Termination anxiety

Although the employee that Tonya (not her real name) had to fire eventually quit, it didn’t make the whole ordeal any less stressful. Terminating employment in today’s work environment can be problematic and the Toronto-based training coordinator for a non-profit organization was faced with an employee whose work habits and unwillingness to work for a female supervisor was becoming an issue. But as Tonya soon found out, firing someone isn’t as simple as just handing out a pink slip.

“I realized that the conduct of the employee was becoming worse and worse, to the point where he was bordering on being terminated,” Tonya said.

“There were work performance issues and then there were also staff policy issues. In terms of performance, I had to date and time and write down every thing that happened. If we wanted to terminate, we would have to give him warning. Not just a warning to terminate, but the chance to do better.”

Lawrence Weinberg, a Toronto-based partner at law firm Cassels Brock & Blackwell, stresses the importance of keeping proper documentation when considering terminating employment. Specifically in the area of IT, confidentiality covenants or non-competition agreements are vital before deciding to let someone go, he said.

There are two ways people can get terminated – with cause or without cause, Weinberg said. “The risk of litigation is there if you try to fire without giving proper notice. The employer does not owe anything to the employee if there is cause, and cause includes things like theft, but also includes not performing the job in good fashion.”

“The big thing I learned [was] to document things and communicate everything immediately and call someone on it,” Tonya said. “There were a lot of legal consequences involved. Basically the lawyers said we need a paper trail, and the paper trail must be there for purposes of documentation.”

Tonya also had numerous performance meetings with the employee and tried to indicate in what areas he needed to improve.

“So it would have been another four to five weeks before we could terminate even though we knew that there was sufficient grounds to get him on what we had,” Tonya said. “If we had the legal willpower, I’m sure to could have got him on all of this, except the documentation had to be there.”

“If employers intend to rely on cause, they are well advised to make sure that they have kept proper records,” Weinberg said. “If someone has never been told that they are a poor performer and are then terminated for cause, that does not look too good and looks like someone is trying to use cause as an excuse.”

IT companies should bear in mind the human side of employment termination, said Dr. Lucille Peszat, director for the Canadian Centre for Stress and Well-Being in Toronto. Peszat has discovered that IT companies tend to be less established and therefore less informed of correct strategies in letting people go.

“The first thing the person firing should try to be as sensitive to the dismissed employee as possible,” Peszat said. “Someone who is not sensitive to emotional needs, no matter what the strategy, will blow it.”

She asserts that whether the employee is being let go due to performance or downsizing, factual documentation and regular performance reviews ensures that employees are not totally caught off guard.

According to Weinberg, companies also need to develop a working relationship with a lawyer specializing in employment law. A working relationship means the lawyer is familiar with the company, can determine what the employee is entitled to, and ensure the employee signs the correct documents upon departure, Weinberg said.

Companies should develop a generalized procedure that would be adaptable to most situations, Peszat said, perhaps even holding a firing “dry run” or rehearsal with the person responsible for terminating the employee beforehand.

“I have found that the best (time to terminate) is on a Friday, usually in the afternoon and let the individual go,” Peszat said. “I’ve seen people come in that are more disturbed about the way they were handled, especially if they have seen themselves as being loyal employees, rather than the actual firing.”

“In terms of being a supervisor, I personally now know that I will have regular meetings and tell (employees) immediately when something comes up – it’s more proactive supervising, more communication,” Tonya said.

“The policies have always been there but now we are now much more wary before we hire and (that) changes the way we hire completely.”