Being a manager or higher-up is a great accomplishment, but one of the duties that isn’t so fun is firing an employee, leaving him/her in disarray with where to go next in their career. Unfortunately, it’s part of the job description, but it still prevents challenges — even for seasoned vets who have sat in the C-Suite or executive level for years.
It’s so easy for employees to sue an employer these days, there’s risk of losing your company, or getting your company sued, just by using a few phrases during the firing process. Even if you’re an employee being asked to terminate a subordinate, you can do serious harm if you don’t handle the separation correctly.
Since we know firing an employee is already a difficult situation for everyone involved, we’re giving you some steps to decrease the chance you enact a wrongful termination, or do other things that can end up getting you fired by your employer and damaging your career.
Don’t wait until you have to fire an employee to decide what your company rules have been. If you’ve started your own company, contact your attorney to ask for help on how to locate a general company policy guide that starts with your state’s labor rules and laws, as well as federal laws. Then update that template with your dress code, equipment use policies, safety regulations, etc.
Even if you do business in a right-to-work state and don’t need a reason for firing an employee, there are a number of reasons you can’t fire someone, such as their race, religion, age, disability, etc. You want to give someone a reason for termination, otherwise they could come back at you and claim you damaged their reputation.
Before you begin termination proceedings, write a list of the reasons you’re doing so. Check these over with your attorney to make sure they’re legal. You might be firing an employee for only one, obvious reason — such as making a bigoted remark — but you still want to check with an attorney about how to handle this.
Interview the employee’s direct supervisor, other department heads and co-workers to gather information. Be careful that you don’t tip your hand to regular staff members about what’s going on. Gather any documentation you can about the cause for the firing, including emails, phone recordings or on-file complaints from customers, vendors or co-workers. Review the employee’s contract to see if he/she has violated any provisions, or if you have to meet any special provisions before terminating the person.
After you’ve made sure that you can terminate the employee without breaking any state or federal laws, invite the employee into a private room for the discussion. Make sure you have another higher-up, or the manager of the person, present to witness the interview so there’s no he-said/she-said about what happened. If possible, have an HR professional who is familiar with termination proceedings or an attorney who specializes in labor law present.
The more you say when firing an employee, the more ammunition you give an ex-employee to use in court.
“You’ve always been a great employee, but…”
Many times, you don’t need to give an employee a reason for termination. It’s such a personal blow, however, that it’s natural to want to make it easier on the employee personally. In some cases, you can simply say, “We no longer need your services.” Be careful about saying something like, “We’re reducing staff.” If you fill the employee’s position, you’ll be caught in a lie. Other employees, your customers and your vendors might hear that you’re reducing staff and this can cause a panic or present a poor company culture.
You might want to issue a terminated employee his/her final paycheck, prorated to the day they’re being terminate. You might have other HR-related paperwork that needs to be filled out.
You also might need to cancel computer passwords, so meet with IT to arrange that they can turn off passwords while the employee is in the separation. Employees might complain that they want to delete personal emails on their computers, but the company owns the computer and you might have the legal right to keep the employee locked out. Allowing an employee to access a company computer after being fired increases the possibility that they might delete important files, forward valuable documents to their personal email or send a negative blast email to co-workers or clients.
The only thing more humiliating than being fired is being escorted out of the office in front of coworkers. This is so important, however, that it’s done all the way to the White House. You can allow the employee to retrieve personal items from their office, such as a jacket, pictures, cell phone and brief case, but you should probably keep the employee from sitting at their desk and using his computer.
After firing an employee, naturally, many people are going to hold a grudge and/or show a bevy of other emotions. This is normal, but it’s important to hold firm and not try to do too much to help in their pain. If you do, it can come back to haunt both your company, and you personally, as the fired employee.
Instead, make sure to talk to your attorney about how you can soften the blow, such as offering a severance payment, letter of recommendation or outplacement assistance. Your attorney will tell you if need to offer this to all employees, or if you can pick and choose who gets these offers, based on the situation.
Depending on whom you fired, you might need to let your staff, customers, vendors and suppliers know that that employee is no longer with the company. With employees, the less you say the better. Make sure to let them know that they’re not allowed to discuss reasons for an employee’s termination, including guessing as to why someone was fired. You won’t be able to prevent gossip (or the fired employee spilling the beans), but you will protect yourself if you publicly try to protect the terminated employee.
When it comes to your customers and vendors, a simple email should suffice if they must know that the terminated employee no longer works with you. This will prevent the employee placing malicious orders or confirming work or a shipment.
With clients and suppliers, don’t give a reason for the employee’s termination or say how wonderful the employee was and how much you’ll miss them with the company. That can be used against you in a court case. Check with your attorney about using a general phrase like, “We wish Mark well.”
There’s one thing to remember when firing an employee: you might get sued. For this reason, always check with a trained HR professional or attorney before you take any steps in the termination process.
Lead image via Getty
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