by Bruce Clarke, J.D.
The truth is, most firings happen under difficult conditions. A manager dropped the ball or the employee behaved badly. How can a difficult firing be better?
The firing manager usually controls the “terms of the termination” and can make a difficult situation better. There is discretion on basic terms like time off payouts, future references, how an unemployment claim will be handled, and even a written release of legal claims. There is discretion on what others are told and what the employee record reflects. There is even discretion on the last day of work and whether the employee will stay to finish some projects. The facts vary widely.
A much more complicated and misunderstood category of discretion is how the employee is fired. Call it the “human treatment” option. It is much more powerful than you might think.
The key to “human treatment” is whether the employee views the termination process itself as fair, not whether the decision was correct. “Was my treatment on the way out the final insult in a long line of insults, or was it something quite different? Did it recognize my humanity, my need for dignity, my need to tell others why I was fired, and my need to leave this group of work friends without a sudden and public divorce?”
The most important way a manager can make the process fair is to tell the truth. “This is why we are firing you. This is how the decision was made. This is how we investigated the facts. Yes, we value the work you did for us on that, but the failures on this led to your discharge.” This is not the time to say everything that is true, nor the time to debate, but it can often be a time to establish the basic fairness of the decision process itself. It is also not the time to destroy the last shred of an employee’s dignity.
The most important way a fired employee can encourage “human treatment” is to be capable of handling his or her end of the bargain. Can you as an employee de-personalize this firing? Can you disagree or agree on a point without coming unglued? Can you show you are ready to move on if the exit makes that possible? Can you set out your ideas for internal communication and future references, or say goodbye to your team without making matters worse? Can you be trusted?
Research by a Duke professor and his team found that employees who perceived the process as fair were much less likely to make claims against employers, even if they disagreed with the discharge. Employees who saw the process itself as unfair became vindictive and made legal claims at a much higher rate. Giving no reason for firing is not perceived as fair! Fairness in the termination process itself may be a better predictor of future legal problems than whether the actual reasons for termination were valid or not.
You can make a difficult termination better or worse by how the exit is handled. Your choice!
Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 NC employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit www.capital.org.