Job terminations: Delivering the bad news transparently

As an HR manager or business owner, it is most wise to keep a close eye on retention rates, termination frequency and all the associated reasons

Terminations, whether voluntary or otherwise, are one of the toughest parts of being a manager. While some people or companies may choose to delegate this uncomfortable business to the HR manager, I feel it is always preferable for the team leader to communicate with and support the would-be terminated individual directly. Legal experts will probably advise against the level of transparency that I suggest in this article. Accepting the risks involved, on the rare occasions that I need to do this difficult thing, I prefer doing it my way.

A termination is a very personal and significant event

Your decision to discontinue an employment can send waves of chaos into the individual’s life, and the ensuing ripples may persist into the future. A job is a form of identity and while not everyone attaches themselves to it in the same way, work is a person’s primary contribution to society. However muddled with corporate language, being told you are fired is a shock that no amount of sugar coating can soften.

There are many good practices that will allow you to minimise the need for even having such a difficult conversation in the first place - it is very possible for a sufficiently good manager to avoid terminations altogether. However avoidable, there may come a point when you need to end someone’s employment - and such news could have devastating consequences on the person in front of you. In an effort to avoid having this difficult conversation, some entertain the terrible idea of making life for the individual miserable with the hope that they leave by their own volition. Such an approach is dehumanising to say the least.

Owning your decision

Sometimes the reason for termination is as clear as day; both the employee and employer know very well that things are not working out - the person may not have the skills to complete the job that is expected of them (despite clear expectations from the get-go), may have lost their interest to take the job seriously or even committed some inexcusable violation.

Other situations are less clear; and these are much harder to handle. You may very well need to break the bad news to an otherwise successful and accomplished person - for one reason or another they are simply not performing sufficiently within the role that they have been entrusted with. Maybe the worst termination of all is that involving a loved but non performing member of the team. If they do not agree with your perspective, they will have a harder time accepting the finality of the decision. If the team sees the intervention as extreme,you as a manager are in an even harder spot.

All terminations need to be handled sensitively and it is critical that this conversation is had in a clear and direct manner. It is disrespectful and insulting to make external forces such as ‘the market’, ‘the situation’, ‘the company’ or ‘the circumstances’ as the focus of your conversation. Your words should not take away your agency in the matter; ensure you keep your humanity at the forefront of this conversation and do not divert the responsibility of the decision from yourself onto others.

No matter how strong the role of external factors was in your decision making process, a good manager owns the decision. The ultimate decision should reside with the person delivering the news; and owning that decision is the most respectful thing you can do to the person in front of you.

Conveying a clear message

If you’ve been doing your job as a manager well enough, the facts of the situation should be well understood and readily available; fortunately there are many tools and techniques that you can use during the tenure of every employee to facilitate performance management, progression and clear communication. When that is the case, the severity of such a situation would not come as a surprise to either party. Before you start this conversation, make sure you are equipped with all the relevant information.

During the conversation, you must outline what is not working and why you believe that the situation cannot be changed for the better. Ultimately this needs to be a very crisp message.

In your efforts to be empathetic, it can transpire that the finality of your decision is lost in translation - some people might require more time to truly digest the significance of the conversation. Assuming the decision has to be made, you may need to repeat your message to ensure the other party is understanding the implications.

Everyone is human - we all need a sense of purpose and more importantly we all need to earn a living. Also remember that some people live paycheck to paycheck. Appreciating how overwhelming financial stress can be, whenever possible you should go above and beyond your legal obligations to provide the employee with as much financial assistance as possible. Giving the employee the time and opportunity to perform their job search can prove to be very helpful. While you may need them to vacate their desk as soon as possible, consider offering to sustain them with their monthly salary for a couple of months. Setting a deadline is important, but during that period do your utmost to help them find their next job.

Find effective ways to avoid this problem

The best way to reduce such difficult situations is to avoid the need for terminations in the first place. This can only be achieved through an improved hiring process, a detailed induction process and an intense focus on individual and team growth. The company also needs to have a sustainable hiring strategy and some level of foresight with financial planning - I’ve heard several local stories of mass layoffs followed by recruitment drives within a matter of a few months. Such bad planning has a significant negative impact on team morale and employer brand.

Ultimately, if you are having too many of these conversations, you may want to reconsider your managerial style and company culture.

As an HR manager or business owner, it is most wise to keep a close eye on retention rates, termination frequency and all the associated reasons.

At Expedition 42 we are committed to helping you improve organisational wellbeing, and with Talexio we are on a mission to provide the best HR tools to facilitate communication, enhance engagement and empower personal and professional growth.