Although most separations go smoothly, any termination can go wrong.
In the wake of the recent shootings and violence after terminations, it's
wise to review your corporate outplacement practices to make sure they're
For many people, work is life; so losing a job is traumatic, even if
the person affected expects the loss and sees it coming. Treat each situation
as a lethal time bomb.
The moment of separation is often a crisis. If it's handled well, everything
thereafter goes smoothly, but if it's handled poorly, anything can happen.
Dick Sullivan, an oilfield executive with a 22 year tenure, was fired
one Friday afternoon by a total stranger. He was told bluntly to "pack
up and get out," and he flew into a rage that lasted months. Dick's
ex-employer is lucky he didn't start shooting.
Ellen Sampson, age 62, was a loyal, trusted employee of a bank holding
company. She had worked there more than 20 years, when she was called to
the coffee shop at a Holiday Inn and fired by three people at once: the
human resources, branch, and regional sales managers. They told her to
go home and not to go back to the office. She felt humiliated and victimized,
and she suedbut she could just as easily have become violent.
Therefore, proceed with caution. The key to an uneventful termination
is planning. Whether laying off one person or a hundred, don't leave anything
to chance. Large layoffs tend to be more unwieldy, therefore more dangerous.
They require extra planning. Here are 25 ways to fine tune your outplacement
Don't try to ruin someone's career no matter how angry you are or how
poorly he or she performed. Everyone is valuable somewhere. Try to find
something positive to say, then say it. Don't lie or mislead, but give
a balanced opinion.
Employment is a two-way street, and when an employee fails, the company
is usually partly responsible. Either they recruited the wrong person,
or they didn't train or manage them well. Managers should repeatedly ask
themselves, "Have I done all I can to help this employee grow and
change? Am I at fault here? Have I caused this person to be ineffective?
If so, what can I do differently?"
- Use honest performance measurements at all levels of your company,
from entry-level workers to the CEO. Appraisals don't always have to be
written, but they must be honest and direct. Everyone deserves to know
how they're doingsenior executives. Firings at high levels tend to be
especially brutal, so make sure even high-level managers are measured.
Explain, document, and discuss poor performance; and give everyone
a legitimate chance to improve. Initiate training to strengthen problem
The worst termination mistake is surprise. If someone is failing,
confront them. If their job is on the line, tell them so. Don't allow managers
to give good ratings to poor performers, and document and discuss poor
performance as it arisesdon't wait for annual reviews. Warn problem employees
that their work is unsatisfactory, and tell them what needs to be done
and by when. If someone's job is in jeopardy, tell them they could be terminated.
Don't lay people off unexpectedly when they've had good performance
appraisals, or when they haven't had any warning. Doing so hits hard and
creates anger. And a glowing appraisal followed shortly by termination
for poor performance doesn't make sense to anybody. According to Paul Shaddock,
Sr. VP Human Resources, United Technologies Microelectronics Center: "Everyone
who walks out today has 'the legal gun,' and lawyers are waiting to put
bullets in it." What's worse, employees are assumed to be right, and
employers are guilty until they prove themselves innocent.
When possible, choose retraining or internal placement over outplacementit's
often cheaper than orienting a new hire, and it builds company morale.
- Bring an experienced outplacement consultant into any termination
process as soon as practical. Two to three weeks' advance notice is helpful,
but one week's notice is standard. Consultants take emergency calls and
can often respond the same day; but that isn't good planning.
- Usually there is some element of unfairness about a termination.
It comes at the wrong time: six months before vesting in the company pension
plan, during a divorce, or when a friend or family member is sick or dying.
There's seldom a right time to be let go.
So be aware of ERISA and the new Family Leave Act, and carefully review
the candidate's personal background. Do you know of any major illnesses
in the family? How about serious financial problems? Is the person over
40? Will they be hard to place in another job? If you uncover extreme personal
hardship, take that into consideration.
- Use preventive law. If the person is in a protected class (because
of age, gender, race, or disability), it's money well
spent to get a legal opinion in advance.
- Pre-plan the termination meeting. Ask yourself: Who will conduct
the interview? Who should witness the meeting? How will remaining staff
be told? What about personal possessions? Who in the company will react
emotionally? Who will carry the extra workload?
- Provide the best outplacement counseling program you can afford,
especially in difficult cases. Some programs are so short they're outplacement
in name only.
- Don't wait for days, weeks, or even months to begin outplacement.
The first few hours after a termination are critical.
- Don't give candidates the consultant's business card with the instructions,
"Call if you need help." Candidates don't know what outplacement
is. They're often confused, shocked, and embarrassed. They don't know what
is in their best interest. They may be afraid to call. If given this choice,
ex-employees generally won't use outplacement, and until they're re-employed,
they remain a concern to your company. Have the consultant on-site at the
time of termination.
- Provide managers with a written script that tells them exactly what
to say and what to avoid. Role play the separation beforehand.
- Keep the actual termination meeting brief, say ten or fifteen minutes.
There's no good way to say, "Your job is ending," and usually
the less said or written, the better.
- Allow departing employees to save face and maintain self esteem.
Don't attack them or put them down. Explain the decision, but acknowledge
their strengths and contributions.
- Collect keys or other access devices to prevent unauthorized access,
copying or "lost" security cards.
- Be generous with severance pay. Rule of thumb: one month of pay
for the first year of service, and either one or two weeks of pay per year
of service thereafter. Keep severance consistent companywide.
- Continue medical benefits and Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)
- Explain the severance package in writing. Nothing makes a departing
employee more angry than guessing about money and benefits.
- Don't escort anyone from the building with armed guards or make
them pack their belongings in front of colleagues. Except in high-security
areas, let ex-employees leave the building on their own and return after
hours under supervision to retrieve their personal effects.
- In the weeks that follow the separation, answer follow-up questions
promptly and thoroughly. Don't keep people hanging.
- Listen for fallout. If you hear, "I'm going to get even,"
"You'll be sorry for this," or similar comments, take them seriously.
If you see disturbed behavior, consult a clinical psychologist immediately.
- Resist the urge to return threats. Instead, offer support: "That
sounded like a threat, Jim, you must be really angry. I'd like to hear
more about it." Disarm anger by listening and showing empathy.
- Last of all, don't kill job offers with bad references.
These basic humanistic steps can greatly reduce the risk of termination
violence. Take the threat of violence seriously, even if you're an experienced
pro. Plan carefully so nothing is left to chance. Treat people fairly,
and most of the time they'll react accordingly. If and when they do get
angry or upset, you'll be well prepared.
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