How to Terminate Employees with Grace

Although terminations are hardly elegant, they can be handled thoughtfully and graciously. Try to avoid a million-dollar mistake by considering the following when terminating employees.

Drew Dotson
December 2, 2020

When you think of grace, you probably envision ballerinas and swans, not employee terminations. Although terminations aren’t elegant by any stretch of the imagination, they can be handled thoughtfully and graciously. By planning ahead, you can avoid common termination blunders.

An employer in Pennsylvania learned its lesson the hard way in the case of Walter Mikulan v. Allegheny County. After working at the county jail for 30 years, Mikulan was fired due to “insubordination.” However, a jury determined Mikulan was the victim of age discrimination and awarded him $1.15 million.

Try to avoid your own million-dollar mistake by taking some things into consideration when terminating employees.

1. Do your due diligence

Don’t act spontaneously; be sure to investigate the facts.

When it comes to termination, you need to have done your due diligence. If the employee has been involved in incidents, it’s important to gather all sides of the story. By listening to the employee’s version of events, you can evaluate their credibility and ensure the employee feels heard. If an employee’s presence causes you concern, you can always consider suspension while you complete an investigation.

As the employer, it’s your responsibility to get to the truth of the matter, which includes considering multiple perspectives as well as any underlying motives. Be thorough enough that you feel confident you’ve accurately assessed the facts. This way, you’ll know you’ve taken the necessary time to evaluate and make a clear, rational decision.

2. Check details of documentation

Review the employee’s record as well as your own handbook and policies.

When terminating an employee, make sure your rationale doesn’t contradict performance reviews. If the employee’s record reflects a history of raises, promotions, and positive reviews, this indicates a job well-done. In fact, even if reviews are somewhat average but don’t document issues, this signifies that the status quo was acceptable.

If you’re tempted to clean up an employee’s file, think again. If an employee were to consider litigation, you’ll want this information to remain intact, even if some documentation is contrary to your current reason for termination. The records can probably be recovered anyway, but even the appearance of dishonesty will reflect poorly on your company during a legal battle.

If the employee is in a protected class, there should be written documentation of the change in performance or reason for termination, even if the person is at-will. In Mikulan’s case, the jail’s claim of insubordination didn’t hold up in court because it lacked a data trail.

It doesn’t stop with the employee’s own record, though. You’ll also want to conduct a thorough review of your own handbook and policies to be sure you’re compliant and consistent. Consider policies about employment, termination, and discipline. You’ll even want to look back at how other employees were treated for similar offenses. Employees will often look for reasons to justify their feelings of frustration or disappointment, so make sure you act in line with your policies to avoid any concerns about breach of contract.

Records would be visible in the event of litigation, so it’s wise to review the paper/digital trail before you act in the first place. Know the details!

3. Eliminate ambiguity

Make sure the reason is clear and consistent.

When it comes time to deliver the news, do it in person (or, in pandemic times, as close to that as possible) and maintain seriousness. Also, make sure you’ve given ample thought to the reason. Though you don’t always have to provide one, it’s often helpful to offer a reason that’s clear and indisputable. If you ramble and give multiple causes, employees begin to wonder the real reason.

Tiptoeing around the reason or telling jokes to lighten the mood can result in confused and/or frustrated employees. Litigation is often driven by emotion, so it’s important that you maintain a professional conversation. This includes knowing answers to an employee’s potential questions, such as the COBRA process, payout of unused vacation/sick time, etc.

Lastly, be mindful of other things that are going on in an employee’s life, too. If an employee has recently made an important life announcement (such as pregnancy or other health event), be mindful that the timing could appear related, even though the termination was completely independent. For example, Mikulan’s recent absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) further muddied the jail’s ability to prove that his termination was innocent. Coincidences might not appear so innocuous in the courtroom.

Be as clear and consistent as possible to avoid confusion or miscommunication.

4. Be deliberate with your words

Don’t apologize, joke around, or overshare.

It’s best to prepare your talking points in advance, and this includes your conversation with the terminated employee, other employees, as well as any clients or customers that might be affected. If you go into these difficult talks without a game plan, discomfort could result in unnecessary apologies, jokes, or oversharing of information.

Orient your conversations around next steps: next steps for the employee’s departure, for colleagues absorbing workload, and for others impacted by the change. It’s also good to have another set of ears present for important conversations to preserve accuracy and eliminate putting words in others’ mouths.

When employers get too chatty about a departure, legal issues can arise, including defamation claims. Simply share that the employee no longer works there, and keep the details confidential.

5. Consider paying severance

A little money can go a long way.

Paying severance reduces risk; it’s as simple as that. Even if it’s not required, it’s a thoughtful and professional gesture, especially if there’s any concern about how the employee(s) will respond. Also, be sure to review the terms of any severance agreement. A severance agreement can be provided in exchange for a release of claims, particularly when dealing with someone in a protected class. Plus, paying severance can help maintain your company’s reputation, a worthwhile investment.

6. Develop a departure plan

Preserve dignity and safety by considering the exit details.

Make the exit as graceful and uneventful as possible. It should take place at the end of the day or, ideally, the end of the week. Allow the employee to gather personal items without fanfare or, in some cases, you might deliver the belongings. Do your best to preserve the employee’s dignity by eliminating an audience.

If you’re providing notice in advance, be mindful that employees might misbehave. You’ll want to consider safety concerns, return of property, and inability to access facilities, technology, and confidential information. When feelings are hurt, people can act out, so do your best to minimize workplace disruption by having a plan.

If you grow weary that an employee might be high-risk, trust your gut feeling; when in doubt, check it out. Though terminations are difficult, they can be handled in a way that leaves everyone as satisfied as possible, despite the circumstances. In fact, former employees might even sing your praises if you improve your offboarding process.

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