The Hard Stuff – Terming Someone

I was talking with a friend the other day about a termination she had to do that she wasn’t looking forward to. Everyone with some semblance of a heart hates terminating people. It’s difficult. There is risk to it. It’s delicate. It sucks for everyone in the room. And, thankfully, it’s not something most people get a whole lot of “practice” doing – but that makes it even harder to get right. You should lean heavily on your legal/HR team, but here are a few tips I’ve shared with managers in the past.

Do: Make sure it’s not a total surprise.

When any manager has ever come to me about a performance-related termination, I ask what conversations they’ve had with the person and if/how they’ve followed up. This isn’t strictly for a paperwork-related, cover-your-ass reason. It’s more strategic and long-range than that.

If we as organizations want peak performance from our teams, our people need to be clear on expectations, if they’re meeting them, and how specifically to improve. It’s a manager’s job to drive performance and I feel strongly that there is some ethical responsibility for managers to put in a good faith effort to get everyone on their team where they need to be if there’s even a chance things can rebound. It certainly doesn’t always work out, but I think the investment is deserved.

Have the performance conversation(s), even though they are hard – you would expect the same level of candor from your manager. Give real time feedback. Follow up with an email summarizing to reenforce and create clarity on goals, strategies and timelines you talked about in the meeting. You would be shocked at the number of performance conversations where the manager emerges feeling they have delivered a ‘tough’ message, while the employee feels like they were just given some helpful development suggestions and has no idea, whatsoever, of the gravity of the situation. That is setting everyone up for a worse situation.

Keep in mind that your entire team is always monitoring you. You do not want your highest performers self-selecting out of the organization because they have witnessed and now fear a surprise termination. Even if performers agree 100% with the decision to let someone go, they will be monitoring the fairness of the process and how you treat someone on the way out.

Don’t: Say how hard this is for you to do. Or cry.

Ever. Some suggest never apologizing or admitting fault to avoid putting the company in more legal risk. That’s probably true, but not what drives this recommendation.

Research has indicated that job loss profoundly impacts people. Yes, even if you cut a big severance check and eliminate that initial financial concern. Think about it. In the US, one of the first questions we ask people is: “What do you do?” For better or worse, our jobs are a huge part of our identities. When you lose part of your identity, it can absolutely send you reeling.

I will admit that I don’t sleep well (or at all) before terminations. I get sick to my stomach for days. I usually need to go for a walk to rid myself of the shakes before and after. Most people have some level of emotional and physical response. But when you sit across from someone you are letting go, keep in mind what they are facing:

  • Income instability
  • Telling people they’ve been let go/have no job (over and over and over …)
  • Shame
  • Loss of purpose/identity is in any way tied to their job
  • Loss of relationships and interaction with co-workers
  • Loss of confidence
  • Logistics of getting their stuff and getting home
  • Shock
  • Having to explain job loss in search for new job
  • A million other things

This is a life changing event that, truthfully, some people never fully recover from. Nothing you are dealing with is in any way comparable to what they are facing. Crying or sharing how difficult this has been for you isn’t appropriate and won’t make them feel better. In fact, it could exacerbate and escalate the situation. Instead, the compassionate thing to do is to be empathetic in the room, listen to them (within reason) and try and remove or mitigate as many challenges as makes sense. If you don’t think you can hold it together, talk with HR about other options or approaches.

Do: Give reasons why you’ve made the decision to let them go.

Managers are really surprised to hear this from me. Several years ago, I was working with an HR consultant/mentor who strongly influenced my philosophy on terminations. She essentially said to me: “If people don’t understand why they are being let go, they are left to fill in the blanks themselves, they get more angry and you are at more legal risk.” When something bad happens, we cannot help but ask why it’s happening to us. For me, understanding the why helps me process, even if I disagree.

This isn’t to suggest that the termination is a time to get into the minutia of your decisions or lay it on thick. It’s not. Concentrate on two to three high level reasons why you are letting someone go that you’ve discussed with them in the recent past. Try to avoid focusing on the more emotionally-charged or subjective ones, if possible. For example, if the issues were treatment of peers, attendance and missing deadlines, focus on the later two.

For each reason, I like to have a very specific and simple example to share with them if, and only if, they ask. Depending on the tone of the conversation, it may even be appropriate to answer simple clarifying questions. However, once the discussion turns into a debate, it’s time to respectfully and calmly refocus on the reality that the decision has been made for multiple reasons and is final.

When companies hire people, I think there is an underlying agreement that both parties will do their best to make things work. This drives my desire to try and be specific about where that agreement fell apart.

Do: Summarize the conversation at a really high level.

It’s more likely than not that the terminated employee’s head will be spinning as soon as it’s clear they are being let go. They may not hear or process a thing you share with them after that moment as they start to think about all the repercussions. Account for this in your process. I prefer to send employees home with all the information we talked about.

This includes:

  • What’s going to happen with their benefits; what and when they need to do anything about them.
  • If there is any agreement, encouragement to review with an attorney and outline a timeline for questions and execution of the agreement.
  • What their last check will cover. If applicable, if and when they will receive any bonuses due to them (it’s interesting how a $100 commission check can be the difference between someone feeling like they were treated fairly or not).
  • If you don’t intend to fight unemployment, state that and help direct them to the right resources.
  • If they have stuff at the office, their options to get it all back.
  • Appreciation for their contributions and regrets it didn’t work out.

I typically don’t cover the reasons why in the termination letter. Rather, I focus on simplifying and clarifying a really difficult process.

Wrap up.

There is a lot to think about when going into a termination. I believe that in an HR role my job is to hold both employees (through performance and behavior) and managers (through their responsibility to coach, provide clear expectations and treat their teams fairly) accountable. The termination process is walking a fine line in a highly-charged situation when that social contract falls apart. Try to treat the impacted employee with empathy and kindness, no matter how crazy they drove you. The organization is watching closely. And, really, it’s just the right thing to do.

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