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End of the Road: Termination

Deciding to terminate someone’s employment under any circumstances is complicated. The risk means employers must be thoughtful, fair-minded, and strategic.

Termination on-the-spot without any investigation, conversation, or prior discipline often backfires. If the misconduct is severe, opt to suspend the employee pending an investigation, and carefully review all the evidence first. Make sure the organization can demonstrate an objective basis for its decision, free of discriminatory or retaliatory pretexts. Some employers see COVID-19 workforce reductions as a good time to exit poor performers. But be careful about choosing people without documentation or quantifiable reasons. Discuss any complex situations and severance agreements with an employment attorney before taking action.

In NH, a separated employee must be paid all wages, including commissions, within 72 hours. (See the NH DOL regulation at www.gencourt.state.nh.us/rsa/html/XXIII/275/275-44.htm.) Employers cannot withhold a final paycheck nor make unauthorized deductions, even if company property is missing. If the individual signed a payroll deduction authorization allowing a final deduction, remind him or her and provide a copy of that signed authorization form. Do not make the deduction without the signed document. It is too late at the termination meeting. (To find a sample NH DOL deduction form, visit www.nh.gov/labor/documents/payroll-deduction.pdf.)

Parting on good terms is always preferable to avoid ill will from both the departing individual and the remaining employees. Sometimes, a mutual parting of ways can be negotiated with an acknowledgment that it is not working, offering the employee a chance to retain a measure of control.

The Termination Meeting

Often, termination is not easy, and a tough conversation is required. Be empathic and take precautions to avoid embarrassing the individual. Consider holding a termination meeting at the end of the workday or whenever there are fewer observers.

Fridays are preferable because waking up on a typical workday without a job is worse than waking up on Saturday with 24/7 online access for job searching, unemployment claim filing, and resume building. Plan ahead, including notifying the IT department to remove the network and other security access to coincide with the termination meeting.

Before holding the termination meeting, determine who needs to be present, such as the individual’s manager, another management individual, and/or an HR representative. Do not add unnecessary people, such as a coworker or subordinate, which could cause humiliation.

Select who the primary speaker will be and rehearse. Maintain eye contact with the employee and let them know that the decision has been made to terminate employment today. Do not beat around the bush. State the reason if it is objective, but otherwise, do not elaborate. Someone could be misinterpreted or make a comment out of guilt that backfires later.

Remember, the meeting is not a discussion, so remain empathetic yet firm. People may try to change your mind, but unless information arises that demands reconsideration, let the person know this is a final decision.

After a pause, logistical details should be discussed, generally by HR, including the last paycheck, benefits, collection of business belongings, and removal of personal property. People often do not remember the details. Summarize these details in a termination letter and encourage the individual to call with any questions or concerns. Offer to either help the person pack immediately or to box up the items and mail it to their home.

Whenever possible, end the session by wishing the employee well in the future and encouraging him or her to call with any questions. It is a difficult and emotional time for everyone.

Communicate the staffing change with customers, vendors, and coworkers in an appropriate, discreet manner.

Safety Considerations

Think about safety precautions. Never let the terminated person walk around unaccompanied. Escort them out the nearest door as soon as possible. If they refuse to leave the building or the property, call 911. If you believe it is likely that the employee may react with threats or violence, call the local police department and ask for a patrol of the neighborhood during the termination meeting. If that is not an option, contact a security firm to provide onsite support for that day and possibly longer. It is always better to be safe than sorry.

Most employees, while upset, handle the circumstances with a level of restraint.

Ounce of Prevention

There are preventative measures companies should have to reduce the risk of having to terminate an employee. It starts with careful recruiting practices that identify current organizational needs, position responsibilities, and critical competencies.

Consider what basic knowledge, skills, and abilities are essential for success, including soft skills and alignment with your organizational values. If collaboration is a big part of your success, you want to hire like-minded individuals.

Onboarding is also necessary for ensuring employee success and is an ongoing process. It is about having in place clear expectations, tools, information, guidance, proper listening and feedback, and leadership approachability and support.

Everyone benefits from positive, timely, and constructive feedback. Sometimes a company may find it hired the right person for the wrong job. Maybe it’s a bad match in customer service, but the person would be terrific in operations. Consider a transfer if an individual is professional, maintains a growth mindset, and connects with the organization’s values.

Early intervention can make a difference in many situations. Focus on accountability and performance improvement first. This step is critical as the problem may be fixable, and either way, documentation is necessary. When someone is falling short of expectations, their manager must have a candid discussion and develop a specific plan with milestones to resolve the issues.

The employee’s response to constructive criticism will determine his or her future. A receptive employee who genuinely wants to do better can drive the necessary change. Unfortunately, people do not always react constructively. Many variables can lead to a termination decision, and sometimes, the writing is on the wall before the meeting begins. Stay focused on objective documentation, clear consequences, and avoid giving false hope or promises. Except for unforeseen circumstances, like the COVID-19 crisis, employees should not be surprised about job loss. Be clear, be consistent, and be timely.

First published by Business NH Magazine, July 21, 2020: https://www.businessnhmagazine.com/article/end-of-the-road-termination

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