“Your Position Has Been Terminated …”
When we work in a larger company and have the assistance of the Human Resource department, getting advice and terminating employees who are poor performers is a bit easier (for the lack of a better word) to acquire.
But many who work in smaller offices have to figure it out as they go. The good news is that smaller companies don’t have as many restrictions as large companies (check with your own individual state government’s employment Web sites for specifics). However, there are still some general rules of thumb — whether legally restricted or not — that are just good professional etiquette to follow.
The first order on the agenda to determine if you can fire someone for poor performance is to document, document, document. (I say poor performance, because stealing, violating ethical codes, etc. are givens to termination. And, harassment may need investigations first.)
Keep track of all behavior — good or bad — but especially the bad. Performance Appraisals are one way of doing so. However, a trap that a smaller company has a tendency to fall into is that performance appraisals aren’t always the most honest because of the family-like atmosphere. As an HR consultant, I constantly go into offices that tell me they can’t be totally honest because they need the employee and they don’t want to make the person mad.
I’m a big advocate of a rewards system over one of punishment. So, let me just say I’m not suggesting rolling out the big, bad mean machine and advising to just tell people about all of their bad qualities. What I am saying is to be honest with people — for two reasons. One, you help them to personally be better and two, you help your company.
The reason you help your company is because you’ll get them to be more productive, but you’ll also protect yourself should you need to unfortunately terminate someone down the road. It can come back to haunt you when you can show nothing but a great performance appraisal because you didn’t want to “make the person mad.” (And with the right communication style, those “bads” aren’t really bads, they’re tips to springboard to better!)
And, the other thing is that the performance appraisal won’t be filled with bads if you’ve been honest with the person throughout the year.
Which brings me back to document, document, document. If / when you do want to terminate someone, make sure you have the paper trail to back up the decision. Before anyone says it, I’ll say it first — yes, most states are “employ at-will” states. Meaning you can terminate anyone at any time (assuming there are not contractor contracts, etc). However, that doesn’t usually stop quite a few ex-employees from filing cases against companies crying discrimination, unlawful firing or “suddenly remembering” a harassment incident they “just never reported.”
If you document performance as you go, you can show anything that has happened, any conversations along the way. The key, though, is to make sure the documentation is extremely detailed. (More on writing documentation will be covered next week.)
So, for our purposes here, let’s say you have all the necessary reasons and documentation to terminate a poor performer. How do you do it? Here are some quick tips:
1. You should tell the person right in the beginning of the conversation. “Jane, I’ve brought you in today to tell you that based on your past performance, you leave me no choice but to terminate your position with the company. And let me give you more specific reasons why …”
By telling the person in the beginning, rather than at the end of the conversation, they aren’t spending the entire time of the conversation trying to figure out if they’re terminated versus listening to what you are saying.
Also — you don’t give their adrenaline an opportunity to burst; you don’t want to give them an opportunity to become enraged as they sit there and listen. By telling the person in the beginning of the conversation, they are shocked and they are more apt to listen rather than lose control.
2. Stay firm. Do not waver. Don’t go into a termination conversation being one foot in, one foot out. If you give in and don’t fire the person, you’ll only eventually fire the person later, but after a lot more headaches. When I first started my HR career more than 10 years ago, I made my one and only mistake of wavering. I fell for tears. She was “a single mother;” she would “do better,” etc. And I got talked out of it. And sure enough, I only had to fire her later. But in my case, what I was going to fire her for, she changed and corrected that behavior — but then she started a new unacceptable one. So, I had to start a whole new documentation case against her; I had to give her “new” chances, and documented verbal and written warnings about this behavior. And I had a problem on my hands that much longer. So, have your documentation and believe in it. Go into the final conversation knowing it is the final conversation.
3. However, it is important not to confuse firmness with meanness. Be kind in telling someone that his or her position is being terminated — even if they were the worst performer. Aside from being fired for stealing, most people deserve the kindness during this time.
4. Walk the person out and be sure you have collected all keys, keycards, passwords, etc. Be sure to have turned off their e-mail accounts. We once had a manager terminate an employee and not walk him out. The terminated employee proceeded back to his desk to send out an e-mail to almost everyone in the company spewing out things about his termination, his manager, the company, etc. He should have been walked out and company access cut off.
5. Don’t promise a reference or favors out of guilt. When the next company hires the employee who then performs poorly, it is a bad reflection on your company’s judgment by giving a good recommendation.
6. Have information ready to answer the person’s questions. What happens to their medical insurance? What vacation money is owed to them? Out of respect for the person, all of that information should be prepared in advance to alleviate any worry on their part.
Having the wherewithal to terminate someone’s position — and on a side note, it’s important to word it as terminating their position, because you aren’t terminating them (see tip #1 for wording) — is really about remembering to be quick with the lead-in when telling them, to have the documentation to support it, to be firm and to be kind.
Even with all of this, there’s no guarantee someone won’t try to file against you for wrongful termination. Ultimately, if you think it is a dicey situation: i.e., you’re firing without proper documentation, you’re firing someone of a protected race, class, age group, etc. or you just have questions, use caution and consult a lawyer.
But with proper handling — and helpful feedback throughout the year — no one should ever be surprised if/when their position is terminated. If you’ve been consistent throughout, coaching and truly working to help your employees have good performance, no one will ever be surprised when they are terminated. And that makes your part of the unpleasant conversation even easier.