So it’s come to this. A rule’s been broken. Disciplinary procedures haven’t resolved the situation. There’s no avoiding the difficult conversation that’s about to begin.
You have to fire an employee.
Take a deep breath, because I’ve got your back. I’ve learned that the best way to handle terminations is through a systematic approach — not only because it supports your managers during emotionally fraught conversations, but because it provides your organization with documentation in the event of a wrongful termination claim.
Let’s take a look at three best practices for conducting the termination meeting:
1. Know What You’re Going to Say and Communicate It Clearly.
Good communication is always an essential component of workforce management, but it’s especially important during terminations. Managers need to communicate what’s going on (“We have decided to let you go”), why the decision has been made (“Your violation of our harassment policy has left us with no choice but to terminate your employment”), and what happens next (e.g. severance and exit interview). The employee may not like the decision but, ideally, they should have no doubts about why it was made.
Managers should balance empathy with concision. Acknowledge the employee’s feelings, but don’t over-explain the decision or give the employee room to misinterpret your words or bargain for their job back. Ensure the employee knows the decision has already been made and is final, and remain factual when discussing factors relating to the termination.
It’s never a bad idea to first write down or practice what you’re going to say to the employee. A script helps you stick the facts. Take it from management consultant Dick Grote, who writes in “A Step-by-Step Guide to Firing Someone” (Harvard Business Review, February 2016):
“To make sure that you’re on solid ground in terminating an employee, imagine yourself defending your action in front of a jury. Assume that you are on the witness stand and the employee’s lawyer is attempting to prove that the firing was unjust, unfair, and vindictive.
Look for anything that could be twisted to suggest that the real reason for the termination is not the individual’s performance but rather a pretext or personal grudge. Isn’t that the real reason why you fired poor Smedley on his birthday, on the day before his 10th anniversary with the company, on the day before his pension vested, on the day his wife went into the hospital, on the day his mom died?”
2. Provide the Terminated Employee With Everything They Need.
Remember that termination is a process — it does not end with the conclusion of the conversation. So that the process occurs efficiently, and everyone is completely clear on what happens next, provide the employee with the following:
- A summary of ongoing benefits.
- A formal termination letter.
- Their final paycheck.
Do not save these items for later — prepare everything beforehand. Otherwise, you’re opening your organization up to the possibility of errors, omissions, and ambiguities that could create the basis for a legal claim.
3. Don’t Go It Alone If You Can Help It.
Facts are an organization’s greatest assets when confronted by a wrongful termination claim. The more people who know when, where, how, and why an employee was terminated, the stronger that organization’s legal defense. With that in mind, have someone else witness the termination meeting if possible.
Finally, you may want to run your termination script by your legal counsel or leadership team.
Kynzie Sims is an attorney and certified compliance and ethics professional who serves as legal content product manager for Compli.