Firing with Dignity

Gregorio Billikopf Encina
University of California

The first time he fired someone, one manager explained, it took him two hours and the process was excruciatingly painful for both himself and the affected employee. Over time, he got "so good" at firing employees that somewhere between the time they entered his office and walked across to take a chair, they were fired. "We brought you in to discuss some difficult matters. We know you are not happy here, that you are not happy with your performance ... We are not happy with it either, and feel you can do better elsewhere. So today we are going to part company and we are going to wish you good luck. Here is a severance check and a letter of recommendation we want you to have, along with what we owe you. We want you to take the rest of the day off on us, and here are twenty bucks so you can treat yourself to a nice lunch." What goes around comes around, and this same manager reports that when it was his time to be fired he found "the box" on his desk. Everyone knew the dreaded box was given to dismissed employees to fill it with their personal belongings. This manager did not have the courtesy of facing his supervisor, he received a phone call seconds after entering his office: "See that box on your desk? Get your belongings, report to payroll ... We’ll give you a ride home." [F1] And if you think that was tasteless, it seems someone can always top your story. I recently read about a host of people being dismissed, well ..., via E-mail!

The words firing and dignity hardly belong together. Nevertheless, there are a few principles we can keep in mind that will help preserve a certain amount of dignity to that employee we are ready to let go.

Employee termination has been referred to as workplace death penalty. Perhaps a better analogy is that of workplace divorce. Like in divorce, the parties involved can choose to be combative or cordial. While it is a mistake to take any analogy too far, there are other aspects of marriage that merit comparison: both parties share some responsibility for having chosen each other, and for making the relationship grow and succeed afterward.

Persons who suffer job loss may go through some predictable emotional stages that may include lowered self-esteem, despair, shame, anger, and feelings of rejection. The greater the positive feelings the employee held towards the supervisor, farm enterprise or job itself; and the longer the period of employment within the operation, the more poignant these feelings may be felt now.

Let us narrow down this termination situation to one where no single act (e.g., the employee has been caught hitting a cow with a pipe, or has been consistently late) has been the cause for dismissal, nor is this a layoff case. Rather, over time it has become clear through a multitude of events that the employee is not a match for the job. While these other situations can borrow some of the suggestions offered here, there are some important differences.

Before stepping forward to discuss the details of the termination interview, we need to assume that the decision has already been made with much care; that it will not be a surprise to the worker (it is critical that the employee have previously received an explicit written notice that his or her termination is being considered); that appropriate and well documented disciplinary, counseling and coaching measures have already taken place; and that you are working with the help of a qualified labor attorney (there are a host of legal questions to be answered at every step).

Despite all efforts, then, it has become clear that the employee ought to be terminated. So, how and when does one best face the employee to deliver the bad news? A few decisions need to be made before actually meeting with the employee. This is one of those situations where there is no substitute for total preparation.

Pre-meeting decisions and preparation

Privacy. A major concern of people who are terminated, is the fear of what will be said about them behind their back. It is a good policy to reassure workers that except for the management team involved in the termination, or others on a need-to-know basis, that the issue will not be discussed with employees.

Management must encourage personnel who have questions to speak directly with the employee. It is sometimes hard to resist the temptation of broadcasting management’s side of the story. Employees who remain with the firm will reason that the confidentiality and dignity afforded to a co-worker is but a reflection of how they themselves may be treated in the future. The principle that "your good name is safe in my lips" needs to be followed.

Furthermore, many employers agree to only discuss data such as length of employment, pay level, and job title with potential employers. The terminated worker can likewise be asked not to discuss the issue with others in the community or workplace, but reassured that it is his or her decision to make.

Timing. Once the decision to terminate has been made, it is best to proceed fairly quickly. Some employers try and justify putting the termination off to after the busy season when it will be more convenient. Yet, the longer the employee is allowed to stay on the job, the greater the implication that performance challenges have been overcome. Further, the poor performer is likely to be distracted and cause a costly mistake or serious workplace injury. Serious legal issues may surface when a worker is fired shortly after filing a Workers’ Compensation claim.

Although timing is not always within the prerogative of management, conventional wisdom suggests that employees should be fired early in the week and early in the day, and that the worst time to terminate an employee is the day before a week-end or holiday. When these principles are violated the worker can only sit and stew and often cannot do anything proactive in terms of checking for possible unemployment benefits or looking for another job.

Termination early in the day has the additional advantage that all the parties involved are fresher and less stressed, and thus can better deal with the emotional issues and challenging interpersonal communication. [F2] The right moment in time is also important, in terms of worker privacy. In an informal survey, I found most workers prefer to be fired so they can collect their belongings from their worksite in private, without having to face their co-workers. This is generally easier to do with personnel who work in the field than in the office.

