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Firing with the least trauma.

A termination can be almost as disturbing for the terminator as it is for the person about to become unemployed. Below are some practical suggestions on how to make the action as painless as possible for all parties involved.

GETTING FIRED. Being let go. Getting laid off . . . discharged . . . released. There are probably as many phrases to describe losing one's job as there are for dying. People who suddenly find themselves out of work often see parallels between the two.

The prospect of being unemployed, especially during troubled economic times, is at best unpleasant if not downright frightening. But the role of "terminator" is no picnic either.

This article focuses on how administrators, managers, and supervisors should go about delivering the bad news to an employee. We will discuss how to prepare for a termination meeting, when and where the discussion should take place, how to conduct the meeting, and how to handle reactions from the employee and his or her coworkers.

Keep in mind that your organization, either through stated policy or established practice, may follow an approach that differs from our recommendations. Therefore, it is always wise to seek guidance from the individual or department at your facility responsible for employee relations before proceeding with a termination.

* Preparation. We've all seen classic examples of how not to terminate someone: "I've had it! You're fired!" snarls the heartless boss, pointing to the door. The employee wanders out, dazed and distraught, while anxious coworkers look on, wondering who's next. Fortunately, these scenes generally are confined to television and movie scripts. Nevertheless, there are some specific do's and don'ts that can help smooth the process, preserve an employee's dignity, ease your own anxiety, and protect against potential legal action.

First among the do's is preparation. Obtaining the involvement of your human resources department as well as your own management chain of command will be extremely valuable to you during the preparation stage. Be sure to familiarize yourself with your company's policies regarding severance pay and continuation of benefits--or at least know to whom the employee should direct concerns about such matters. If security is an issue (for example, the return of keys, an identification badge, or certain documents), decide on the most logical approach for your particular department before the meeting takes place.

You might want to jot down notes on the points you want to make to the worker and the order in which you'll address them. If someone is being terminated for poor performance or for a serious disciplinary reason, have all appropriate documentation on hand.

Try to anticipate how the individual will react. Above all, prepare to be uncomfortable. One human resources professional who has been involved in more than 300 terminations put it this way: "Regardless of whether you know that termination is absolutely the right thing to do for the company or for the individual, the meeting is never routine--and it's never, ever easy." Preparation will help you maintain a professional manner while delivering the news, but telling someone that he or she no longer has a job is bound to be awkward.

* Location and timing. Terminations should always be conducted privately. This doesn't mean that these meetings must be one on one; there will be times when it is appropriate to have another party present, either to witness what is being said or because company policy requires it. The employee is entitled to be given the news without the entire staff hearing all the details, however. Whenever possible, conduct the meeting outside your department, somewhere else within your organization. Crowded public places such as restaurants or hotel lobbies are clearly inappropriate.

Opinions vary regarding the best time to conduct a termination. We suggest that it be conducted early in the week for several reasons. People terminated on a Friday cannot actively begin their job search (which should begin immediately) until the following Monday. An intervening weekend is likely to be extremely frustrating or depressing for terminated individuals.

If your organization offers outplacement assistance, an early-in-the-week termination enables you to schedule immediate follow-up help for the employee. Remaining staff benefit as well, by the opportunity to have their concerns and questions addressed in a timely manner before untrue rumors begin circulating. And if you plan to replace the terminated individual immediately, Friday is usually too late to run an ad in the Sunday classifieds.

* The meeting. While no two termination conferences are exactly alike, the following advice may help you avoid some common pitfalls:

* This is no time for chit-chat. Get to the point. Employees who are about to be terminated often have an idea of what's going on. Attempting to ease into the purpose of the meeting will only work against you.

* Be specific about why the worker is being terminated. If performance is the issue, focus on the individual's on-the-job behavior. If the termination is strictly a business decision, say so, but be prepared to explain why the worker has been chosen over someone else.

* Make sure the person understands in no uncertain terms that the decision is irreversible. It's not uncommon for an employee to become emotional during the conference, so chances are he or she won't hear much of what you are saying. Be firm and direct without being abrasive or uncaring.

* Don't allow yourself to be drawn into an argument. You represent management and have been appointed to deliver a management decision--not to participate in a debate over whether the decision was sound. Once you become defensive, you have damaged your ability to communicate.

* Explain what level of support the employee can expect in terms of severance and outplacement assistance. Understand and be ready to explain your organization's policy on providing information to other organizations checking references of the individual.

* If the employee has questions that you are unable to answer, write them down and commit to getting answers within a specified time period.

* To help maintain an individual's self-esteem, briefly discuss his or her strengths and abilities as they might relate to future employment. Express the notion that "although this job is not right for you, you have the potential to succeed elsewhere."

* Keep yourself available in case the individual would like to talk again (either in person or over the phone), in order to obtain answers to additional questions or to discuss further concerns.

* Reactions from the terminated.

A worker who has just been terminated may react in many different ways. Ultimately, your goal should be to focus the employee on the future. Once a person asks, "What do I do now?" you can be fairly sure that your message has sunk in and that you are past the worst part of the meeting.

Below are the most common paths that an employee will take in getting to the acceptance stage and how those reactions can best be addressed:

Anger. If the individual flies off the handle, remain composed and allow the person to vent. Assure the person you are listening and wait to hear something you can respond to positively. Never succumb to the temptation to argue.

Calm. This reaction is tricky since you won't know whether the person has genuinely accepted the bad news, is not listening or is denying the news, or is covering up some other emotion, such as anger. All that you can do is to attempt to make sure that the person understands the situation and offer to schedule another meeting for further discussion.

Shock. If your message elicits a blank stare or stony silence, it's your job to throw out questions. The individual might not comprehend what you are saying. Ask the person to repeat what you've explained and prompt him or her to request typical information. Allow time to let the details sink in, even if it means permitting uncomfortable, lengthy pauses in the conversation.

Rationality. Moving swiftly through anger and pain, a rational person will advance quickly to the basic issues surrounding the termination. This reaction enables you to provide as much information as you can and to address the issues clearly and succinctly.

* Reactions from coworkers. Termination of a worker engenders various reactions from the remaining staff. When someone has been terminated for poor performance, the reaction may be one of relief, since an employee who has not been pulling his or her weight tends to place extra burden on fellow employees. When a popular or long-term employee is terminated, on the other hand, remaining employees may become angry and/or concerned about their own job security, so be ready to deal with suspicion and fear.

While the staff is entitled to some type of explanation, announcement of the reasons and details surrounding the decision should be kept to a minimum to preserve the terminated employee's dignity. A brief, sympathetic announcement to a group of employees with whom the terminated employee worked most closely is appropriate. In the case of a performance-related termination, employees should be told that while you are not at liberty to discuss details, the termination was discussed at several levels of management before the final decision was reached. Make it clear that the decision was not made in haste.

If a worker has been terminated due to mandatory downsizing and no further cutbacks are anticipated, coworkers will need some reassurance that their jobs are not in jeopardy. If, however, further cutbacks are anticipated, do not make any promises you cannot keep to remaining staff. Make yourself available to employees if they want to express concerns or ask questions one on one.

When faced with the ominous task of terminating one or more of your employees, use the guidelines above as a starting point. In the end, however, it is your professionalism, patience, and compassion that will help to make a bad situation as tolerable as possible--for employee and manager alike.

Wish is regional director, human resources, and Brown (a member of MLO's Editorial Advisory Board) is director of microbiology, health, and environmental affairs at Roche Biomedical Laboratories, Raritan, N.J.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Managing termination, part 1; tips for terminating employees
Author:Wish, Fred; Brown, James W.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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