What is the best way to conduct an employee termination meeting?

Employee termination meetings are exceptionally difficult. Any time that you unilaterally remove someone from the workplace, anxiety increases. Fear of not finding the right words, feelings of guilt, or fear of being physically threatened make even the most self-confident managers nervous. Companies handle the logistics of the termination meeting differently; what's got to be consistent, however, is the compassion for the individual.

Following are general guidelines for conducting such meetings:

- Treat the soon-to-be-fired employee with respect and dignity.

- Invite a management witness (usually someone from human resources) to the meeting.

- Give the employee as much freedom as possible to exit on his own terms.

- With information-sensitive positions like those in IS or finance, arrange in advance to have the individual's computer systems shut down at the same time the termination meeting is occurring; also determine whether the individual will need to be escorted from the premises under supervision. (This is extreme and doesn't preserve dignity; it is, however, necessary at times.)

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Many managers make the common mistake of shaming employees at the time of termination. To deal with their own nervousness, they assume a militant and aggressive approach while defending their actions. Some even state, ''If you're planning on suing us, be my guest: We've got the best legal representation in town.'' Such aggressiveness adds little value to any meeting. Instead, it makes the terminated employee feel angry and belittled.

Instead, be empathic. It s okay to say you re sorry that the circumstances have come to this. Here s a sample close for such a meeting:

Jim, it's never personal; it's all about business decisions that companies are forced to make after they've made reasonable attempts to help an employee improve. I realize that sometimes it's just not a match. Call it poor timing or the right person matched with the wrong job. I want to thank you for all your efforts. I know you've tried to make this work. I hope you can understand what led us to this decision, and I hope that you find in your heart of hearts that it's fair. These things happen to all of us at one point or another in our careers. I just want to make sure that you feel we handled this matter professionally and respectfully, because it's not a decision that we've made without a lot of consideration. We wish you well.

A management witness should attend all termination meetings. First, both managers will feel more at ease having someone to share the burden with. Second, a witness will be able to test if yon behalf of the company at a later date should the employee claim that management made discriminatory remarks or other inappropriate comments at the termination meeting. Third, there is an element of safety in numbers. Although workplace violence is rare, having a second adult in the room minimizes the chances that a worker will react physically to the discharge.

Regarding logistics, some companies escort terminated employees off the premises with the help of armed security; other companies ask human resource representatives to accompany employees back to their desks to oversee the packing of their belongings. Each circumstance has to be reviewed on its own merits.

In general, you should be able to allow employees to gather their personal belongings as they see fit. Some employees require assistance with boxing; others prefer to return to work on a Saturday or after hours so that they don t feel humiliated in front of their peers. Still others will simply want to walk back to their desks on their own, clear things out, and say goodbye to their coworkers. The important point is this: Ten minutes before the termination meeting, they were free to roam about the office as they saw fit. They weren't criminals then, and they shouldn't be treated like criminals now.

In cases where information systems (IS) or finance employees have computer access to critical company information and where you have an active practice of shutting down computer systems of those people during termination meetings, continue your practice. However, be sure to explain to the employee that when she returns to her desk after your meeting, access to her computer will be denied if she tries to log on. Confirm that this is how all IS separation meetings are handled and that this case is no exception. That should allay any concerns that the employee is being treated more harshly than others who have been asked to leave the company.

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