Employee Termination: How to Graciously Let Go of Long-Term Employees
By: Roberta Chinsky Matuson
She’s been with you since the day you first opened your doors and has spent more time with you than your spouse. She knows every customer by name and can also tell you the names of their children. When you think of her, the word “irreplaceable” comes to mind. Then one day something happens. There is a shift in her attitude or she no longer is dependent. Her willingness to do whatever it takes is no longer there. You know what you have to do. You just hope and pray she’ll quit, before you have to fire her.
In many small businesses hiring practices, employees become like family (or they may actually be family, a hiring strategy that can lead to problems.) You put your trust into these individuals hoping they will remain with you forever. However, this is not always the case. There may come a time when you have to take action and let go of a long-term employee. Here are some tips to ease the pain of employee termination.
Take action early with employee performance. Hindsight is always twenty-twenty. It’s easy to look back and say that you should have terminated the relationship years ago. If you only learn one thing from this experience, let it be that it’s best to take action the first time you see signs this person is not the right fit for your business.
Sometimes the problem isn’t the employee -- it’s often stems from a lack of performance management.
Let’s take the example of Herb (not his real name) who recently had to let go of an employee who has been with him for ten years, because of the disruption she was causing in the office. While this might not seem newsworthy, consider that this employee had been creating havoc for years and in fact had quit six times! Herb would have had a lot less stress and a more successful business if had let this employee leave the first time she resigned. Or better yet, he could have transitioned her out of the business on his own terms, the moment it became clear she more trouble than she was worth.
Don’t let fear drive you to bankruptcy. The fear of being sued is deeply ingrained in the minds of small business owners and prevents many from taking action. You can decrease the likelihood of a lawsuit by treating people with respect in how you terminate an employee. This means being honest with a problem employee and working together to correct issues. But don’t let fear drive your business into bankruptcy. This conversation may very well be the beginning of the end.
Jot down some notes after your employee performance reviews to avoid having to rely on your memory should an additional conversation be necessary. And if your fears really do come true, your attorney will need this information to minimize any damages.
Prepare for the conversation. “Winging it” is simply a bad idea when it comes to firing an employee. Every word you say can be misinterpreted during this extremely stressful time. Speak with your attorney or an expert who can guide you through this ever-changing maze. Choose your words carefully. For example, telling a long-term employee you are firing him, while babbling about how he is the best thing that’s ever has happened to the business, can be confusing and hurtful.
Consider role-playing with a trusted advisor so that you are fully prepared to deliver the news. Keep the termination conversation brief, as this is not the time to counsel an individual on what they could have done to improve their performance. That ship has sailed already. Scout out a quiet place to ensure your conversation will not be interrupted.
Discuss next steps. Being fired is a lot like walking to the edge of a high diving board. You have some idea of what’s below you, but you really won’t know until you take the next step. Prepare a packet with all the information and forms the employee will need to make a smooth transition. In some states, this may include information regarding how to file for unemployment benefits and/or information regarding the extension of employee health benefits. Have their final paycheck available as well.
Allow them to resign. The worst part about being fired is the feeling that you have no control over the situation and the impact this will have on your ability to find meaningful employment again. Whenever possible, offer the long-term employee the option of resigning. It’s a cleaner break that will also allow the employee to recover more quickly.
Taking care of the survivors. Expect some people in the organization to be shaken when word gets out that your long-term employee is no longer employed by you. During this time, you will need to refocus your energy on the survivors and how to motivate employees. Prepare to discuss how work will be reassigned and what you will be doing to support them through this transition.
Terminating an employee, particularly a long-term employee, is one of the most difficult moments for most small business owners. But if you deal with the situation promptly and in a respectful way, the remaining employees, who trust that you will always do what needs to be done to keep the business running, will remain faithful.
© 2011 Human Resource Solutions. All rights reserved.
Roberta Chinsky Matuson is the President of Human Resource Solutions and author of the highly acclaimed book Suddenly in Charge: Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around. Sign up to receive a complimentary subscription to Roberta's monthly newsletter, HR Matters.