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Congratulations! You’re Fired!

By Dr. Andy Edelman

Whether letting someone go for poor performance or downsizing an entire division because of declining company profits, the stress of firing for all concerned can be enormous. In fact, failing to plan and execute a sound procedure for firing can result in needless stress and anxiety, as well as potentially costly instances of litigation or retaliation. Although never a pleasant process, proactive managers must master the art of termination in order to maintain operational performance, ethical standards and, at the same time, prevent any potential incidents of workplace violence.

1. Hire tough, manage easy: Steps two through ten would probably not be necessary if recruitment, selection, training and retention efforts helped to match the best people with your organizational values and mission. It is far more advisable to spend the time, money and energy on hiring the right people than it is to deal with the challenges of managing and ultimately firing the wrong ones. This should be a partnership effort between human resources and executive leadership to ensure that the organization brings on board the “best and the brightest who are willing and able.”

2. Spread the word: Let each new hire know the organization’s expectations, standard operating procedures, and consequences for any breach of conduct or performance. It is far more difficult for a terminated employee to escalate to violence if the end-game outcomes are shared from the very first day of orientation training.

3. Plan with precision: Managers should put a systematic plan in place for the inevitable firing process and headed by those with the best people skills. Every step in this process must be planned for and should include “What if..?” contingency plans. For example, it is ill-advised to terminate an employee on a Friday afternoon or right before a holiday. Develop a keen understanding of the dynamics of dealing with an individual whose source of livelihood and personal and professional self-esteem have just been jeopardized. Reactions by terminated employees can range from calm, resigned acceptance and compliance to more volatile defense mechanisms such as total denial, emotional outbursts, and in some instances physical violence. Managers that plan for each potential scenario are far more likely to achieve a peaceful exit interview.

4. Set the stage: Termination proceedings should be held in a location free from prying eyes or a potential audience. The room should be neutral and without distractions (and company banners and logos which could inflame already sensitive emotions) and should be free of any objects that could be damaged or used as weapons. In addition, at least several persons should be present including a designated security representative during the exit interview to ensure accurate documentation while maintaining a safe environment in cases of verbal or physical escalation.

5.  Cut to the chase: Since firing an employee for whatever reason is never a pleasant task, it may seem appropriate for managers to take a while to get to the point or dodge the issue in an attempt to be “nice.” However, it is best to be clear, concise and upfront about the purpose of the meeting and to summarize the reason(s) for the termination and the opportunities for development and improvement offered which were not met. In addition, the seemingly good intention of being nice will only cause the terminated employee to resent you more. The longer the exit interview lasts, the greater the likelihood of further dysfunctional communication and potential for violence.

6. Show them their money: Offer all past due salary or monies immediately to the employee without delay or fanfare. If there are appropriate severance pay offers, make them at this time. This will at least take some of the sting out of the termination experience.

7. Offer win-win alternatives: In downsizing scenarios where you are forced to terminate high quality employees, make every attempt to help them locate additional opportunities, along with the willingness to write letters of reference when appropriate. Organizations that make attempts to take care of their valuable assets in good times and in bad will reap both short and long-term benefits. You never know if or when the person you terminate today might be your supervisor tomorrow.

8. Allow a graceful exit: Unless a safety risk is present, allow terminated employees to say their goodbyes and gather their personal effects without a show of force. Yet at the same time, maintain common sense security precautions to prevent unauthorized tampering or theft of property. Be especially careful with sensitive computer data and back up all essential files in the event that the terminated employee decides to include sabotage as a going away present.

9. Keep the yellow light on: Have security and all key management personnel to be vigilant for any “return customers.” Change is difficult for all personnel and termination is a significant event in anyone’s life. Although adhering to termination best practices will significantly reduce the probability of a re-escalation incident, there is always the remote chance for the terminated employee to return unexpectedly to “settle the score.” All organizations should exercise this healthy degree of caution no matter how calm the person appeared during the exit interview.

10. Document, document, document: Keep timely and accurate records at each level of the employment process including all cases of employee counsel, warning, suspension or termination. In nearly all cases of mediation, arbitration or litigation, the party with the best documentation will usually prevail.

Although never pleasant, using these win-win termination strategies will help to avoid potential workplace violence incidents or costly lawsuits and, in turn, ensure that both parties can move forward in their personal and professional lives.

Read other articles and learn more about Dr. Andrew J. Edelman.

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