Firing people is awkward and uncomfortable, even if they were a habitual nonperformer," says Stephen Van Vreede, resume strategist and IT career coach. Assuming you're a human being, letting an employee or multiple employees go may be one of the most difficult and emotional experiences you have to perform as a boss.
Remember: If it's that way for you, its magnitudes worse for the person(s) being let go. There are no secrets here--this is tough work but if you are respectful and empathize with the person(s) being let go it will make this emotional moment easier for everyone.
Famed Australian television presenter and financial analyst Paul Clitheroe once said, "For many people a job is more than an income- it's an important part of who we are. So a career transition of any sort is one of the most unsettling experiences you can face in your life."
If you've ever had to sit idly while a corporate executive or a manager/friend explains why you're being let go, then this statement may have special meaning to you. If you are lucky enough to have never been fired then kudos to you, but the reality is it can happen to even the best of employees.
People are normally terminated for one of several reasons including breaking company policy or rules, downsizing/reorganization or poor performance. In any one of these three situations, it shouldn't be surprising to the employee that he or she is being let go. "For a reduction in force, let's face it, there will be rumors flying anyway. Doing it in stealth mode is going to be a serious challenge. If it's a performance issue, it should come as no surprise either," says Van Vreede.
So the decision has already been made to let someone go and it's your job to handle it. Where do you start? Step 1, says Cathy Phillips, senior employee engagement manager at Winter Wyman, a staffing firm that works throughout the Northeast. "Start with your HR [department] just to make sure you don't do anything wrong that the company will get in trouble for down the road. Talk to them first."
The Bearer of Bad News
In most situations experts agree that the direct supervisor should be the one to deliver the bad news. "In my experience the supervisor should be the one to deliver the news because they have the working relationship with the employee. Having said that, you want to make sure that supervisor is prepared. Best practice is to have a third person in the room when that conversation takes place, ideally someone from HR," says Phillips. This is to prevent it from turning into a frustrating he said/she said type situation.
Who Else Should Be There
"Most organizations will want someone from HR there for liability purposes. In some cases, corporate security may need to be involved, says Van Vreede. Having a third person in the room, perhaps necessary depending on your company, can make employees feel uncomfortable. While in other companies the supervisor may say to HR, I feel comfortable telling Joe Schmoe alone and then HR can immediately follow-up.
HR also provides another function in the meeting. Aside from bearing witness, they are there with information for the terminated employee on 401k, final payments, severance and benefits data. This information, while might not be digested at the time is necessary.
Bottom line here says Phillips, "Unfortunately, you always need to think about what happens if I let this person go and they come back and say it was a wrongful dismissal".
What Should be Covered and How Long Should it Take
Experts also agree that the meeting should be relatively short. Depending on the situation the meeting should last between 15-30 minutes. "If it's a performance issue, the process should be 15 minutes or less. In a downsizing or reorganization, it may be a bit more involved, as the terminated employee will have questions about the layoff package," says Van Vreede. Phillips echoes Van Vreede's comments saying, "It's usually a pretty fast meeting. Once an employee finds out they are being terminated they just want to get out of there."
That said, most employees while they will listen to HR explain the details of their severance or benefits won't actually hear it. They are for lack of a better word in shock. Phillips points out that the HR rep should always include a business card with the paperwork and be ready to respond to any questions the person may have once they've had a chance to absorb the situation.
Keep it short and direct. "It's human nature to try to fill the uncomfortable silence with words. Don't! Plan what needs to be said and stick to it," says Van Vreede. Once the meeting begins, you want to have the facts with you on why the person is being let go. This is a real living, breathing human in front of you. Look the person in the eyes and simply come out and say it. "Be very specific in telling them the reason," says Phillips.
Then give it a moment or two for the words to settle. While some employees may have seen it coming, as in the case of performance issues, others might feel blind-sided by a down-sizing or reorganization. In any case it's completely understandable that the employee being let go will need some time to wrap their head around the situation.
Understand and be prepared or the person to be upset or argumentative and do your best not be drawn into a debate. Saying the wrong thing in the heat of the moment could cost both you and the company down the road. The decision has been made and no amount of talking or arguing will change the fact. Let them vent for a moment if necessary.
Permissions, Privileges and Email
Permissions, privileges and email should be shutoff as the meeting commences or shortly thereafter. "Whenever possible you have to get IT in the loop but you have to be careful with confidentiality issues. So when the employee gets back to their desk they can't do any damage," says Phillips. Be diligent here a miscommunication could alert a mindful person of the impending news. "I've heard stories about folks that figured out they were going to get fired when they were unable to access anything in their system upon arriving at work," says Van Vreede. This could cause unforeseen problems, for example, a sales person who surmises he is being fired today may go and copy your customer contact list.
Best Time to Fire Someone
There is no best time to fire someone. Some say Friday to eliminate risk to the company and some say Monday so the person can jumpstart their job search. The only advice offered here is; don't hesitate, if you'd made the decision to let someone go do it as soon as is possible.
Devices, Software and Data
After the meeting you also need to account for and collect any devices this person may have been issued including but not limited to security badges, mobile phones, tablet, laptops, proprietary software or data. In many cases, severance package is contingent on these items being returned.
Close Strong and Respectfully
When the time has come to finish up, again look them in the eyes, shake their hands and wish them luck. Throughout this whole process empathy is key. How would you like to be treated if the roles were reversed? "I always like to thank the employee even though it didn't work out. They've come to work every day and hopefully done their best. We do offer to give them a reference. We want them to get another job and we'll do what we can to help them, says Phillips.
Read more about careers in CIO's Careers Drilldown.