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Terminating an Employee with Empathy

It can be very easy when terminating someone to get stuck in the practicalities of what you need to get done. How will it affect your remaining team? Do you need to rehire and what will happen to the workload in the interim? These questions and concerns, while valid tend to keep your focus inward and in doing so, make it easy to forget that termination is an often emotional, potentially painful situation for the individual involved.

“It’s very easy, and sometimes seductive, to ‘other’ the person and put everything on them – they didn’t work out, we did everything we could, they’re no good, so that’s why we’re getting rid of them,” says Tim Burgess, our co-founder and head of operations.  

“You can dehumanise them in that regard.”

While you’re treating the employee like a problem, they are wrought with uncertainty, confusion, potentially a crisis in identity or worth and at the very least, the stress of having to find new work. It is a lot for them to carry on their own.

“And generally doesn’t reflect the true reality of what happened. Both the employer and employee have contributed in some ways to this outcome. Few people become a failure overnight.”

“It’s important to think about the whole picture, for example we hired and trained this person so we can’t entirely absolve ourselves from all responsibility. We made the decision to hire so we can’t turn around and say, ‘you’re terrible and we didn’t do anything wrong,’ because clearly, we did at least one thing wrong,” Tim says.

“Considering the whole picture then makes the decision more about fit or circumstances. This environment might not be the best one for them, the way this role is set up might not be the best one for them. Maybe there are certain things that we need now that we didn’t realise at the start were quite so important. And when we’ve jointly tried to do those things, they haven’t worked out.”

This shift in mentality can drastically change how terminations take place. By embracing empathy and looking outwards you can make this process far easier on everyone involved, and maybe even help your former employee move on to a role that is a better fit for them.

“I think a good HR function is willing to put themselves into the situation and consider everyone involved. Then be empathetic and available to the person being fired,” he says.

“Most people are hurting in this situation whether they admit it or not. So I think any little kindnesses you can show are just really nice things to do.”

Throughout his career, Tim has had experience with a variety of types of terminations. Including conversations in person, terminations done remotely via video or phone. He has even had to go in to rectify terminations that have ended badly. Throughout this article, Tim shares some of the ways he incorporated empathy into this tricky, emotion-filled process. 

Be clear, forthright and remain calm

The termination process is never easy for anyone involved. However, how you lead the meeting can drastically impact how the news is received.

“It should never be a surprise to the person being fired. Even if someone does something egregious it should have been very clear to them that this behaviour was never going to be tolerated,” Tim says.

“When people know that if this happens, then that is going to be the result, it softens the blow.”

It’s also a good idea to get straight to the point. Don’t call a meeting and then spend the first half of the time asking after their family or going through the motions of small talk.

“That comes off a bit insincere it doesn’t really help them.”

By being forthcoming, you can make it clear that this is a decision, not a discussion or something that could change.

“You want to be firm about the decision and the reasons why. But also show that you’ve really thought about it and you’ve planned what will happen next,” Tim says.

“You should know what’s going to happen with their computer, what are they going to get paid out, how will it be announced, what’s going to happen with their work responsibilities – who’s going to take those over and when’s that going to happen. When do you want their final day to be? All that stuff should be pre-planned because it helps them understand that this isn’t a snap decision. It is really, definitely happening.”

However, this doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible or show kindness.

“I think there’s always room for flexibility – do you want to say goodbye to everyone? Do you want to send a goodbye email? Do you want to work your notice period? Those sorts of things I think it’s good to be flexible about and accommodating.”

Tim also recommends always having a written copy of everything you’re planning to say, in particular the terms and next steps, printed out to give to them or sent via email after the meeting.

“When you say to somebody, ‘ok you’re being terminated right now,’ it’s good to assume from that moment on they are in shock. There’s a good chance they’re not going to process anything that you say,” he says.

“They might sit there and say, ‘oh I’m fine, yeah this is good,’ but internally they are flooded with emotion and they’re not receiving or processing anything external.”

Allow people to respond 

“There are two aspects to hearing people out,” Tim says.

“Firstly it gives them closure. Then they’re not walking out the door with their box of stuff thinking, ‘I never got to explain my side of the story.’. Closure is important for them to be able to move on. And secondly you can understand what their motivation and concerns are. Even if you look at it from a risk mitigation point of view that’s helpful information to know. But it also helps you understand the ways you might be able to support them.”

But the thing is, when the person terminating an individual is their direct manager or someone they worked closely with, they may not feel comfortable talking things through.

“At that point of the discussion about what did and didn’t work if they are talking to their line manager often there’s a lot of emotion, there might be a bit of bad blood or broken promises or expectations because it hasn’t worked,” Tim says.

“So sometimes what I find is having a separation between the line manager and the individual helps.”

This is often the role our termination team takes on when terminating our client’s employees.

“We come in as a third party and we say ok well what’s happened and how do you feel about it? We’re not directly involved in any of that history, we can’t change it. We aren’t emotionally invested in what happened in the past. Which means we can hear it, recognise it and then put it to one side. And then try and focus them on the future,” Tim says.

Obviously, not everyone is using an employer of record like Shield. In those situations, a third party could simply be a manager who wasn’t directly supervising the employee or even a HR representative.

It may also be helpful to give some time and space for them to process before requiring a response.

“It might mean maybe they want to have a cry maybe they want to call someone maybe they want to go outside and take a walk — it’s good to give them time and space to do that. We don’t need to rush these conversations or the process.”

Find out their main concern

When you give people the opportunity to respond you’ll usually come to find what their main concern is moving forward.

“It might be financial concerns but it is just as likely to be about feeling respected, or getting their next job, or their reputation in the marketplace,” Tim says.

“Often there are little things that you can do around their concerns that makes a big difference. By listening for these things and acting on them you can show the person that even though this employment isn’t going to work out, that we still want to treat them with consideration and respect.”

For example, we had a client in who wanted to terminate their employee due to economic reasons. The employee’s major concern was around her reputation in the relatively small market in her field.

“It was very important for her how it was announced and if companies contacted her what was she going to say and was that going to be supported by what the company did,” Tim says.

She wanted to be assured that this wasn’t just something they were saying to soften the blow while planning to hire someone new in a few months.

“That’s not related to money and it wasn’t going to delay the process at all but by doing that we dealt with one of her big concerns. Which first of all makes life easier for her, secondly it reduces the risk that she’ll be annoyed and take some adverse action. And thirdly it gives her a bit of control back,” Tim says.

Another example was a termination in a country where it’s culturally very difficult to get another job when you’re unemployed.

“Instead of paying out all her notice and stopping her employment immediately, we kept her on our payroll during the notice period. So, she felt she could apply for other jobs and say, ‘I’m still working at this place, I’m still officially employed,’” Tim says.

“Little things like that help.”

Ultimately, it’s about them not about you

In the end, all of these strategies are designed to get you thinking about the individual. How will this news affect them specifically, and what can you do to make the process and smooth as possible?

The strategies are less important than the motivation behind them. If all else fails, simply try to put yourself in their shoes. Present the news with kindness, ask them what they need, and try your best to accommodate it.

– Bree Caggiati

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