Good leaders remember every termination they have conducted. This isn’t meant to imply that they don’t sleep well or have reason to feel guilty. Rather, it is the recognition that a termination is indeed something final and, as such, it should be taken seriously. The good news, for those who are about to undertake this action for the first time, there is common-sense advice to guide you.
- be kind
- consider their dignity
- know how you will manage without the employee
- give yourself a break
- go rogue
- allow the termination to become a counseling session
- forget why
- be indiscreet
Make sure you have all the facts at your disposal and that you understand (well) the circumstances leading to the termination. If a termination is occurring because of an employee performance issue, know the specifics and the history. Ensure that internal and any applicable external regulations have been adhered to with regard to performance appraisals, etc.
If lackluster business performance leads to a RIF (reduction in force), remember that the company leadership has decided that this termination supports a new business strategy, one which will help improve business performance, indirectly preserving other jobs. Keeping your head on the business case will help put the conversation in context.
Focus on the facts. Facts will be most helpful to the employee, plus they will keep you on track and out of trouble.
People who have been terminated go on to do other great things in their lives. Looking back, they may not remember the specific circumstances around a termination, especially if they were well treated throughout the process. The same goes for the remaining employees. They are watching, hearing, gossiping. They remember. Some of them will have concerns; a RIF might put them slightly off their game. After a particularly tough downsizing at one client organization, an HR manager told her employees to buck up lest the leadership be concerned that they let the wrong employees go. Reassuring? Hardly.
Ask yourself: What can I do during this termination process to keep this employee a believer in the company? Turn him into a potential customer? Ever wonder if Henry Ford II wishes he had been nicer to Lee lacocca when he had the chance? Be considerate, too. Choose someplace quiet and confidential to conduct the termination. Think through the process so that the employee maintains his/her dignity, despite what may be a blow to the ego.
How will this termination affect morale? Who will do the work that still needs doing? If a manager is removed, his/her team will need reassurance (Are we next?). In the case of a reduction in force, be aware of the increased workload on others. Communicate that you will work with the remaining team to find ways to streamline processes, revise deadlines, and tweak deliverables to make the work doable and interesting, mitigating the burden on the team.
In the case of a performance issue, consider carefully how much and what to share with the team – only communicate what is appropriate and necessary. Your ideas for getting the work done in this new paradigm, as well as your plans to replace the terminated employee, will be very interesting to the team. Don’t miss an opportunity to inspire. While it may not strike you as ideal, the circumstances around a termination can present a unique setting to revisit your team’s vital role in the business strategy.
It’s not easy for anyone with a heart to let an employee go. You will have concerns about the impact of this termination on the employee, his/her family and career. However, terminating an employee doesn’t have to change who you are. You can still be a good person. In fact, kindness is a critical underpinning in any termination discussion. You will likely change as a leader, though. Termination should be used like a microscope to review past business decisions: What persuaded your team to hire this employee in the first place? Were there any missed opportunities to redirect poor performance? How did the business strategy fail, leading to a reduction in force?
As leadership goes, if you aren’t managing the workforce and the business initiatives continually and proactively, you may be leaving yourself and your employees vulnerable.
Moreover, termination doesn’t have to be the end of the employee’s world, either. Did you know that heavyweight champ George Foreman was fired years ago from his job with a furniture moving company? It that hadn’t happened, you might never have gotten your George Foreman Grill.
Make sure that the employee knows where he/she is relative to company and team expectations well before talk of termination comes up. Once the decision has been made to terminate, ensure that you communicate how the termination process works, from the mundane (how to turn in a badge) to the important (how to sign up for insurance coverage). Also, provide contact information for the appropriate resources so that the employee can ask follow-up questions later.
Hopefully, well-considered thinking and real-life experiences informed the regulations and policies guiding termination in your company. This is not the time to let your inner Maverick out. Heroics in terminating employees are more about seriousness of purpose, communicating clearly, and affording people dignity. Know the rules and follow them. Those guidelines were created to take as much of the sting out of terminations as is possible.
In the case of poor performance, assuming the employee has been previously informed about the disconnect between your expectations and his/her work, get to the point without rehashing the details. In the case of an HR action for business reasons, such as a rightsizing of an organization, once an employee is no longer an employee, there is no reason to share confidential information about the business. In fact, to do so would not be professional and could compromise your company and your own integrity.
Most leaders will, understandably, want to mitigate the impact of a reduction in force (RIF). Sometimes this can mean not cutting deeply enough into the organization to make the necessary difference. While no one wants to decimate an organization, it is important to carefully consider and commit to what is necessary to turn the business around. If not done right and well, a second HR action may become necessary within a relatively short period of time. That can be a double whammy for the remaining workforce who are wondering if they can trust their employer and their manager – not to mention worrying about when the next shoe will drop. Distrust can create a real drag on productivity. On the other hand, be wary of business leaders who leverage a change in business strategy or in revenues to staff a revolving door of scapegoats to obfuscate their own leadership failings.
If your company is going through a tough time, the employees know it. If a reduction in force is required, many employees will sense that, too. Make the business decision and work quickly with human resources to organize the exit packages and execute the process. RIFs are much harder to keep quiet than many people may presume. Don’t make the mistake one manufacturing company did. Plant employees learned of a coming factory downsizing when the operator of vending machines in the plant abruptly pulled out their inventory. Be discreet and encourage your colleagues to keep a lid on things, too.
All good leaders also remember bad hires. In fact, they can’t forget them because so much of what they learned from that hire they never want to repeat. Consequently, those leaders are proactive about hiring, onboarding and managing employees. Doesn’t mean they won’t get another one now and again (a bad hire, that is), but they will work hard at mitigating that likelihood. The same goes for a business strategy gone awry, resulting in a larger downsizing of the employee base. Proactive leaders do not want to repeat mistakes that can lead to sweeping changes in the workforce (those situations often do create sleepless nights).
So, if you find yourself facing a termination of one or more employees, determine to do what you can and learn what you must in order to mitigate your participation in this type of process going forward. In the meantime, do your best, handle the process carefully and the people with integrity. And, know that you are not alone.