Terminations – Keep the Human in HR

"The Office" Severance Package
Image by Dalboz17 via Flickr

Terminations are a necessary evil for any organization.  Be it for inadequate performance, disciplinary issues, downsizing, or reorganization; every HR professional has had to advise on ending the employment of an individual.  However, there is more to this process than just the legal requirements and paperwork.

Much like the old adage that a society can be judged by how it treats its most vulnerable populations, an organization can be judged by how it handles employee terminations.  Handle them well and they will actually turn out to be a huge employee engagement and recruitment tool. Handle them poorly and you will create a culture of fear and mistrust.

Employees understand that terminations need to occur, their concern is how people are treated when it happens.  This can be likened to John Rawl’s theory of a ‘veil of ignorance’ – design a society based on what you think is fair and just if you did not know what class, race, gender, or role you will be in that society.  Terminations should follow a protocol that are designed and executed in a way you would want if it happened to be you being terminated.

Some guidelines:

1) Timing — we have all heard the ‘don’t do it on a Friday’ guidance.  The idea is that if terminated on a Friday, an individual has 2 days to wait before assistance or counseling can be accessed.  Most of us are also aware of the concept of not terminating someone near Christmas.  Again this deals with diminished access to services  and December holidays are a popular family time — regardless of religious beliefs, many people in North America and Europe have more time off at the  end of December than they do in other months.  The real point is to think about the timing for both the organization and the individual.  Don’t terminate someone on their birthday.  Don’t terminate someone the day before they go on vacation.  Don’t terminate someone just before their wedding.  It is not that there are hard and fast rules on this; just use common sense.  How would you feel if your termination was timed in this manner?  Would it add insult to injury?  If so, reschedule.

2) Be Accountable — Yes, terminating someone’s employment sucks.  It is uncomfortable.  It never gets easier.  But the person conducting the termination owes it to the employee to be accountable.  Provide information on what the employee is entitled to, what the employer is offering, what happens to pay and benefits, where the employee can get assistance.  If the employee is not emotionally able to discuss these items at the time, set up a follow up meeting or encourage the employee to call to review information.  This practice of providing a sealed envelope with details of the severance package and leaving the employee to sort it out themselves is completely inappropriate.  Not to mention it encourages employees to seek legal advice and therefore increases the likelihood of the matter being escalated.   Answering questions, providing information, and ensuring the individual has access to resources is professional, compassionate, and humane.  The employee deserves this treatment.  Organizations need to stop thinking only about liability and start thinking about humanity.  Preparation can easily separate the administrative and support information needed by the employee from the reasons or rationale for the termination.

3) Severance Packages — Entitlements are laid out in legislation and/or employee terms and conditions or contracts.  Make sure these are included in any severance offer.  Above this, be consistent.  Set up a practice of what your organization is going to provide employees.  Perhaps outplacement services is something your organization values as a way to help people find another job.  Perhaps a letter of reference is something your organization wishes to include.  Whatever it is, be consistent with like employees and include these items in your initial offer.  Creating a stacked level of entitlements designed to escalate as they employee complains only creates a culture where employees, terminated or not, fight for more every time.  Put what you think is a fair offer on the table.  Barring rationale discussions with the employee, stand by your decision.  Don’t increase the offer just because you received a letter from a lawyer.  Save yourself the headache and the individual the legal fees – be fair and upfront with severance packages.

4) Confidentiality — Everyone thinks this is obvious and part of every organization.  Not true!  I can’t tell you how many times I have had to advise on a matter where the entire organization knew someone was going to be terminated on a certain day/time; where the employee found out from another individual that the termination was going to take place in the future; or when the terminating manager blabs all of the details to his/her remaining staff.  Simple rule — confidentiality is a requirement on behalf of the employer.  Any conversations about a forthcoming or previous termination need to be held on a need to know basis.  Debriefs to employees post termination are succinct and factual ( X has left our organization, here’s what is happening to the role/duties).  Confidentiality applies only to the employer.  The terminated employee can tell whomever whatever they choose about the process.  Remember this when you are handling a termination – how do you want the individual retelling their experience?

Terminations can be a very positive event for organizations.  It allows for those who are not the right fit for what ever reason to be removed from an organization.  If handled properly, it allows an individual who is likely not completely satisfied with their role (the sense of ‘fit’ or lack there of is felt on both sides) an opportunity to reflect and find a new opportunity.  It can demonstrate how much an employer cares about its employees.  It can also be a major indicator for workplace culture and influence how your organization is viewed by the greater public.

How to tell if you’ve done it right?  You receive a thank you card from the individual whose employment was terminated.  It does happen — OK, not the same day but shortly after.  People can accept a negative act so long as they were treated with respect and dignity.  Isn’t that what you’d want?

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