Real Talk: How to Respectfully Terminate an Employee

how to terminate employees

Ending employment relationships is hard, but handling the conversation respectfully will help you mitigate risk as a business owner.

Would you rather have to speak in front of a stadium full of people or tell a person one-on-one that they no longer have their job?

If only you could say neither and call it a day. Unfortunately, as a business owner or people manager you’ll most likely find yourself in a situation where it’s necessary to terminate an employee who’s just not working out for the health of your company.

Stating the obvious, this isn’t an easy conversation for you to have, and it certainly isn’t an easy conversation to receive. In these scenarios, the best you can do is complete your task while allowing your (former) employee to maintain their dignity.

We spoke to Jobber’s Head of People Operations, Danielle, to get a seasoned HR vet’s take on the best way to handle ending employment relationships. Read on for her advice.

Let's talk legalities

You’ll notice that we avoid using ‘fire,’ ‘lay-off,’ ‘let go,’ and other euphemisms for terminating someone’s employment throughout this article because they all have legal implications that vary between states and provinces. In this article, our focus is tackling how to have a compassionate conversation when ‘ending’ or ‘terminating’ any employment relationship.

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When ending any employment relationship, you want to ensure that you’re within your rights.

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That being said, if you find yourself in a situation where an employee has done something morally wrong, such as theft or harassment, that may be grounds for ‘firing them with cause’, we advise you to consult your state or provincial government agencies on the correct protocol for terminating employees in the wrong.

In fact, when ending any employment relationship, you want to ensure that you’re within your rights. This may mean you talk to the correct government agency, talk to a local labor representative for standards, or consult an employment lawyer.

If you’re ever in doubt, check with the right authority so that you don’t put yourself, your other employees, or your business at risk. Knowing how to proceed legally also allows you to have the confidence to proceed with a tough conversation, because this is one situation where you don’t want to come off as nervous or unprepared in front of an employee who is about to receive bad news.

What to say and how to say it

Keep in mind that you don’t want to burn a bridge when ending an employment relationship. Sites like Glassdoor allow employees to leave company reviews, and depending on why they left, your former employee might still be in a position to send you candidates for future job postings.

Being direct but compassionate is the best way to get your message across. A soft tone can go a long way in these conversations.

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The worst thing you can do is allow a person to leave your conversation wondering if they have a job or not.

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Be clear about the outcome of your conversation

A common mistake people make is not being clear that the employee is no longer employed by your company. Ensure that you say something clear cut like “You are being terminated” at some point during your conversation.

The worst thing you can do is allow a person to leave your conversation wondering if they have a job or not.

Less is more in these situations

You don’t want to say too little and come across cold, but you also don’t want to say too much and give people ammo to build a legal case against you (an employment lawyer can advise you on how to keep the conversation on track).

When an employee is a bad fit and there aren’t any clear cut reasons for why you’re terminating their employment, they may ask you for an explanation. Then what do you say?

Getting back to the fact that the employment is over is one approach:

“I understand that you have questions, and you’re likely surprised, but we’re ending this employment relationship because it isn’t a good fit. The decision that we have made, while tough, is final. So the most productive thing to do today is not to discuss why, as it won’t change the circumstances.”

Dealing with emotions

Practicing a script can be helpful for you going into a tough conversation, but keep in mind that when people become emotional they often can’t fully process what you’re saying because stress responses might be taking over.

For that reason, it’s best to tell them they have 48 hours to think over your conversation and reach out with any questions. Although their employment is over, this is a courteous thing to do so that they feel they can go home and calm their minds rather than feel rushed to clarify details in the moment.

If it gets heated

If people become angry or vocal, the best thing you can do is quickly acknowledge that the situation has escalated, and let them know you’re available to answer questions after today.

Don’t work through the anger. Ask the person to go home and think, hand them your contact info, and let them know that you can’t productively work through this conversation right now.

Know your triggers

Maybe you’re a talker who might wind up saying things that could put your company at risk.

Maybe you find yourself getting angry, in which case it’s time to end the conversation.

People often want answers and you want to ensure that you don’t accidentally say things that fuel a legal case.

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People often want answers and you want to ensure that you don’t accidentally say things that fuel a legal case.

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In any situation, active listening often helps keep both you and the employee on the right track. Acknowledge what they’re saying and stick to the outcome:

“I know you have a lot of questions. These situations are hard, and I’d be asking the same questions, but at this point in time the decision has been made. We’re not here to talk about the reasons why.”

Logistical details

Before the conversation think about the following:

  • Do they have company property?
  • What access do they have (keys, passwords)?
  • Will you allow the person to go back to their desk immediately or schedule a time after hours?
  • Should someone walk the employee out?

In some cases you may want to have someone assist you with disabling accounts or taking back company property while you’re talking to the person. Just make sure you don’t take these steps before you talk to the employee.

It’s also wise to have more than one person in the room, so there’s a witness to corroborate the story in case your former employee takes legal action. And in case things do get heated, a third person in the room generally helps keep tempers in check.

Reflecting on the termination

After every termination you should take the time to ask yourself why it didn’t work out. Was it a recruitment mistake? Do you need to examine and refresh your job postings or your interview process?

You might also find that you made the best choice based on the information you had, and it simply didn’t work out. Sometimes employees don’t pan out the way you thought they would and you can’t be hard on yourself.

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Sometimes employees don’t pan out the way you thought they would and you can’t be hard on yourself.

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If you fired an employee and are seeing trends with theft or property damage for example, it may be time to implement policies that put a stop to these occurrences. Consulting your local industry association or an HR consultant is often a good place to start when you’re looking for advice in this area.

Communicating with your other employees

You should have a consistent way that you communicate employee departures to the rest of your company. Not communicating when people leave may create feelings of unease with your employees.

A simple email works or you can call a quick meeting—do whatever works best for your business. And leave details for the departure out of your communication. If the former employee wishes to tell people why they left that’s their business.

Terminating an employee isn’t easy, but it’s a reality of running a business. Follow these guidelines and you’ll at least be able to perform this business function in a compassionate and respectful way.

Did you know that employees who come through referral programs are more productive, profitable for the company, and they stay longer? Read all about how to implement one.

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