In the firing line

You feel sick to your stomach. Your palms are sweaty, and you’ve been up half the night with the words “Effective today, your position in the company has been terminated” swirling around in your head. When you’re the manager who hires IT professionals, someday you might be called upon to fire them.

How do you make the employee termination as quick and as painless as possible for both sides? Whether you’re letting someone go because of misconduct, poor performance or company restructuring, here are a few golden rules to follow.

1. Keep good records.

If misconduct is the reason for the dismissal, be sure to document the warnings the employee received. Some corporate policies say the individual should receive one verbal warning, one written warning if another incident occurs and termination after the third incident.

Robert Morgan, president of the employment solutions practice at staffing and outplacement provider Spherion Pacific Enterprises LLC, counsels against using the three-strikes approach. “It may not be appropriate if, say, the employee was rude to a customer — that would be an immediate termination,” he says.

If warnings are given, particularly if the cause is performance-related, be sure to document the job specification, where the individual is falling short, and how and by when the improvements should occur. Give a copy of the document to the employee, and let him know when the next review date will be.

2. Pick the proper time and place.

The best time to terminate a worker is at the beginning of the week, according to experts. “You want him to have a business day to recover,” says Duncan Mathison, senior consultant at outplacement firm DBM. “If you tell him on a Friday, he’ll spend the weekend stewing.”

Morgan agrees and says a weekday firing also lets managers explain to the rest of the staff what has happened and how the workload will be distributed.

Schedule the termination meeting to occur when are few people are around, such as early in the morning or at lunchtime. It also should take place in a neutral room, preferably close to a building exit, Morgan says. If you conduct the discussion in your office, the employee might feel reluctant to leave the room, and if it takes place in the employee’s office, that person would feel awkward after you walk away.

3. Plan the participants and the dialogue.

The direct manager should conduct the meeting. “If managers can’t terminate as well as hire, they’ve lost respect of their team,” Morgan says. Don’t pass the buck to a human resources representative, whose role is to sit in on the meeting to provide support and be ready to answer questions about benefits the company might owe to the employee.

When delivering the news, Mathison says, it’s important to cover what’s happening and why, the effective date of termination, an affirmation that there is no alternative and an expression of condolence.

If you’re dismissing an employee who has failed to meet project deadlines despite several warnings, you might say, “We’ve talked with you several times of our needs and asked you to meet deadlines, but we have not seen any improvements. Effective today, we are relieving you of your duties. Sorry, but today is your last day with the company. There is no alternative.”

Then fall silent. Don’t defend, justify or argue the decision. Listen carefully to the reaction and repeat the script.

If the worker asks to speak to a senior manager say that the senior manager knows of the decision and repeat the script. If the employee asks who else is affected, say that you appreciate his concern for fellow colleagues but that you’re there to discuss him and no one else.

“If (the employee) is getting angrier it means that you’re justifying,” Mathison warns.

Wait until the employee asks about the next step or about severance packages — that’s your cue that he understood the message. If the worker doesn’t bring it up, ask if he is ready to discuss the next step.

The individual should walk away knowing what the next stage is, whether there will be an outplacement agency on hand and if he will be paid for unused vacation time or other benefits. This information should be spelled out in the termination letter.

4. Arrange the exit.

Many tales have been told of just-fired employees being marched out of the building by security guards and carrying their possessions in a cardboard box. Remember the goal is to treat everyone with respect and professionalism, so experts advise against using security guards, even for misconduct dismissals.

If an escort is necessary, have an HR representative do it. Also, give the worker choices: Does the IT professional want to collect his possessions now or later?

5. Head off litigation.

“Whether or not you are sued depends on how you manage the exit,” says Mathison, who believes that there are two reasons why former employees sue: for money or because they weren’t given help to look for another job. “‘I’m sorry,’ are two simple words. Express condolence. Have compassion.

“Whether or not you win (a wrongful dismissal case) depends on whether you have the documentation,” he adds.

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