Human Resources News & Insights

The dreaded termination talk: Helping managers get it right

The termination conversation: The most distasteful part of any manager’s job. Here are some guidelines on how to handle these confrontations in a humane, controlled and legally safe way. 

Before a confrontation can happen, HR’s often faced with getting managers past their normal aversion to making the final termination decision.

A few of the more common rationalizations supervisors use to avoid dropping the axe – and why these avoidance tactics don’t make sense:

‘Maybe they’ll improve’

This is usually an idle hope – if they were going to improve, wouldn’t they have done so before things got this far? If the proper remediation steps have been taken and minimal standards still aren’t being met, it’s time to take action. Not doing so is a sure sign of a weak manager.

‘Better to have a warm body in the job than nobody at all’

All too often, the opposite is the case. Bad employees not only don’t only do their own jobs well, they drag down everybody else. If the function is critical to the company’s operation, the supervisor may have to delay the termination until a new employee can fill the key slot.

It’s also possible that the supervisor, with assistance from other workers in the department, may be able to carry the load until full staffing is achieved.

Finally, the situation could well be an opportunity to see if there’s a better, more economical way of performing the functions of the departing employee.

‘Other workers will think we’re cruel – they’ll hate me’

The “they’ll think I’m a bad person” sentiment is common, but it’s usually misplaced.

If an employee’s not performing up to standards, his or her co-workers know it.

They’re probably wondering why the person’s still around, and they’re likely resentful that they’re fulfilling their duties while the other worker isn’t.

The longer managers wait before proceeding to the actual termination, the more respect they can lose in the eyes of their other workers. Employees prefer to work for supervisors who enforce high standards evenly, uniformly and fairly.

‘Maybe they’d do better in another position’

In rare cases – very rare – this could be a legitimate concern. But it probably should have been considered long before the situation progressed to the point of termination.

If the employee’s got a good attitude and work ethic, along with appropriate skills, it might be worth a shot to grant him or her a transfer to a different job.

But workers with questionable attitudes and subpar performance should never be considered as candidates for transfer. That’s just moving the cancer from one part of the body to another.

‘This could get ugly – they might cry, or even get violent’

While this might be a legitimate concern in specific instances, it’s certainly not a reason to delay termination. On the contrary, it’s a reason to get it over with and avoid prolonging the drama.

Human Resources can help to arrange the right time and circumstances to minimize the possibility of disruptive behavior and arrange for adequate security, if the concern is serious enough.

Moment of truth

So the documentation’s in place, HR’s been consulted and will sit in on the conversation as a witness, and the employee’s been called to the manager’s office.

Here are the most common mistakes managers make in these high-pressure conversations. And any one of them has the potential to cause a nasty legal problem.

They lose their cool. When you’re punched, it’s hard not to punch back. Employees will be upset when they hear they’re no longer employed, even if they know the news is coming.

So it’s up to managers to avoid heightening an already-emotional situation. It’s often not easy.

After all, it’s likely the manager and the employee have been at odds for some time. There’s a lot of pent-up emotion on both sides.

Managers should let employees give their side of the story, without comment, and then firmly and politely say the discussion is over.

The decision’s been made, and it’s final.

They don’t prepare well enough. Safe to say, the terminated employee will remember whatever the manager says in the worst possible light. So shooting from the hip is highly dangerous.

The manager should rehearse exactly what he or she intends to say – perhaps even committing the opening statement to paper.

And there’s one more key thing to prepare for: Topics the manager will not want to discuss.

No termination process – or any interaction with employees, for that matter – is totally cut and dried.

So the employee will probably have at least one issue he or she can bring up in an attempt to counter the company’s decision.

Managers have to be prepared to cut off those unproductive debates.

They try to soften the blow. No question, managers will often feel compassion for the person they must fire.

Expressing those feelings, however, can backfire big-time. Example: If an employee’s being fired for substandard performance, the manager shouldn’t offer compliments on any aspect of his performance.

Doing so might make the manager feel better, but it will only give the employee cause to question and challenge the company’s termination decision.

Those off-hand comments could be used as evidence in a wrongful-termination suit.

One possible script

An example of an appropriately handled termination conversation:

Manager: Bob, I’ve asked you to meet with the HR director and me today because you must be aware that for some time now, we’ve not been happy with the quality of your work.

We’ve met with you several times over the past few months, pinpointing the areas you needed to improve. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen the improvement we needed to see.

For that reason, we’ve decided to end your employment here.

Bob: I’m fired?

Manager: That’s right. We’ve tried to give you a chance to improve. We gave you at least two written warnings and several verbal warnings. But you didn’t make the kind of progress we needed to see.

Bob: Wait a minute. My supervisor said I did a great job on that project we finished last month.

Manager: I’m not prepared to discuss details of your work record here, Bob. I’m sorry, but our decision’s made.

Bob: You’re firing me and keeping that idiot Kenny? He’s certainly screwed up a lot more than I have. How come you’re not getting rid of him?

Manager: Bob, I’m not going to talk about any other employees. We’re here to talk about your performance. And we’ve decided it’s no longer acceptable. We’re letting you go.

Bob: A few months ago, I mentioned I might be interested in another assignment, and you said then it could be possible. What about that? Could I get a transfer to a different position?

Manager: Bob, I’m sorry. We all like you here. But it’s time to move on. We don’t take this kind of thing lightly at our company. It’s a difficult decision for all of us. But the decision has been made. We truly wish you the best.

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