A Guide to Saying Goodbye with Empathy: Employee Termination Tips
The responsibility of letting an employee go is one of the most challenging tasks any employer or HR leader can undertake. Not only is it difficult for the individual being terminated, but it can also be emotionally taxing for the person conducting the conversation. If the termination is handled poorly, it can also harm the organization’s reputation and invite distressing lawsuits. However, it's possible to navigate this uncomfortable process with kindness and empathy toward the individual and your organization.
Here are 10 tips on how to hold a termination conversation that is both professional and personable.
1. Clarify Consequences
Unless the behavior is bad enough to warrant instant termination, get expectations, consequences, and a timeline in writing to minimize surprise and perceptions of unfairness, not just for the employee but also those who might learn about how the situation was handled.
2. Consider Severance
If the issue persists, before you move forward with termination, the first decision to make is whether you will offer a severance package to provide the terminated employee with some financial support as they transition to a new job. If severance is not an option, consider other resources you may be able to offer to reduce the extent of the impact from a sudden job loss. For example: health insurance, résumé coaching, introductions, or LinkedIn endorsements.
3. Decide Who Will Lead the Discussion
The second decision to make before moving forward with the termination is who will lead the discussion. While it is often the HR representative, it could be a direct supervisor or manager, depending on your organization’s culture and practices. Include two people instead of just one, if possible. You will reduce pressure on yourself and have an additional individual who can speak to what happened in the meeting in case there are ever questions.
Remember to speak with legal counsel about who should be present and if there is anything in particular to do (or not do) depending on your specific situation.
4. Prepare a Script
To ensure the conversation goes smoothly, it helps to have a brief script or bullet points prepared. This script will serve as a guide to keep the discussion on track and ensure that all necessary points are covered.
5. Start Clearly
Begin the conversation with a clear and concise statement that leaves no room for misunderstanding. For example, "I'm sad to let you know that we've decided to let you go." This immediately sets the tone for the conversation and removes all possibilities of painful miscommunication.
6. Be Precise and Use Objective Language
Avoid vague language like "we're thinking about" or "we might." Instead, be clear about the decision. For example: "We have decided to terminate your employment."
Additionally, it's crucial to avoid charged or blaming language during the conversation. Keep your language as objective as possible. Stick to the facts and avoid personal opinions.
For example, instead of “you weren’t able to / refused to / chose not to / failed to do X,” say “you didn’t do X, which is a requirement of the role.”
7. Provide an Explanation
Offer a brief, objective explanation for the termination. Ideally, the dismissal will come as no surprise, following prior conversations about expectations and consequences. If you’ve already set clear standards, a simple explanation can be: “As you know, the required results for this role are X, and your results have been Y.”
If the situation requires immediate dismissal, refer to existing organizational policies or norms.
For example, "It's come to our attention that on a few occasions, you've shared confidential information with volunteers, employees, and customers. While we always want to hear feedback and welcome disagreement if you bring it to us directly, sharing complaints with others in this way causes harm to our company culture, our reputation with customers, and ultimately our ability to help animals."
8. Demonstrate Care
Throughout the conversation, show that you still care about the individual as a person. For example, "We still very much care about you and want the best for you. If we can support you in the future in any way, we want to be able to do that."
9. Wrap It Up
Make it clear when the conversation is finished, balancing clarity around next steps with a continued demonstration of respect and appreciation. For example, "Your last day is today. What you can expect is X. And again, we're sad about this situation, but we are grateful for the work you’ve done for animals and hope you know you've made a positive impact in their lives."
10. Handling Defensiveness and Threats
If the employee becomes defensive, respond with short and simple statements. For example, "I'm sorry you feel that way," or "I hear you, but unfortunately, we don't see another way to move forward."
If the employee threatens the organization in any way, maintain a calm demeanor and respond with a prepared phrase. For example, "I know you love animals, and our hope is that you won't do anything that could harm our ability to care for them." Work with your legal counsel to determine what statements are appropriate to make. Avoid getting defensive or apologizing for your decision.
Terminating an employee can be especially difficult in the animal advocacy space because you know the individual’s intention is to help animals and you will likely see them again given how small our community is. By following these 10 tips, you can make the process as smooth as possible while demonstrating that you genuinely care about the person being let go. In the end, parting ways (when done well) is usually in everyone’s best interest — giving your organization its best chance to reach its mission while the departing employee can look for a role where they can truly thrive.