Termination Talk

There’s a right way to discharge employees

by Teresa Whitacre

Whether it’s for performance reasons or because of an organizational decision to reduce staff, letting someone go is never easy. Two stories, with names and details altered, will demonstrate some things to do and not to do to make terminations respectful for employers and employees.

Consider Erica, a supervisor who manages a small staff at a manufacturer. Erica’s group handles quality, project management, risk mitigation and supplier relations.

Erica was responsible for discharging a mid-career female professional who had been with the organization five years. Erica said the company had done talent assessments of all the groups, and as a result, Erica was told to right-size her group to better cover business needs.

Erica wasn’t in full agreement about this direction. On hearing Erica’s story, I asked whether the employee’s performance was unsatisfactory. Erica said that wasn’t the case, but that some people didn’t like the employee. The complaints were minor, however, compared to other problems in the group.

As a result, Erica was troubled over her decision to handle the discharge in the way in which she was directed. She preferred to honestly tell the employee that staff reductions were necessary due to business conditions. Instead, she was instructed to frame the discharge in a way that led the employee to believe her performance was subpar and that she had lost the respect of those who had worked with her.

Next, consider Charles, a recently discharged employee. Charles had been a quality engineer with a large international manufacturer for eight years. Charles was told he needed to demonstrate overall improvement. He recently had gone through a 60-day process requiring him to provide improvement documentation to meet the employer’s newly presented goals and objectives.

These new goals were Charles’ target. Day 61 came, and the employer reported that even though weekly meetings had been held, Charles had not provided the proper documentation showing he had met the stated goals.

The termination message delivered to Charles, however, was that he was no longer worthy of being in a professional quality position. In fact, Charles told me the manager said he was totally worthless. Such a message cut so deeply that Charles suffered severe health issues for months.

How we deliver—and handle—the message matters.

Employee, employer

For the employee, discharge, especially when it’s sudden, is painful and traumatic, but you’re advised to still do your best to remain professional in the face of adversity. Do not speak negatively or threaten legal action. Leave quickly and quietly. If you want to follow up with co-workers, call or meet with them later.

Get all the needed information about the organization’s reference, severance and benefits policies before leaving. It is easier to get that information while you are still in the termination meeting than by contacting someone later. Remembering to get this information requires you to retain your composure, even in the face of termination.

For the employer, be respectful. Understand that you are dealing with a person who is likely feeling shock and sadness. Be prepared for anything, however, because everyone reacts differently.

The person being terminated should not threaten or even mention legal action. Most professionals are aware an organization will have checked with their legal resources ahead of any termination.

In any state with at-will employment, contacting legal resources isn’t a requirement at all. At-will employment means just that—employment can end at will, any time and for any reason for both parties.

Employers have the right and duty to protect their organizations and other employees, but they should do so while showing respect and preserving the employee’s dignity. Always remember that you may work with—or even for—the terminated employee elsewhere someday.

Don’t wish a terminated employee well. Charles did not think anyone at the company sincerely wished him well at time of discharge, so his respect for the managers who made this statement was gone.

Professionalism, courtesy and respect on both sides of the employment equation go a long way in this small world.

Teresa Whitacre is a quality manager in Pittsburgh and a principal at Marketech Systems. She has a bachelor’s degree in organizational management from Ashford University in Clinton, IA, as well as ASQ certifications as a quality auditor, engineer, manager and Six Sigma Green Belt. Whitacre is the chair of ASQ’s Pittsburgh Section, instructor for the section’s certified quality inspector refresher course and deputy regional director for ASQ Region 8. She is an ASQ fellow.

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