
risk for being sued. The highly emotional nature of the process can
turn any well-intentioned words or actions into fuel for wrongful discharge
suits and personal resentment.
The best way to
make sure that you’re not setting your company up for a lawsuit
is to handle the entire termination process effectively and without
ambiguity. In short, plan. The following are seven tips for implementing
a mess-free termination:
Small Talk. Starting the meeting off with questions about
the family or last night’s game delays the bad news only momentarily.
It also sets an awkward tone for the not-so-small topic coming up
next. Since this is a final decision and not a discussion, all you
really need is 10-15 minutes. Come prepared with a speech or an index
card with bullet points listing key points that you want to make clear.
Friendly chatter only makes the news more painful – keep it
short, keep it professional.
Surprises. Whether it’s staff reduction or poor performance,
the employee should have been prepared. If it’s a performance
issue, termination should be the final resort. For every meeting with
or about an employee, there should be notes describing your efforts.
It would be a good idea for these documents and any performance evaluations
administered by the company to be signed by the employee. This provides
proof that the employee was given recommendations and reviews, and
in essence, guidelines for expected improvement. With proof of fair
warning, it makes it difficult for a fired employee to argue unwarranted
discharge. "Managers need to prepare well before they meet with
the employee," explains Susan Herman, author of Hiring Right:
A Practical Guide. "They need to look at the employee's overall
job performance accurately and carefully, and make sure the company's
personnel policies are in good shape. A team of managers should be
involved in the decision." Another form of “documentation”
is having another manager or supervisor there with you at the meeting.
In the case of a lawsuit, you have a witness. You also demonstrate
consensus in the decision. If not addressed quickly, one employee’s
termination can alarm the rest. The grapevine can exaggerate news
in a heartbeat, so be sure to communicate the reasons quickly and
positively. You don’t want to cause any feelings of insecurity
among your staff.
avoid the matter. Time is money, and while the employee is
sitting at the desk being a lousy performer, your company is absorbing
the costs of paying for his salary and benefits, as well as any related
overhead costs. This would only be compounded with the severance pay,
continued benefits, outplacement help, etc. that your company may
offer when he actually does leave.
Timing. Generally, it is not recommended that you fire someone
first thing in the morning, or on a Friday when a weekend would give
the employee time to become angry and resentful. A mid-morning meeting
gives him the chance to vent over lunch with his co-workers, while
a late-afternoon meeting would let him slip out without having to
work amidst whispers of gossip in the office. Use your best judgment.
Patronizing Sympathy or Cold Professionalism. Offering comfort
by saying, “I know how you feel” or “I feel awful”
will most likely hurt your employee more than it will make you feel
better about yourself. As stated before, cut out the fluff –
it is only insulting in a situation like this. However, mistaking
cold indifference for professionalism would not help either. The best
thing you can do is to simply offer an explanation and sympathy in
a manner that shows you still respect him. In the case of protest
or argument, be patient, hear whatever he has to say, and firmly repeat
your reasons, decision, and sympathy. Don’t concede or show
Offer Help at the End. Again, be careful not to say things
that will only provide you temporary relief from your guilt. Unless
it is company policy to contribute to outplacement services yourself,
or unless you really, truly desire to make a commitment to help, it
will only be an empty offer that drags out what will soon be a non-existent
employment relationship. Not only would you be insulting him, but
this ambiguity could give him a basis for legal or other appeals.
End the Meeting Open-Ended. Provide a clear time period for
departure. Bring the final paycheck. Provide him with contact information
of the person who handles these arrangements. For true finality, offer
severance pay, commissions, or outplacement in return for a signed
waiver of their legal rights. Check with your company to find out
the time limit employees have to consider these offers.
To maintain perspective,
picture yourself on the other side of the desk. Imagine how you’d
want to be treated.
by Stephen T. Furnari
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