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April 03, 2000
The Delicate Art of Employee Termination: Leave Nothing to Chance
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George Scharm

The boss summons you into his elaborate office. Cigar clenched between his teeth, he leans across his desk, jabs a finger in your face, and yells, "YOU'RE FIRED!"

It's a scenario we're all familiar with, thanks to outdated comic strips and antiquated re-runs. However, in real life, it just doesn't happen that way. In today's corporate world, terminating an employee is something to be approached with care and finesse.

Employee firings should be handled with the same forethought and preparation as employee hirings. When discharging an employee, one should choreograph every step of the meeting in advance.

The most important thing is to leave each person with his or her dignity intact. You don't humiliate them, but at the same time, you can't leave any room for debate. Basically, give them a choice: resign, or be fired.

Leave nothing to chance, right down to choosing the office in which the meeting will occur. Make sure it's a private room, close to an exit but away from the workforce. Remove any potential weapons, like statues or paperweights. And be careful not to get between the other person and the doorway."

Everything is prepared in advance, including a written termination notice and severance check. Arrange for the employee's locker or desk to be cleaned out for them. You don't want to give them a reason to come back. It saves everyone embarrassment, and it also eliminates any potential scenes.

How do most people react when they are fired? Either with tears or anger. Try to anticipate how each individual is going to react by reviewing their personnel file in advance. If someone is likely to break down in tears, he may arrange to have emotional support at hand. If someone has a history of violence, he may have an off-duty policeman standing by.

When an employee has done something wrong - possibly criminal

Many employees feel the company owes them something. Or they may owe someone else money. Thieving workers convince themselves that "they're not hurting anyone--big companies can afford it."

During a termination, present just enough evidence to convince an employee that he or she has been caught, but be careful to avoid humiliating him or her. Many thieves are apologetic. It's usually heart wrenching rather than confrontational. Occasionally, however, an individual will erupt in anger.

The individuals most likely to react strongly are the loners, people who have little in their life besides work. These are the ones more prone to sit home and brood, building a case in their mind against the company. Only 1% of terminated employees turn dangerous, but you can't take a risk that it might be one of yours. The solution: keep them busy; give them something to do.

In some cases, the employer might offer the terminated employee six months of tuition at a local junior college, or outplacement services with an employment agency.

Here are some tips for employers who conduct their own terminations:

  • Don't ever fire someone while you're angry. You want to diffuse emotion, not compound it.
  • If an employee has a poor relationship with his immediate supervisor, get someone else to conduct the firing.
  • Plan every step of the meeting in advance: what you will say, how you will respond if the employee reacts with anger or hysteria.
  • Familiarize yourself with the employee's file. Interview supervisors and verify all file documentation. Make sure you have strong reason to fire the employee.
  • Have all the paperwork ready. Hand the employee a written termination notice at the time of the meeting.
  • Two weeks severance pay can lessen the blow. Consider it an investment in company security.
  • Be courteous, but firm. Leave nothing open to negotiation.
  • Consider having a witness present, particularly if the employee is of the opposite sex or if they have made false allegations in the past.
  • When you're conducting a termination alone, let someone else know where you are and what you're doing.
  • Have the exit pre-planned. Escort the employee out the door and to his car.
  • Consider beefing up your pre-employment screening process for future hires. It will reduce the likelihood of a repeat experience.

Get the word out

One of the most important things to do is alert the remaining workforce, particularly receptionists and security guards. Sometimes employers are reluctant to disclose terminations to their workers. But otherwise, a disgruntled employee can easily slip back into the workplace. If a former employee is particularly hot tempered, suggest that security be heightened for a few days following the termination.

It's okay to keep the doors locked for a few days if you feel that a particular person may be a risk to your organization. Better to be safe than sorry.

You can't guarantee that someone isn't going to come back, but if you terminate them properly, the chances are much slimmer.

George Scharm is a private investigator. His company, TSS Consulting Group, is located in Gurnee, IL. 847-263-3673

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