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6 Things You Should Know About Employee Termination

Posted by Eric Friedman

As HR professionals, we deal with many aspects of how an organization and its employees’ function, the least pleasant of which is employee termination.

Employment termination is a sensitive matter, and HR plays a big role in ensuring that fired employees are treated with respect and dignity. HR is like the ferryman, guiding the terminated employee through a transition. In many cases, the employee’s direct manager will handle the actual firing, since he or she can better explain the reasons behind the termination. HR should always be there, however, to help oversee and guide the conversation, making sure the manager stays on script and the employee has all the information he or she needs.

In other cases, HR must handle the termination directly. If the employment termination is due to misconduct, harassment or another more sensitive reason, it is probably best for HR to deal with the employee who will be fired. Another reason to involve HR first is if the employee’s manager is somehow involved in the reason for the termination. In these cases, the manager’s involvement could present a conflict of interest.

Since HR should always be involved in employee terminations, here are 6 things every HR professional should know:

  1. Know the law. Every state in the country (except Montana) is an “at-will” state, which means employers have the right to fire an employee for any reason, without good cause. This language is usually included in employees’ contracts, so they are aware of their and the company’s rights.

Although most companies are operating under at-will laws, they also operate under federal, state and local laws that prevent employers from firing employees based on certain factors. These include race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, pregnancy, disability, national origin, and sexual orientation.

Knowing the laws that protect employees from discrimination and undue termination is a crucial first step before beginning the process to fire an employee who is a member of a protected class. Failure to do so can lead to wrongful termination lawsuits brought against your company.

  1. Keep documentation. The best way to avoid a messy termination or a potential lawsuit is to keep a well-documented paper trail. Performance reviews, attendance sheets, and disciplinary action forms are a few examples of the type of documentation that can help support a termination.

Presumably, you’re firing the employee due to poor performance, a failure to meet goals, or even misconduct. Having documentation that proves the reason not only helps when it comes to any legal inquiries, but it also provides an unarguable case for termination.

  1. Issue a warning. Never blindside employees with a termination notice. This will make getting fired that much worse for them. Instead, you should issue a warning, when appropriate. In some cases, the employee will correct his or her behavior and the employment termination can be prevented altogether.

Conduct routine performance reviews and discuss any performance issues with employees, giving them the chance to improve. If they don’t improve and must, therefore, be fired, you now have a record that their performance was an issue.

  1. Establish a protocol. Preparing to terminate an employee requires more prep work than you probably think, and you should consider many things before actually calling an employee into a meeting to fire him or her. Here are a few pointers to keep in mind:
  • Have a witness present at every firing. Most likely it will be you, on behalf of HR, who will act as the witness while the employee’s manager does the actual firing.
  • Make sure you collect all company property from the employee before he or she leaves the building. This includes office keys, ID badges, smartphone, laptop, and any other company-owned equipment.
  • Accompany the employee back to his workspace, if necessary, to collect his or her things. Alternatively, you can offer to have them shipped to his or her house directly.
  • Try to prevent the employee from interacting with coworkers. You never know what he or she will say that might upset others. Schedule an all-staff meeting at the same time so everyone is away in a conference room, or encourage them all to take an office lunch outside.
  • Block access the company’s intranet, email, and other electronic systems immediately after (or slightly before) the termination That way, a disgruntled employee who has been terminated won’t be able to send an angry email to everyone or sabotage your cloud-based systems.
  1. Walk through the paperwork. A big part of being present at the moment of termination is to offer information and walk the employee through transition paperwork. Items to discuss include the employee’s final paycheck. Some employers prefer to have the final paycheck ready for the employee to take at the termination meeting, and others will offer to mail or direct deposit the check.

Other items to cover are an employee’s right to stay on the company’s health insurance under COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget and Reconciliation Act). HR must let the employee know that he or she and any dependents will continue to qualify for coverage, usually for a period of 30 days from termination.

HR also plays a role in explaining a severance package, if one is being offered to the terminated employee. You should clearly explain what the severance package contains (such as how many months the employee will receive a paid salary, etc.) and how accepting a severance package means they agree not to sue the company. Severance agreements and release of claims offer employers peace of mind at a price, in case there’s a chance the employee might bring forth a wrongful termination lawsuit.

  1. Counsel Managers. Probably the least talked about role of HR in terminating employment is that of counseling the managers who do the actual firing. In many cases, a manager may have never fired anyone before. They may have questions and certainly need guidance about the process.

The better prepared the manager who does the firing is, the better the process is likely to go. Take time to do trainings with all the company managers to prepare them for the eventuality of having to fire someone.

Terminating an employee is never easy. It’s a process that requires careful attention and a certain level of finesse. Is there anything else every HR professional should know about employee termination?

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About Eric Friedman

Author

Eric Friedman is the founder and CEO of eSkill Corporation, a leading provider of Web-based skills testing for pre-employment and training. With academic degrees in Psychology and Business, and experience with both mature and expansion-stage company growth, Eric has focused on how best to hire and motivate team members to be the best they can be for their companies.

3 COMMENTS Join the discussion
  • Maria February, 21, 2017

    It’s a lot easier to set the stage before terminating a contract with an employee if you have a job description that lists the tasks they need to accomplish. Once you notice they are not performing accordingly, you can easily explain the reasons for termination without any emotions involved.

  • Stephan J. February, 21, 2017

    Thank you for your article. It is indeed a sensitive situation to manage for us, HR managers. However, as long as we follow these simple rules that you suggest in your article, I believe it can make a big difference and ease the situation.

  • Clara S February, 21, 2017

    These days it’s much harder to get rid of a problem employee. Workers are more aware of their rights under the law, so we must pay attention to this process, and don’t offer any reasons for the employee to look for an attorney.

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