Delivering Difficult News: The Art of Respectful Terminations

Employee Conversation

There comes a time in every leader's career when they must let an employee go. Whatever the reason, planning for a termination meeting can cause anxiety and loss of sleep for even the most experienced leaders. What should you say, or not say? How will the employee receiving the news react? How will you handle the transition of the employee’s responsibilities? What security precautions do you need to take? What are the legal and business implications of the decision? 

While the answers to these questions are important, it is essential that you avoid falling victim to the “process trap”. Whether your organization has a clearly defined process for exiting employees or not, it’s crucial that you are not ticking boxes and filling forms simply to “get it done” and put this uncomfortable event behind you.

The words “employment termination” conjure images of dejected employees, their box of belongings in hand, exiting the building. Your working relationships don’t need to end this way. Once the decision is made and you face the unenviable task of delivering the difficult news, the impact on the employee about to lose their job must become your focus. 

If up until now the employee in question has acted in a professional and appropriate way, do you really need to have security escort them from the building? Is it essential that they immediately clean out their desk or are there other options? Organizations have developed processes and procedures for worst-case scenarios but applying this approach blindly to every situation can create unnecessary ill will, both with the exiting employee and their colleagues who witness how their teammate was treated. Offering a dignified departure boils down to providing a healthy measure of respect. Allowing exiting employees to have options and some level of control over how they leave the organization shows you respect them as a colleague and as a fellow human being.

There is no way to know how an employee will react to the news, which is why you want to give careful consideration to how, when, and where you will deliver it. The more preparation you put into the message, the more you can minimize any potential liability while ensuring a more dignified exit for your colleague. Simple oversights like forgetting to have tissue available sends the message that you haven’t taken the time to thoughtfully consider the impact of your words.

Consider the following strategies to help you master the art of respectful terminations and dignified departures:

Consider the timing: Most employers realize Friday’s aren’t ideal, as they limit opportunities to connect with support services in the following hours, but consider thinking about timing in a more detailed way. Choose a day earlier in the week, preferably in the morning so that an employee has not put in a full or partial day of work before receiving the news. Consider the impact for employees of scheduling such a meeting on or around their birthday, anniversary, a staff celebration or even the achievement of a key objective. In other words, take every possible aspect of the employee’s work and life into account when setting the meeting and plan accordingly.   

Choose an appropriate meeting space: It’s important to choose a setting where the power dynamics are balanced, such as a quiet meeting room instead of your office. The space you select should not only convey professionalism but also offer the employee a degree of privacy appropriate for such a sensitive meeting. It is possible to opt for an offsite location, but that may create suspicion or anxiety for the employee. Whatever your choice, you will want to provide tissue and water for the employees’ comfort and give them time to compose themselves before leaving the room. 

Delivering the message: This may be the most crucial step in preparing for a termination meeting because what you say to an employee – and how you say it – has the potential to escalate or deflate the tension involved in delivering the news. You may feel qualified to draft key messaging on your own, but bringing in an outside consultant with experience in terminations will help you frame and deliver it in an appropriate and compassionate way. You will also want a lawyer to review the termination letter you craft to further limit potential liability.

In over 90 percent of terminations, employees are not let go for cause, meaning the termination is not due to a serious act of misconduct (e.g., theft, insubordination). The employee may ask for a reason why, but it is best to keep the rationale short and simple, reinforcing that there is no longer a role for him or her with your organization. You should also be prepared to address a range of practical questions on everything from the opportunity to say goodbye to coworkers, to whether they can collect their things and leave unescorted. In this case, it is ideal to coordinate and plan with IT, payroll and, on rare occasion, security for how things will proceed, but confidentiality is key in making this decision. Also, you should have just one witness present during the termination meeting. More than one may shift the power balance and could be interpreted as threatening by the employee. 

Putting the departing employee’s needs first may seem counterintuitive to some but there are notable impacts of providing support to employees in transition. It helps the employee land in a new position at another company sooner while protecting your brand reputation both among remaining employees and future candidates.

If the individual has been out of the job market for several years, they’ll need assistance in developing a job search strategy, updating the resume or using online tools to identify opportunities and promote themselves to potential employers. By giving terminated employees access to such transition resources, you help them quickly land on their feet and mitigate the risk to your reputation.  

Reassuring your team:  Dismissed employees are not the only ones impacted by a termination decision.  Coworkers and team members will have questions about their roles and responsibilities going forward.  Be prepared to address their concerns immediately following any termination. Over the weeks that follow, remain visible to employees, offer reassurances about their job security and confirm how you have supported their former colleague as he or she works to achieve new career goals beyond your organization.

Ultimately, letting an employee go isn’t easy, nor should it be. But it is sometimes necessary. By putting yourself in the employee’s shoes and considering how they would want to be treated, you can help them maintain a degree of dignity in any departure. If your process for terminations does not allow you to do this, it’s time to revisit the process.