Reducing the Risks of Difficult Terminations

April 14, 2014

Termination MeetingAfter the horrifying events last week in which an HR professional was stabbed during a termination, clients and associates have expressed concerns about the risks of terminations. I reassured them that situations like this are very rare.

Over the last ten years, I have been privy to thousands of corporate transitions and in my experience the majority of people conduct themselves professionally during termination meetings. They do and say all the right things, even if they are shocked and in turmoil.

However, there is a small percentage of employees who behave badly and leave a lasting impression that can never be reversed. While I have never experienced anything as horrific as what happened earlier in April in Toronto, I could not help but reflect  on one case in which I was not only a witness, but a victim.  

In this situation, after a male employee was given the news that he was being terminated, he proceeded to run from the room screaming that he wanted to meet with the CEO and was not going to leave the premises until he did. The employee then stormed back to his old office insisting his manager had made a mistake and it was her fault that he was being terminated.

On his way, he knocked down one of the human resources staff. A team of people tried unsuccessfully to coax this employee out of his office and out of the building. 

At one point, the distraught man allowed me into the office to speak with him and without warning he pushed the security guard out of the way and barricaded me in the office with him. I was never hurt, but the employee did engage in a physical altercation with the security guard and nearly four hours later he was taken away in handcuffs by police. I can only hope that he received counselling and has come to terms with the anguish he caused everyone including himself and his family that day. 

This was a very rare situation and one that has never been repeated with me or with any of my colleagues. However; when preparing for a termination, we should consider every possible scenario including the possibility that we might be dealing with people suffering with a mental illness.

Below are reminders of what managers can do to reduce the risk of confrontational behavior during the course of a routine termination.

Managers

  • If  the employee has any history of erratic or concerning behaviour, or if you have any reason to believe the employee may pose a threat to themselves or others either during or after the termination, call your company’s Employee Assistance Program to request that a trained counsellor be on-site during the termination meeting.
  • Keep the termination meeting brief. Your message should be compassionate but to the point.
  • Keep your own emotions in check ─ even if the person on the other side of the desk is a close colleague or friend. Expressing empathy is important, but this is not the time to be overly emotional.
  • Do not use the meeting to sort out differences or performance issues.
  • Be prepared: book a room in advance for privacy; ensure all documentation is correct; double-check the details – people always remember if you spelled their name incorrectly or did not put in the correct position or salary. Have an envelope available for the exiting employee to carry their termination letter in.
  • Do not dismiss the exiting employee’s emotions. I have seen managers show irritation when an employee becomes emotional. As a manager, it is your responsibility to treat the exiting employee with dignity and respect. 
  • If someone is crying, let them cry. Hand them a tissue and sit quietly.
  • Remember that how a termination is handled not only affects the perceptions of your brand in the mind of the person who is leaving, but also among those who remain.
  • Let the employee talk, but don’t feel you need to answer all of their concerns. Just listen empathetically.

Employees

  • No one remembers how you joined a company, but everyone remembers how you leave.
  • The exit meeting is not the place to ask “why” or demand the reason you are being terminated – you may never fully understand why you and not someone else.
  • Demanding to speak to someone else or an executive is not going to help your reputation during a termination. 
  • If you have been with the company for years and have an office full of pictures, memorabilia and personal items, do not try to pack and carry out everything that day. Make arrangements to come back at a later date.  
  • Look the person delivering the message in the eye, shake their hand, and thank them for the opportunity to work with the company. Do this regardless of the situation – I say this because you will need these people again, either for a reference or to be witness to your professionalism in that moment.
  • In no way is this the place to vent your anger, review past issues, throw furniture, scream, swear, or yell at the people in the room – be dignified.
  • Take your letter of termination home and read the details of your package there – do not insist on reviewing it during the termination meeting.
  • Do not ask to go back and say good-bye to your colleagues - there will be plenty of time to do this later.
  • Make no demands in that meeting – it is time to leave the building.

If you would like a list of “Best Practices” for terminations, please email me at: sboyd@knightsbridge.com.

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