About a month ago, I was fired. My former employer, after failing to meet expected growth numbers, liquidated approximately 90% of their total employees, essentially stripping the company down to the minimum amount of workers required to handle daily operations.
News of the planned cutbacks leaked approximately one month before the process began, causing rumors about who was and wasn’t on “the list” to dominate water cooler discussions and office gossip for weeks. Morale plummeted and resentment began to boil over, destroying the goodwill the company had built up over its lifespan and leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of the people who were eventually laid off. The whole process was mishandled and the employees suffered as a result of it.
Termination isn’t fun, but it’s a reality of business. A survey conducted by Leadership IQ found that 46% of employees fail within 18 months of being hired.1 Whether it’s underperformance, cultural disconnects, or a shift in direction the removal of certain employees is necessary to run a business. However, there’s a way to conduct the process ethically and with empathy. Future prospects of the company also hinges on how well termination is executed. A butchered firing, or poorly executed set of mass layoffs leaves a lasting impression on the employees retained by the firm.
Let’s dive into the six ways you can let go of an employee in an ethical and humane way.
#1 Keep it Short and Simple
A properly executed firing should address the reason for the meeting in the first sentence. Jodi Glickman, Founder and CEO of the communication consulting firm Great on the Job recommends starting with something along the lines of “I have some bad news for you. Today is your last day here.”2
When it comes to termination, getting to the point quickly is the most painless way to handle the process. It’s like ripping off a band-aid. Obfuscating the real reasons behind the firing or spending a long period of time before getting to the point isn’t going to help you or the employee being fired. Chances are the employee already knows they’re being let go, so get down to business and take action.
Why? A clear and concise explanation for their firing will help give them a sense of closure as well as potentially giving them an area to improve on moving forward.
#2 Show Compassion
Unemployment is associated with increased use of mental health services and alcohol abuse, according to Robert Lehry, Director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy.3
Losing your job can be an incredibly traumatic experience. You’ve lost your reason to wake up in the morning, lost your source of income, and lost a community of people you saw every day. The sense of hopelessness this creates can be overwhelming. For a lot of us (me included) it’s difficult to separate criticism on your performance from personal criticism. It’s important to remember that an employer passing judgement on you as an employee is not equivalent to them judging you as a person.
As an employer you have the power to shape the narrative about their termination, and can use specific language to help prevent the employee from internalizing their firing. Using phrases like “your performance didn’t reach our standards” rather than “you didn’t perform to our standards” can help the employee understand that it was their actions that resulted in their termination rather than it being a personal indictment.
Why? At the end of the day the person sitting across the table from you is a human being, and we all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect in all situations.
#3 Talk to Your Team
Explaining the situation to your team lets you set the tone regarding the firing and ensures any potential rumors are snuffed out before they have time to gain traction.
Using non-accusatory language allows the terminated employee to go out with their head held high, rather than dragging them through the mud on their way out the door. A conversation with the team about the termination will also help ensure everyone is on the same page moving forward. A firing will naturally create a disconnect between managers and employees, and may create an “us versus them” mentality. Seeking feedback and giving your employees a voice to offer suggestions on how to distribute the fired employee’s workload can go a long way towards bridging this gap.
Why? By mitigating fears and providing clarity you can ensure your team functions optimally moving forward in wake of the termination.
#4 Be Expedient
As soon as the word about firings gets out it’s imperative to act quickly, especially in the case of mass layoffs. I can say from first hand experience that the rumor mill can destroy the company from the inside out.
The anxiety and uncertainty regarding who is and isn’t getting terminated will leave a lasting impression on the employees you plan on retaining. Several of my coworkers who were not laid off were already deep into the recruiting process with other firms, and most of them left soon after the mass firings. By acting quickly and decisively you mitigate some of the risk of attrition amongst the remaining employees. Otherwise their trust will be irrevocably damaged, torpedoing their morale and in turn their performance.
Why? By propagating a culture of uncertainty and fear through indecisiveness you risk ruining the long term vision of the company. Act fast or face the consequences.
#5 Do it Face to Face
Within the last few years, Amazon has been sued multiple times as a result of their termination policies, with warehouse employees receiving automatically generated termination notices as a result of a time tracking software.4
You owe it to your employee to deliver the news in person. Sending another resource, or doing it remotely, displays an inability to handle adversity and a lack of respect for the terminated employee. Employees talk, and your decision to not be in the meeting will be disseminated amongst the team. Your other employees will lose respect for you, sapping their willingness to work under you and potentially resulting in the loss of resources. This point also relates back to empathy, as speaking face to face gives you the opportunity to make the conversation as smooth and kind as possible.
Why? As the person directly responsible for the firing you should be available for the employee to ask any questions they may have, as well as taking any constructive feedback from their end.
#6 Give your Employees Some Runway
The average amount of time a terminated employee in the US takes to find a job is 22 weeks per Statista's report.5
In the case of a non-performance or discipline related termination helping employees transition into a new job smoothly is always a good idea. Whether it’s reaching out to recruiters from other firms in your network, supplying strong recommendations, or extending their employment on paper to not show a gap in their CV you can play a large role in ensuring they land on their feet moving forwards. While it’s not a required that you help your former employees, it builds a great deal of goodwill that they will then propagate.
Why? Building a reputation as a caring and empathetic company is always beneficial as it helps with both employee retention and hiring.
My former company did act on some of these principles during the firing process. Their shortcomings in regards to expediency and transparency rendered all their positive steps useless. Failing to act on all these tenets simultaneously is enough to leave a sour taste in former employees’ mouths, and hurt the morale of those retained. Firing is the worst part of business, whether as a manager or as an employee. There’s no easy way to be told, or tell someone, that their services are no longer required. Doing it the right way can mitigate some of the discomfort and ensure your firm can continue forward successfully.