How to Professionally Let an Employee Go

Donald Trump makes it look easy and entertaining on TV, but telling an employee, “you’re fired,” can be one of the toughest parts of your job as a manager or HR professional. Here is some advice to help you let someone go the right way.

To quote Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric: hiring people is hard. But firing people? That can feel impossible. Still, it’s necessary at times to let staff go. The key, however, is to let them go properly, in way that respects their previous contributions and considers their future well-being. Indeed, laying an employee off the right way can be just as important to the success and health of your organization as hiring the right people in the first place. The manner in which you, as a manager or HR professional, let someone go from your company can make a world of difference, not only for the terminated individual, but also your remaining staff and the organization as a whole. Part ways with an employee in a thoughtless or disrespectful way, and you’ll not only hurt them needlessly: you’ll undermine your own reputation and professionalism, bring down company morale, and in the worst-case scenario, incur legal repercussions.

Given the delicacy of this subject, we consulted an expert, Rita Price, VP of Human Resources for Flight Network, who offered some valuable and practical advice on how to dismiss an employee in a thoughtful, professional way.

Don’t schedule it too far in advance
Timing is of the essence when it comes to letting an employee go. “Unless [the layoff] is happening in the context of a regularly-scheduled meeting, I wouldn’t recommend scheduling it in advance,” Price says. Arranging the meeting too far ahead of time either causes the person to worry, or else makes it seem like the discussion is going to be about something far more routine; you could end up completely blindsiding them with the bad news, making it even more devastating for them. To both minimize the individual’s discomfort and maintain your company’s integrity, it’s best to inform them of the decision and relieve them of their responsibilities in one fell swoop – don’t make them guess for a week why you’ve asked to speak to them alone.

Price also recommends dismissing the employee earlier on in the workday, as opposed to at five o’clock, when they and everyone else are about to head home. This affords them time to collect themselves, and potentially, prepare for how they’re going to break the news to their spouse or family members. It also allows your organization to communicate the decision to the rest of the team and address any concerns they might have before everyone goes home. Otherwise, your employees will be forced to piece together, on their own, their versions of what went down – with varying degrees of accuracy. Clear communication early on helps ensure that everything is business as usual the following day.

Let them decide how to depart
Being fired can understandably make many people feel powerless and vulnerable. You can avoid adding salt to their wounds, however, by granting them some input into, and control over, their departure. For example, would they prefer to go back to their desk, pack up their personal effects, and say goodbye to their former co-workers? Or would they rather slip out quietly and have their things sent for? How would they like to get home? Do they want to drive? Would they prefer you call them a taxi and return later for their car?

“Not letting the person go back to their desk or say goodbye [if they wish to] gives the impression that you don’t trust them just five minutes after firing them,” notes Price. “It impacts the termination and it impacts how other employees view you.” You’re far better off granting the dismissed employee as much autonomy as possible (“without harming the business,” Price adds) when it comes to making their exit.

These are more than just minor logistical details. They help show the individual that you are trying to make the experience as comfortable and humane as possible for them. And of course, they will also go some ways towards minimizing the possibility of melodrama or long-term damage to the company.

The manner in which you, as a manager or HR professional, let someone go from your company can make a world of difference, not only for the laid-off individual, but also your remaining staff and the organization as a whole.

Have the manager leave the room after dropping the bomb
Price says it’s typical for the hiring or reporting manager and the HR representative to meet with the individual being let go. The manager, however, should leave the room shortly after delivering the news, to offer the terminated employee some time and space to process everything. It also gives them some distance from the manager, towards whom they may bear ill will or resentment.

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“Sometimes they need a few minutes to take it all in,” Price says. At this point, the HR representative should give the employee their formal letter of dismissal, outlining such items as their severance package. Price, however, advises against getting into any of the nitty gritty details of cause, severance, and the like during this meeting; the employee, after all, may very well be in shock. And they most certainly should not be prompted to sign anything: that could lead to the accusation that their former employer forced them to sign documents under duress.

Instead, give the individual two weeks to look over the letter. In that time, they can consult a lawyer if they’d like, as well as direct any questions they might have. This is far preferable – for everyone concerned, both employee and employer – to having them ask questions about why they were fired or what’s going to happen, in the heightened emotional state they’re likely to be in during the meeting itself. But there are other advantages. “From a business or negotiation perspective, if they keep asking one question here, one there, you can’t evaluate all the costs properly,” Price points out. “Typically, they’ll come back in the first few days [with questions or a decision], as they too would like closure.”

Price also recommends calling the person a few hours after they’ve left, to ensure they’ve arrived home safely.

Over-prepare
When it comes to firing an employee, there is no such thing as being overprepared. “You cannot be too prepared for this,” Price insists. “Make sure you plan properly.”

This includes having the formal letter ready and double-checked (or even triple-checked) for errors. Both the hiring manager and the HR representative should know exactly what they plans to say during the meeting with the dismissed employee; they should be on the same page going in. They should also be clear on when and how stakeholders will be notified afterwards.

Clear communication early on helps ensure that everything is business as usual the following day.

Dot your T’s and cross your I’s. Letting someone go isn’t something to be taken lightly, so make sure not to scrimp on the details.

If there’s no cause, don’t get into the “why”
If the individual is being dismissed for a specific reason, disclose it to them. But be sure to keep it short and sweet. “If you decide to terminate someone, there should be no debate,” stresses Price. Certainly, if they are being let go without cause, the employee may have a harder time accepting the decision. But you put yourself, and the company, in an awkward position by letting the meeting turn into a big discussion or argument over the termination.

In order to avoid this, don’t get into the “why.” Indeed, don’t let the conversation be steered in that direction. Dwelling on the reasons for their dismissal will only further anger or aggravate the individual. It could also increase the chances of a legal action against your company.

Immediately communicate with rest of team
Letting someone go can make your entire team feel vulnerable, on edge, or down – all of which are toxic to productivity and morale. Don’t underestimate your employees, or the power of the rumour mill: as soon as someone is terminated, people will know, especially if their dismissal was messy. The result will be lowered employee engagement.

To ensure damage control and reduce the negative impact, Price says managers must immediately open up lines of communication. She recommends holding a staff meeting as soon as possible, perhaps on the day of the termination itself. “Don’t focus on why it happened, or on the terms of the firing, but how we’re going to move forward.” A formal e-mail should also be sent to any other relevant players or company members.

In the case of substantial, company-wide downsizing, Price suggests the CEO consider holding a cross-department staff meeting following a round of lay-offs. It’s important to acknowledge that remaining employees may be experiencing some semblance of “survivor’s guilt.”

At the end of the day, dismissing employees is hard – as it should be. Giving someone the potentially life-altering news that their position no longer exists or that they’re no longer needed ought to be difficult. Price admits that letting people go remains trying for her, no matter how many times she’s had to do it. “One time, one of my CEOs, after a day of major restructuring, looked at me and said, ‘You look absolutely disheveled. It will get easier the more you do this.’ And I remember saying, ‘If this ever gets easy, I need to get out of HR. The emotional side should never get easy.’”

Challenging though it may be, firing people is an important and unavoidable part of the lifecycle of any organization. And as with most things, there is a right and a wrong way to let an employee go from your company. Adopting an approach that is as humane and compassionate as it is prepared and professional will make the whole ordeal easier for all concerned – employee as much as employer – and help everyone get on with their business all the more quickly.

Let us know what you think! At Clarity Recruitment, we’re always interested in hearing from accounting and finance professionals like yourselves, who are ready for new, exciting opportunities that can take their careers to the next level. And be sure to follow us on Twitter (@clarityrecruits) and connect with us on Facebook for more great tips and advice!