by Shayne Thomas
30 Sep 2020
It’s Never Easy to Break Up
4 things to keep in mind to ensure a smooth employee exit every time
“Even when the business justification is clear, you’re sitting down and telling someone that they’re no longer getting a paycheck and that when they wake up in the morning, they have no place to go. That’s tough.”
– Rebecca Knight in the Harvard Business Review
No one likes conflict or confrontation, much less in the workplace. But being that we are all living, breathing human beings—each with our own beliefs, attitudes, values, and life circumstances—there’s really no way to avoid uncomfortable situations from time to time.
That being said, certain situations don’t need to be made even more uncomfortable than necessary. Case in point, the thing most employers dread: firing an employee.
There are many reasons why managers might be faced with the agonizing challenge of having the tough conversation. It might be because economic headwinds have given companies no choice but to conduct rounds of lay-offs. It might also be linked directly to an employee’s continued sub-par performance, especially after having been put on a development plan.
Whatever the reason may be—and even if it is completely justified by all objective measures—there’s nothing easy about letting an employee go.
Being let go is the professional equivalent of a breakup. Sometimes it catches you off guard. Other times it’s a matter of waiting for the other shoe to drop. But when it happens, it can feel utterly demoralizing. After all, no one likes picturing themselves floating alone on a life raft in open seas. Much less during times like these when the world is in such a precarious place.
Unfortunately, given the current economic climate, businesses have had to make some pretty tough decisions, many of which require a reduction in workforce. Even so, and as hard as these conversations may be, letting an employee go should be done with a certain amount of grace and professionalism. But this, too, requires a little bit of practice because, as mentioned above, no one likes uncomfortable situations that can quickly lead to confrontation or conflict.
4 tips for managing an employee exit gracefully
As a manager, if you’ve recently been put in the position of having to let employees go, you know just how hard this can be—which is even more soul-wrenching when you’ve got a really strong bond and relationship with the members on your team.
As hard as this process may be, there are a few things you can put into practice now to ensure that every conversation goes as smoothly as possible:
1. Avoid surprises
Everyone knows that the world is experiencing a flurry of economic worries right now. As a business, it’s critical that you keep ongoing and transparent communications with your employees to let them know what the future may look like. While it’s never easy to say that lay-offs may be required to keep the company afloat, being upfront about the reality of the situation early on is a lot better than leading employees on to believe that everything is fine and dandy. That is, until it’s not.
The same is true when it comes to dealing with an underperforming employee. If you haven’t communicated expectations clearly, put an employee on a performance plan, and regularly conducted feedback check-ins to monitor growth against performance goals and objectives, a surprise termination can certainly feel as though it came out of left field. Even worse, the lack of a manager’s attention and feedback could have actually been the reason why said employee became disengaged in the first place.
As a manager, it’s your responsibility to nip a lot of things in the bud—and that can certainly feel daunting. The truth is, staying on top of performance management can be just as challenging for some as conducting tough termination conversations. That being said, whenever employee performance gets cast in the spotlight, it’s important to go through all the necessary motions before making the decision to let someone go. Sometimes by simply engaging employees in conversations about performance and supporting them in their growth and development, you have the power to turn once underperforming employees into high achievers.
(Trust us, we’ve seen this happen many times before—so don’t give up on a potentially stellar employee until you’ve tried everything first!)
2. Communicate change quickly
Once rumors about lay-offs and other major organizational changes start flying around, it’s all downhill from there. It can sap employee productivity quickly and make even once very engaged employees go into “wait and see” mode.
At some point, you’ve got to just rip off the bandaid—and it’s always preferable to do it sooner rather than later. While you’re at it, avoid what many believe to be a “calming” tactic by telling employees that “everything’s fine” (when it isn’t) and then pulling the rug out from under them. Not only does that make an already tense situation worse, but for those still with jobs, it can quickly deteriorate any sort of trust, respect, and credibility they once had for business leaders.
Making tough decisions and communicating massive change isn’t easy. But it’s just as hard being on the receiving end of those messages, too. Your employees deserve transparency and truth. The sooner you communicate changes, the faster they can figure out next steps. In uncertain times like these, we’re all living in survival mode. Your employees are no exception to this rule.
3. Document everything
We are not big believers in CYA tactics, but as a business, you need to have processes in place to protect yourself from potential fallout from a disgruntled employee. This is especially the case if you’ve had no choice but to let go a high-performing but ever so toxic employee.
Documentation is your key to overcoming this. If an employee has had performance issues or has created a toxic environment at the workplace, everything must be documented in writing and agreed upon by the manager, the employee, and in some cases, the HR business partner. This ensures that any feedback provided to employees, all in an effort to help them be more successful and productive in the workplace, does not live in a silo that could come back to bite you later on, when you least expect it.
It’s also important to remember that documenting performance or behavioral issues should be done as objectively as possible. While it’s entirely possible for emotions and other frustrations to be at play in any challenging employee situation, letting that guide the feedback provided will just muddy the waters. At the end of the day, it’s your responsibility, as either managers or HR leaders, to help employees be the best they can be. To do that, you must provide clear, constructive, and objective feedback that they can act upon in a meaningful way.
And while we always recommend ongoing and informal feedback conversations to keep the manager-employee relationship as strong as possible, there are inevitably certain cases where more formal documentation is necessary. As a rule of thumb: when in doubt, jot it down.
4. Be empathetic
If you’ve ever been let go, you probably remember being read a script and then given a chance to respond with open feedback—while the person on the other side of the table or the phone just had to sit there and listen without responding. This has become a standard practice for termination conversations because it helps keep the process as cut and dry as possible, from a legal standpoint, while also mitigating the potential for angered employees to find loopholes.
But this doesn’t mean you suddenly turn into a robot and, after the conversation is over, you simply say, “Pack up your bags and go.” This is your opportunity to lead with empathy and to show you care. Some people will embrace the news with open arms and immediately start figuring out their next steps. Other people will fall into a downward spiral and may begin crying on the spot. The truth is, all emotions are warranted here.
Although you, as the person giving the bad news, needs to stay as emotion-free as possible throughout this process—in other words, you need to be the “strong one” in the room—just because you are letting someone go doesn’t mean that all of the history you’ve had with that person until this point suddenly vanishes. In most cases, there is a real human connection between managers and employees. Some are positive while others are less so. And that relationship will oftentimes play a big role in how employees respond to less than stellar news.
Either way, as a manager, this is your time to show your more human side and to treat the employee being let go with dignity and respect. After all, if you were in that same person’s shoes, wouldn’t you want your manager to do the same for you?
Breaking up is hard to do
One of the hardest things for any manager or HR leader to do is to let an employee go. Whether it’s the result of unavoidable economic challenges or more specific performance issues, telling employees they no longer have a job can be absolutely heart-wrenching for everyone involved. But this is something that businesses have to do every single day. So why not make these tough conversations as productive as they can possibly be? By following the tips above, you can turn even the most challenging moments into a (mostly) positive experience for all.
A great way to start is by implementing a solid performance management system, like Cornerstone Performance, that can help you stay connected to employees throughout their entire experience at your company—from onboarding to the exit interview. The team of HR experts at Cornerstone is ready to help. Schedule a demo today to learn more.