At some point, most employers must face the prospect of sitting down with an employee to advise him or her that it’s time for the employment relationship to end.  This is frequently a dreaded scenario for employers, and understandably so.  Emotions usually run high and legal risks can loom large when that happens.  But terminations can actually hold overlooked benefits for an employer – beyond perhaps ridding the workplace of an underperforming employee – if done properly. 

So, where do we start?  When you learn you have to discharge an employee, the first thing you need to do as an employer is think through the logistics carefully.  For example, when are you going to notify the employee?  Are you going to do it at the end of the day?  Immediately?  Will there be a work-out provision and if so, for how long?  

Commonly, it’s best to convey the discharge message at a time which allows the employee to process the emotion.  Often this is on a Friday, but not all discharges can (or should) wait.  After all, the mantra ‘hire slow and fire fast’ exists for a reason. Also, it’s usually better to limit a work-out time – if any, at all – to no more than a few weeks, if possible.  Eventually, diminishing returns will set in. 

Secondly, how are you going to do it, and what are you going to say?  Typically, having a meeting with the employee, in a private area, with someone else present is a good approach.  Be understanding.  Make the conversation brief, but firm.  Be hard on the issue but not on the person.   Be prepared for emotion, and take the high road.  Don’t forget to thank your employee for everything they’ve given your organization, and plan for how the employee will both obtain any personal belongings and receive a final paycheck in a timely fashion.           

All this sounds great, but I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “when do we start to benefit?”  Admittedly, the stress of dealing with employment terminations sometimes makes it hard for employers to see the bigger picture, but that’s where the potential benefits are.  Remember, when you choose to sever your relationship with an employee, the way you carry that decision through will send a message to those who stay. Are your people your most important asset?  Whether it’s the fairness of the reason you based the decision on or the way the employee departs the facility, your other workers are taking notice.  If you want to demonstrate that you care about your workforce – even in a difficult time – take the steps to show it.  Not only will it reduce their anxiety about whether they may ever suffer a similar fate, they may speak highly of your company’s culture and environment in recommending that other qualified professionals they know apply to work for you. 

Additionally, if the separation isn’t confrontational, you should try to take the opportunity to conduct an exit interview with your departing employees.  Ask them what you can do to improve and do better, whether that has to do with communication, management, benefits or anything else.  It’s probably natural to view some of what you’re told with skepticism, but keep an open mind.  You may not obtain valuable information from everyone, but take suggestions seriously, and be alert to the situation where you start to hear the same thing from different employees. 

Finally, if circumstances allow, send your employees off with some form of public recognition.  Maybe it’s a small gathering.  Maybe it’s a lunch celebration.  Again, it’s a way of saying “thank-you”, maintaining relationships for the future, and sending a message to all the other employees who stay behind about your culture and values.  That will likely reap dividends down the line. 

Saying goodbye to an employee is often not easy, but with a little time and effort, employers can benefit from a difficult process in ways they probably didn’t anticipate.  Maybe even enough to ward off a future call to your lawyer to defend that wrongful termination suit.

Mario Bordogna represents clients in all aspects of labor and employment law in state and federal courts. Mr. Bordogna concentrates his practice in the areas of employment litigation, employment discrimination, workers’ compensation, employment counseling, and labor–management relations.
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