Take the heat out of firings with policies, communication and dignity
Even with ideal hiring processes in place, sometimes HR directors face the situation of a potential employee termination. Dismissing an employee is never easy, but well-communicated procedures and consistent, complete documentation can help prevent surprises and minimize the stress and anxiety of a difficult situation.
Dismissing an employee for performance or behavioral reasons is rarely a sudden event. It usually begins with a pattern of behaviors or repeated offenses—such as frequent absences or no-shows, conflicts with other employees or a consistent inability to handle job responsibilities. While it may be tempting to wait and hope the person improves, it is best to begin a conversation with the employee as early as possible, since a proactive conversation can alert HR to the need for more training or counseling, problems at home or special challenges that might be easily remedied.
Prompt intervention, while key, doesn’t necessarily require formal disciplinary action. In many instances, such as when someone is constantly late or seems to be struggling with some aspect of their work, involving the employee in a problem-solving approach is much more effective than instituting discipline upfront.
The goals of initial conversations should focus on the specifics of the employee’s performance or behavior while involving the employee in finding solutions, suggests Martha Abercrombie, SHRM-SCP, SPHR, vice-president of strategy, Vikus Corporation, in an article on healthcare employee discipline. A diligent approach between HR and an employee should:
- Communicate the concerns in specific detail
- Attempt to determine the cause of the problem or behavior
- Determine ways to improve the employee’s performance by outlining specific expectations
- Engage the employee in setting his or her goals to avoid disciplinary action
Documentation = Due Diligence
During onboarding, all employees should receive formal documentation of the organization’s policies on specific behaviors and any other events that would result in termination. All conversations and meetings related to an employee’s performance or job expectations should be documented by date and time, even if they’re casual ones—as issues arise, documentation provides due diligence that the organization attempted early intervention prior to any disciplinary actions.
If things escalate beyond an informal conversation, all documentation of poor performance or violations of company policy should be made in writing, even if it is just via email, suggests Stephen McDonnell, Esq., Partner at Gawthorp Greenwood, in an article in Entrepreneur. Avoid any vague statements and veiled threats of not being up to snuff—choose direct statements that refer to specific deficiencies instead. “I recommend a written memorandum signed by the employee and placed in their personnel file,” he says. “Undocumented issues leading up to termination are a recipe for expensive litigation or a costly settlement.”
Be sure to enforce the company’s disciplinary policy, which all employees should receive and review on their first day of employment, including those who are hired “at will,” he adds. “When you make exceptions, even with the best of intentions, you risk claims of disparate treatment due to race, gender, age or disability.”
Dignity, Brevity and Details
If a separation is imminent, handle the termination with as much dignity as possible. Conduct the firing in a private area away from other employees, but have at least one witness. Be brief and clear, polite but not apologetic. State the reason for the termination and immediately be able to provide the employee with the documentation of conversations, warnings and any formal disciplinary actions taken over time. Communicate all legal requirements and separation details, including any COBRA benefits, last paycheck procedures and unemployment options.
In advance, review the employee’s files for any post-employment obligations, such as confidentiality or non-compete agreements and be sure to discuss these with the employee, suggests Amy Joseph Pedersen, SPHR, attorney at business law firm Stoel Rives. She also recommends getting IT involved to ensure the proper protocols of severing the employee’s access to network computers. Arrange to get any company property back, including phones, tablets and keys. If the person needs to return company items or pick up personal possessions at a later date/time, determine in advance how this will be done. When possible, it is useful to have severance policies that require the employee to return company-owned property and sign a release in order to receive his or her final payment.
The Don’ts of Dismissals
If an employee needs to be terminated, following these tips can help prevent complications such as angry outbursts or legal complaints by the employee:
- Don’t assign the task of firing an employee to someone who doesn’t know or supervise them directly.
- Don’t fire an employee on the spot unless it is for a behavior or action outlined in the employee handbook as calling for immediate termination.
- Don’t leave an employee without a clear understanding of why the termination is taking place. Provide the supporting documentation at the termination meeting, not later.
- Whenever possible, don’t fire or lay off people on a Friday or right before a holiday.
- Don’t let the meeting turn into a debate about whether the firing decision is fair. While you should express sympathy and allow the employee ask questions, you need to be firm and state clearly that the decision is final based on the documented reasons.
- Don’t belittle the relationships. In LTPAC, caregivers of all levels establish deep bonds with residents, and they don’t work in a vacuum. Acknowledging these relationships and providing a reasonable opportunity to say goodbye shows that the organization respects the connections between employees and the residents they care for daily.
If you have a strong organizational culture that emphasizes teamwork, mutual trust, and communication, then your employees should understand the job expectations and responsibilities and should know the consequences of unacceptable actions and behaviors. This may not make terminations easier, but it will help all employees see that the organization is fair, equitable, and caring not only about quality outcomes but also about the people who work there.