Firing an Employee. Making the Best of a Difficult Situation.

I can remember the first time I was present for an employee getting fired.  It was painful.  I was a manager trainee for a restaurant and my mentor was the General Manager.  The object of the termination was a slacker waiter.  We invited the waiter into the closet size office (the office was no bigger than a bathroom stall).  We all sidled in.  The victim sat on the floor safe, my mentor stood against the door and I was at what passed for a desk.  My mentor then went down a very long trail that seemed to never arrive at the destination. how to fire an employee

 He meandered through some of the waiter’s transgressions but, as with most slackers, there was no defining moment to home in on.  No defining “straw” that broke the camel’s back.  But there was no “straw”.  He was late a few times, was slow to get to tables, he had been there for years.  So after what felt like 2 hours but in reality was more like 20 minutes, the tension in the room was palpable, there was no air left to breath, my mentor finally  let the hammer down.  Our victim was surprised.  He was blindsided.  He never saw it coming (this was not good…they should always have some idea that they are not performing up to a standard).

So this was my first termination but certainly not my last.  After 30 years (but I look so young you say) of managing restaurants and Human Resources, here are some of the tactics I’ve learned:

1. Zero In.  Make sure you know why you are firing someone.  This may seem obvious, but if you are in Human Resources, you have had plenty of managers coming into your office telling you they want someone gone but have absolutely no “case” made.  Or there’s the manager who has a list of 99 transgressions that the employee is responsible for but they’ve failed to properly inform the employee.  This is a disaster (and a lawsuit or two)  waiting to happen.  If and when you get into the exit discussion, you better have your facts all lined up, or press pause and wait until they are all lined up…even if it’s a year down the road.  Zero-in on the facts before proceeding.

2. Phone a Lawyer.  A good employment lawyer can be your best friend, or if not friend, a great resource.  If the termination is not absolutely straight forward, as in the employee didn’t show up for work for three days and never called (otherwise known as job abandonment), it is always a good idea to consult with an attorney or employer advocacy group.  Make sure you aren’t discriminating in any way (have the last five people you terminated been over 60 or all been pregnant or all filed workers compensation claims in the last 30 days); make sure you stay out of hot water.  It’s a great idea to get a second outside opinion.  Spend the money up front so you can save in the long run.

3. Verify.  Cross check and verify your facts.  Do you have all the documentation?  The written warnings.  The verbal warnings.  The paper or email trail.  When you get into the termination discussion, you don’t want to be searching for dates or lost emails.  I think it’s a bad idea to review every transgression in detail in the termination discussion but make sure you know where all the information is.

4. Summary.  Come up with an outline of events with dates and a bullet about the transgression.  This does not need to be a manuscript, but you need a list to easily to refer to if the departing employee has any questions.   On December 1st, you missed the project deadline, on January 5th, your manager spoke to you about missing deadlines, on January 15th you missed two more deadlines.  Summarize the facts so you are not caught off guard.

5. Practice.  Sit down with the terminating manager and walk through the summary.  Talk about how to handle the discussion.  I’ve always told managers to be able to summarize why you’re letting the employee go in two sentences or less.  “Suzy, you’ve missed three project deadlines in the last three months, I’ve warned you several times that your job was in jeopardy.  Since you missed another deadline on Monday, we’ve decided to let you go.”  Please note that the manager should be saying this; NOT the Human Resource professional.  The manager and employee need to know that the manager is making this decision.

6. Schedule.  Discuss timing with the manager.  I know some people say always term on a Friday and other’s say always on a Monday.  Do what is best for the departing employee.  If everyone will be out for lunch at noon on Friday, this  may be the most humane time to let them go, so that they can pack up their workplace in private (make sure you have a box or two handy).  Maybe they usually come in at 7 AM and there is no one else around at that hour.  Do it then.  Privacy and compassion are critical.  Assume that the gossip mill will find out who did what and when.  The organization should treat any departing employee with compassion and respect.

7. Do it.  Pull the plug. Sit down in a private space (conference room or office).  Let the manager say his two sentences.  Remember that once someone has been told they are being let go, their limbic system (fight or flight or freeze response is in overdrive).  They are not thinking.  They may say some things, or cry (did I mention to always bring tissues) or shut down.  Let there be silence.  If they ask questions about benefits, answer them.  If they don’t, hand them your card.  Tell them to call you when they are ready.  If they want to pack up their things later, tell them to call with a time or pack up their locker for them and ship the box.  Have the manager walk them to their car.  If they want to say goodbye to some folks (and they are not hostile), let them do it.  This is a time for compassion and respect.

I have found that terminating people is the most difficult aspect of management.  If you do a thorough, consistent process every time you have an employee exit the organization,  you’ll know that you handled it with the compassion and grace we all deserve

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