Termination – the toughest decision employers face

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For Small Business Times

It’s been gnawing at you for some time. Business conditions remain soft, and you have a few employees who are simply not pulling their weight. Termination seems in order.
The most important consideration in a termination decision is to arrange it with minimum disruption to company operations and fellow employees. So you need a transition plan.
First, you should carefully select the day, the time and the place. For multiple terminations, it is usually recommended you do them on the same day on a one-on-one basis. Experts disagree on the best day (I personally prefer Friday). But it is generally agreed that the beginning of the workday is best, with the employee leaving the premises immediately thereafter.
Here’s a good way to ensure that you are on solid ground regarding termination specifics. Imagine that you are defending your actions before a jury. Here is a sampling of the kind of questions an attorney might ask:
1. Was the employee advised that his or her performance was unacceptable? Was this information documented?
2. Did the employee acknowledge the warning regarding unacceptable performance?
3. Did you give the employee a reasonable period of time to improve?
4. If the issue involved the need for training (on-the-job or otherwise), was this accomplished?
5. If other written performance evaluations have been done, do they point to problem areas with this employee?
6. Does information on the original employment application or other hiring data indicate that poor placement of this employee was the real problem? Is it clear this cannot be rectified?
7. Finally, are there any extenuating circumstances where a jury of the employee’s peers would conclude that you did not act in a discriminatory way?
Let me head to the sidelines for a moment and issue a plea to always consult a labor attorney if you suspect your termination process is going to be challenged. There are other issues to consider as well.
Should you, for example, have a witness present during the termination? Should the termination take place at another location, if you are at all concerned about security matters or the possibility that the employee would become violent? Should you allow the employee to return with supervision "after hours" to recover personal belongings or a paycheck for days worked since the last pay period?
The actual termination should be scripted by you, with notes if needed. Here is what our TEC resource speakers recommend:
1. Get right to the point. Tell the employee right up front that he or she is being immediately terminated.
2. Tell the person why he or she is being terminated, but be brief and to the point.
3. Politely, listen to what the employee has to say. Most employees know when trouble is brewing ahead, but the first response is most always denial and shock.
4. Do not debate an employee rebuttal to the reasons for the dismissal. Simply restate the reasons for the termination. You may have to do this several times.
5. Your body language is important. Sit squarely in front of the employee, preferably separated by a desk. Maintain direct eye contact and talk in a level, even-toned voice.
6. When your message has been communicated and the employee acknowledges the action that has been taken, end the meeting by rising and escorting the employee from the premises.
Either before or after escorting the employee from the building, hand him or her a written termination statement. I would suggest you have this reviewed and approved by your attorney, but it should, at minimum, answer the following questions the terminated employee might have:
1. How long will I continue to be paid? What about unused leave or sick days?
2. What will happen to my health insurance and other benefits, including 401(k)?
3. When trying to find a new job, what support can I expect such as access to an office, a phone, computer, outplacement assistance – and for how long?
4. What will be said if another company calls for a reference on me?
5. What will be said to my fellow employees?
The other advantage of the written termination statement is that it makes it clear to the employee that the termination action is not revocable. In addition, during the termination interview, after you have announced the termination, most employees hear little if anything afterward. The written statement compensates for this.
Sometimes, you may be able to get your hands on "hard" evidence to support a termination. For example, we once terminated an employee who had violated TEC’s Internet policy. We had documented evidence of the violation. When confronted with it, this employee accepted the termination without a peep.
Let’s face it. Letting an employee go, especially a marginal one, is not easy. It is the most difficult decision good managers make. But in TEC we have learned the longer it is put off, the more the company as a whole suffers. Strong employees, in particular, are dragged down by the unacceptable work of a poorly performing employee.
So, until next month, if you have a termination situation you should confront, I challenge you to get it done before you read next month’s column. Until then, in the most positive and constructive sense, "good terminating."

Harry S. Dennis III is the president of TEC (The Executive Committee) in Wisconsin and Michigan. TEC is a professional development group for CEOs, presidents and business owners. He can be reached at 262-821-3340.

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March 29, 2002 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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