Open Communication Can Avoid Ugly Firings


The whispers spread like wildfire through an office. Once word gets out someone is about to lose a job, it seems as if everyone knows it. Except, perhaps, the employee who is moments away from being terminated.

That's a major misstep in firing protocol, say human-resources professionals and consultants. It's never an enviable or enjoyable task to hand out a pink slip, but for managers the task of firing is often just as important as hiring. When handled properly, both the employer and terminated employee should be able to walk away and continue with their professional lives. When handled incorrectly . . . well, perhaps you've heard of such a horror story at your workplace.

"All of a sudden (an employer) has this mind-set that the employee is someone they never met before, that overnight they no longer can be trusted and they no longer have an obligation to treat them with respect. Then there's the forced march to the door, boxes in hand, in front of peers and friends," said Rick Kinsley, owner of The Kinsley Group, a local executive recruitment and evaluation consultant. "In most situations, that is inappropriate." That's an extreme example, to be sure, but more standard terminations require attention to detail. If a clean break isn't made, it can get dirty later.

For employers, due diligence is required to make sure a termination is proper, said James Masur, an attorney at Locke Reynolds, who is an expert on employment law. Analyzing a situation to make sure there is no potential for a discrimination claim based on race, disability, sex or age is crucial, he said. He added that it's also important to confirm that a firing was not vindictive, particularly if the terminated employee was raising a valid (or even invalid) complaint over discrimination or harassment.

It's also crucial for an employer to make sure a fired employee has received all wages owed him or her, including overtime pay, Masur said. He or she also should be given leave under the Family Leave and Medical Act. "That is part of the way to make sure when it's over, it's over, so you don't have to revisit these issues in a lawsuit context," Masur said. "By minimizing the lawsuit potential, employers can save themselves $10,000 in litigation expenses alone, and employees can dedicate themselves to more productive pursuits than the turmoil a lawsuit takes out of people."

Employers also are advised to keep detailed records of dealings with an employee well before a firing. Performance reviews that don't note a pattern of underachieving can be confusing. 

"That's the biggest single deficiency we see, where managers have given positive or tepid kinds of reviews for people who are seriously underperforming in order to avoid conflict," said Mark McNulty, president of HR Dimensions, an Indianapolis-based human-resources consulting firm and the Career Partners International – Indianapolis firm. "That's where the rub comes, letting an employee go who is in one of the protected classes of people, and you haven't got the paper trail to support it.” "We always say when you're getting ready to terminate, it shouldn't be a surprise to that person if you've done a good job of managing and giving feedback."

A termination also doesn't have to include a walk of shame through the office. In addition to paper trails and legal obligations, there are simply matters of good taste when it comes to firing someone. Masur advises that two management representatives handle a termination interview, since that tends to reduce the potential for conflict. Managers also should consider how employees remaining with the company will view a co-worker's termination.

"The overreaction to the risk that's represented by the firing, if it's over-managed, is as important if not more important than the firing itself," Kinsley said. "What are employees thinking about? 'What if that was me?' It can have a damaging effect on overall (employer-employee) relationships."

Firing protocol

Here's some advice for handling employees before a termination:

  • Make sure the employee understands what the job's duties are, what functions aren't being performed correctly and that ample time is being provided to allow for improvement.
  • Keep records of conversations with the employee and place notes in his or her file.
  • Continue to offer training opportunities, even to employees facing possible termination. They can learn valuable skills to take to another position.
  • If the need to fire does arise, have the courage to do it and do it in a quiet setting -- preferably at the end of the day so as not to create unnecessary drama. Also, make sure to tell other employees personally about the firing.

Ruth Haag, author of "Hiring and Firing"

Source: Indianapolis Star

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