What do I say to the rest of my work group about termination of an employee in the group?

Those who remain will notice the empty cubicle—don't think you can get away with saying nothing. Rather than getting them to forget the event more quickly, failure to explain will fuel gossip at the printer or increase fear that another ax might fall—and they might be the victim. The same thing is likely to happen if you tell them, "I can't talk about it." Or, even worse: "Our lawyers have told me not to say anything about the matter." Even if the corporate lawyer was involved and warned you against excessive remarks, encourage him to work with you in formulating a statement that will somehow explain that the fired worker is no longer an employee.

Tell Me More

Be forthright but sparse in your explanation. For instance, you might say simply, "Michael was fired this morning after a month of counseling did not help him improve his job performance." Or, "Despite repeated warnings and attempts to schedule her work hours so she could meet family commitments, Sharon was fired because of chronic lateness."

Honesty may be the most prudent policy, but even if they are true, damaging comments about a former employee could interfere with her chances for a new job. This might make you seem callous to the remaining workers. And if your words are vile enough, they could even trigger a defamation lawsuit on the part of the terminated worker.

Since there are numerous opportunities in the typical firing process for an employer to sully an employee's reputation, it is increasingly common for former employees to bring a defamation charge when they are fired. A defamation charge isn't a challenge to the employee's dismissal. Rather, it is a way of seeking revenge against a manager who was sloppy, insensitive, or downright mean during the firing process or in giving out references to prospective employers.

Defamation is difficult to prove. The former employee must show that you significantly damaged her good name, reducing her chances for being rehired by another company. This may entail lots of hair-splitting over the facts but the truth is, the case usually depends on whether or not distribution of damaging information was intentional and malicious—in other words, you meant to hurt your former employee.

To sue for defamation, a former employee must show that you made a false or damaging statement, told or wrote that statement to at least one other employee, were negligent or intentional in communicating the statement, and/or harmed the worker in some way by communicating the statement, such as by causing him or her to lose a position elsewhere. Some unflattering comments don't usually qualify as defamation. What does? You risk defamation when you falsely claim that the employee committed a crime, was incompetent in his work, used drugs or alcohol on the job, or otherwise acted in some way that made him unfit for the job.

If I have to lay people off to save money, how do I choose which ones to let go when none are problem performers?

In truth, termination for cost-cutting reasons should have nothing to do with job performance, although many managers use it as an excuse to rid themselves of poor performers—particularly when they haven't the level of documentation to terminate the worker due to sub-par performance.

If you must let people go, and you have no other alternative, then pay attention to the personal facts and figures of those you choose to keep. Ideally, the makeup of your department after the fact should be similar to that before the fact in terms of race, age, gender, and ethnicity. If this isn't the case, then you may be liable for a discrimination charge. If your cuts might look discriminatory to a jury, make other cuts instead.

For instance, cutting some of the highest-paid staff members may save you more money than downsizing your younger, newer employees but it could result in an age discrimination charge if those you cut are all 40 years old or more. Projections suggest we can see a major increase in these, given the number of boomers. If you use education as a factor, downsizing those with fewer college degrees may leave your department disproportionately low in minorities. Downsizing that is too heavily weighted in women, likewise, may look suspicious to a jury.

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