How You Can Dismiss An Employee With Dignity

This isn’t about major work force reductions or about terminating an individual for cause; it is about having to end the employment of someone who, after years of service, is no longer appropriate to the organization.  It could be that the individual’s skills have become obsolete, that his/her quality of work has slipped and despite coaching has not improved or even that matters outside of work have permanently affected performance.

With years of service often comes a false sense of security and boundaries that have blurred, a perfect storm for a long term employee who is no longer appropriate to the enterprise.  Often, the burden to act in such circumstances falls on us as senior leadership, and if not, we have a responsibility to ensure that those it does fall on act with compassion and dignity even though the employee may have already developed a sense that nothing is forever.

No doubt we all start this process with good intentions by calculating the financial impact on the individual including the likes of severance, accrued vacation pay, Cobra benefits, eligibility for unemployment and more. Where decisions need to be made in these matters, we try to err on the side of compassion; it makes us feel better. But that doesn’t come close to the dignity that needs to be added to the package.

Consider these misfires of what not to do.  You likely have heard of others just as base.

The CEO founder of a midsize manufacturing company decided that he should be the bearer of bad news to an employee who had been with him almost since the beginning.  Though he’d never had to directly act in such exact circumstances before, he was confident he was well prepared. Once seated with the employee he choked.  He rambled on about the ‘good years’ and quickly ran out the clock, announcing that he had to leave for an offsite meeting and that the employee’s position was being eliminated. He passed over the benefit summary sheet, stood up, offered his handshake and left without another word, leaving a shocked and deeply hurt employee behind.

Another CEO in similar circumstances and with a similar plan delegated responsibility at the last minute and left for the day.  Imagine the heightened anxiety in both the employee and the person anointed as messenger. And a third CEO invited the targeted employee to meet him for lunch, delivering the message while they ate. Many of us deal well with conflict; most of us shy from hurtful communications.  My advice:

• Schedule the separation meeting early in the week and earlier in the day. After shocking news, an employee may want to leave but not go straight home until he/she is composed. If the message is delivered at the end of the day and the employee does not want to go directly home, his/her family could become concerned by the break in pattern.  And, you have a few days to manage damage control internally instead of acting on Friday afternoon and risking weekend rumors and Monday morning regrets.

•  Let the employee know he/she will be paid for the week regardless of the day especially if you have made the decision to be effective the day of the meeting.

•  If the employee is distressed to the point that he/she wants to leave following the meeting, set a time when he/she can return to gather personal items including after hours.

•  Have the meeting on site; never over a meal. Who has an appetite after receiving such news?

And most important, lead with the message, follow with the support. My approach is to immediately state the outcome, not to lead up to it, and then to take all the time necessary to explain the reasoning behind it as well as the details of support that will follow.

Lesson learned: If I must breach the comfort zone of someone no longer able to effectively contribute, I am committed to doing so with every ounce of compassion I have and the dignity I am able to provide. Give what you hope you would get!

Read more: Why CEOs Need To Pay It Forward

Fred Engelfried
Fred Engelfried is Director/Chair of North Coast Holdings, Inc. and its subsidiary Lewis Tree Service, Inc. He has been a member of the board of directors of Lewis for over 20 years, and for 10 years prior to that worked with the company intermittently in various consulting capacities. He also is President of Market Sense Inc., a participative management firm that has served more than 100 regional clients over 35 years.