Breaking Up is Hard to Do: How to Terminate an Employee

Fired EmployeeThe fact that Yahoo recently fired its CEO, Carol Bartz, didn’t surprise people who were familiar with the many criticisms of her management and style.  The fact that she was fired over the phone, however, did surprise many in the corporate world.

Her tale of termination-by-telephone joins stories of employees being fired via email messages, Facebook posts, and even text messages.  It seems that technological advances have now provided managers with tools to maintain distance, both physically and emotionally, from the termination process.

We all understand that one of the more unpleasant responsibilities of managers and HR personnel is to terminate employees. 

While this is never an enjoyable task, it is important that it be done with forethought and thorough planning, in order to protect the security of the facility and company.  In some instances, it may make sense to utilize technology, but doing so may bring unexpected consequences.

All terminations should be performed following the same steps.

There are many reasons that an employee might be terminated—such as for cause, as well as downsizing of the company and lack of work.  Regardless of the reasons, terminations must be performed following the same steps.

In advance of terminations, prepare a checklist of all items that need to be handled with the employee.  Areas to be considered include:

  • IT security
  • Facility security
  • Benefits
  • Company property & data
  • Non-compete agreements
  • Final pay

Many of these issues pertain to employees who resign as well as to those who are terminated.  Having a standard checklist prepared ensures that nothing will get missed, and makes a potentially emotional process more routine.

When is the best time to terminate someone?

There are many theories about the best day of the week, and time of day, to terminate an employee.  It’s generally believed that it’s better to terminate an employee late in the day and early to mid-week.

An early to mid-week termination gives the employee time to take positive actions to move forward, such as filing for unemployment, signing up with a staffing company to find employment, and applying for jobs in the newspaper or online postings.

A late afternoon termination allows the employee to leave the building during the time of day when other employees are leaving, making the departure more natural.

A Friday termination, on the other hand, means that the employee has two days in which they cannot do much more than worry and get angry.

It’s best to give an employee their final paycheck during their termination meeting.

Washington does not require an employee to be given their final paycheck at the time they are terminated, but rather during the regular pay period.  However, paying the employee all wages due them during the termination meeting reduces one point of contention and eliminates a reason for future contact with the company.

If your company has a policy to pay employees for accumulated vacation and/or sick leave, be sure to include that pay with the final paycheck.

Never hold back pay due an employee, even if they are let go for good cause.  It is a small price to pay to avoid conflict and legal wrangling!

During the termination meeting ask the employee if they have any unpaid expenses, and have them complete an expense form for reimbursement as soon as possible.

Review benefits information during the termination meeting.

Be prepared to give the employee information on the status of their company benefits.  Providing this information is often a neutral way to transition the meeting to an ending.  The information should also be provided in writing and should cover (if applicable):

  • Medical benefits & COBRA
  • Retirement or IRA benefits
  • Flexible spending plan
  • Life insurance
  • Educational reimbursement

If the employee has signed any agreements with the company, such as a non-compete agreement or a confidentiality agreement, it’s a good idea to review those documents with the employee and to provide a copy to take with them during the meeting.

If possible, face-to-face terminations are usually best.

It is generally preferable to handle the termination in person.

Holding the meeting in an area such as a conference room provides a neutral location and allows you to stand up to leave, without the employee hanging back in your office.

The meeting itself should be short.  The purpose is to inform the employee of your decision.  It is not a time for discussion, as the decision has been made.  Do not apologize and don’t become emotional.  Make it clear as soon as possible that the purpose of the meeting is to terminate the employee.

Be prepared for a variety of reactions, from tears, to argument, to confusion.  Prepare yourself well and don’t deviate from what you’re planning to say.  Decide beforehand how you will end the meeting, perhaps by standing to signal that it is done.

Retrieve company property and protect company data.

The employee’s file should contain a record of company property in the employee’s possession.  All of this should be retrieved before the employee leaves the building.  Such items might include a building key, ID badge, cell phone, laptop, uniform, safety equipment or credit card.

In this electronic age, the other area of concern is information security.  Immediately upon termination, the employee’s access to the company’s computers, network and email needs to be eliminated.  In a small business, this often requires prior arrangements with an offsite tech support or network manager.  It is never a good idea to allow a terminated employee to return to their computer and to have access to company data or files.

Treat the terminated employee with thoughtfulness and respect.

Never terminate an employee in front of others!  Always grant employees respect and dignity.

Allow the employee to gather their personal belongings from their workspace.  It’s a good idea for someone to observe this process, but it should be done in a respectful and helpful manner. If security is a concern and your company is too small to have onsite security, have another person in the room, or alert someone to your concerns and have them close by.

Remember that terminations impact everyone.

After the termination, remember that your entire office is impacted.

Other employees may feel relief, anxiety, anger, confusion, or a variety of other emotions.  As the manager, it is your job to set a tone of confidence and respect, ensuring the staff that the company is continuing to move forward and function at a high level.

The terminated employee has a right to expect confidence about the circumstances of their termination, but it is important to reassure your remaining staff about the stability of their positions.  Your employees want to know that their own jobs are safe, that the company is fine, and that the business will continue to do well.  Your attitude will make all the difference.

Are there ever times when a termination is best handled utilizing technology?

The answer to that is yes.

For example, it may not be possible to terminate in person an employee who works remotely.  In that case, a phone call or video conference may become the best possible route.

There have been many news articles lately about employees learning of their termination through text messages, emails and even Facebook.  These much more impersonal methods open a company up to increased complications.

Employees are never going to be happy to be terminated, but when the termination is conducted in a respectful manner, it lowers the possibility of violence or retaliation.  In Carol Bartz’s case, she immediately sent an obscenity-laced email to all of Yahoo’s employees telling them she had been fired over the phone.  If her termination had been better executed, the company may have been able to avoid the controversy that has ensued.

If you use email to terminate an employee, remember that it’s very possible that someone, other than the intended recipient, might intercept or read that message, or that it could be delayed in transmission, sent to a wrong email address, or even accidentally deleted by someone else.  It is very easy to forward email messages.  Your employee’s termination notice could be sent on to other employees in the company or even to an attorney. 

If you do utilize email for terminations, treat the message as seriously as you would a formal letter.

Breaking up is hard to do.

As more young people that are dependent on social media and technology join the workforce, we are finding that we’re receiving notices of sick days, requests for time off, and even resignations via email and text messages.  As this generation of employees move up into management positions, perhaps they’ll develop protocols for respectful and appropriate cyber-terminations.

In the meantime, keep in mind this quote by Frank Barron:

Never take a person’s dignity: it is worth everything to them, and nothing to you.

Whether you use old-school or new-school methods, a thoughtful and dignified termination procedure will go a long way towards allowing your employee to maintain their self-respect, and in the process, reduce your own stress and anxiety.

Originally published in the Kitsap Peninsula Business Journal.

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2 Responses to “Breaking Up is Hard to Do: How to Terminate an Employee”

  1. Bo

    If I am terminated am I still bound by noncompete agreement?

  2. Julie Tappero

    I am not an attorney, and any time you have separated from an employer and are bound by a non-compete agreement, you should consult with an attorney about the legalities of the terms of your non-compete.

    That being said, in general terms, yes, you would still be bound by your non-compete, regardless of whether you resigned or were terminated. An exception would be made if the terms of the non-compete stated that it applied only under certain conditions, such as for a resignation or termination for cause.

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