There is a minority of personnel that would rather have the opportunity to say good-bye to co-workers. At the time of dismissal, depending on the situation, employees can be encouraged to call or even arrange to visit (within reason) the worksite at a later date, if they wish. While few employees will take advantage of this offer, this policy can help alleviate feelings of rejection and loss to terminated employees. Although there are circumstances where former employees would not be welcome (e.g., those terminated for sexual harassment, workplace threats, theft), for most employees there is no need to create further artificial barriers by labeling them as persona non grata.

Escorting the employee. When it is time for the employee to turn in ranch property, some employers escort the worker to his or her workplace. When there are sensitive matters involved, or where the possibility of sabotage exists, such a policy not only protects the enterprise but also the employee. It is human nature to blame others, especially the terminated employee, of having caused anything that goes wrong around the period of their termination. Of course, this needs to be explained to the employee.

Pay and Papers. Pay, including any benefits and unused vacation, needs to be delivered on the spot. This is good business practice, and frequently the law. If there are any papers that need to be signed related to any continuing benefits or other like matters, these should be made available right away. Any unfinished paperwork can be taken care of by mail rather than inconveniencing the employee by requiring his or her presence at the job site.

Letters of recommendation. While there is a temptation to provide letters of recommendation to terminated employees, these could be used against the employer at a later date if they contradict the reasons for termination.

Who should terminate the employee? Terminating an employee is stressful at best and takes a good deal of effective interpersonal skills. There is a temptation to delegate this task to someone else other than the direct supervisor. The ideal, however, is that the employee’s supervisor be responsible for telling the employee. Having a second member of management present can serve several important purposes: (1) there is an implication of unity in the decision, (2) the second person can act as a witness, (3) in some cases a second person may possess interpersonal skills that may help in the situation, and (4) having two persons may reduce the likelihood of a violent outbreak.

After the main termination meeting is over, paperwork issues can be delegated if there are questions that can be best answered by someone else. Management may wish to offer counseling or placement services to some employees, depending on the situation and length of employment with the firm.

Resignation or termination. Some enterprises under some conditions permit employees to resign rather than be fired. It can make it difficult for terminated employees to find employment when they have to put "Fired" in job applications under "reason for leaving the last job." When an employee is given the choice to resign or be terminated, this is considered as a case of "constructive discharge" and is no different than a termination. While some employers regularly give this choice to workers to the last moment, others feel it is less than truthful. Regardless of your approach, such issues need to be conveyed to the employee somewhere along the disciplinary continuum.

Choice of meeting place. A place of privacy where others cannot hear or observe the conversation should be used. There should be absolutely no telephone or other interruptions. Although choosing a more neutral place than your own office has some advantages in terms of getting the employee to open up, public places like restaurants should be avoided. Some employees will not be able to hold back their tears or emotions and this puts them in a very awkward position.

Separation bonus. Employers expect workers who quit to give two-weeks notice or more. The same courtesy is owed to the worker, except that it is better to simply pay that time as a separation bonus and give the employee the time to look for another job. It is best to "relieve the employee of any further responsibility but to themselves" [F3] When explaining this policy to the employee, the stress needs to be placed on helping the employee concentrate on his or her future needs rather than on shuffling the person out of sight.

The longer a person has been working for the operation, the larger the separation pay could be. If the employee has been allowed to be incompetent for many years, the employer shares in some of the blame for this. Good management will help under-performers to either succeed or be terminated. It is not a benefit to the employee to have been allowed to perform at an unacceptable level.

Any separation bonus should be given to the employee after the return of keys, portable computers, as well as pertinent passwords, bank cards, pickups or other ranch property. Having a detailed checklist ahead of time of what these items are is important. [F4] Some enterprises also ask employees to sign an agreement not to sue before giving the bonus. The check, however, should be ready as the employee may be able to return all the company property and sign the agreement in a matter of minutes.

Role-play. It is difficult to know what to say and how to react in a termination interview. The supervisor may wish to role-play and get some coaching and feedback on the process. Notes may be prepared in terms of bullets and key thoughts, rather than something to be read verbatim to the employee.

Finally, we are now ready to meet with the employee and the dreaded moment has arrived.

The meeting itself

The meeting tone established by management should be one of cordiality and empathy. Thanking employees for the good they have done is always in good taste, but should be kept short lest the person somehow think he or she is being called into the office to be commended.

The bad news can be given next. This needs to be done calmly and with empathy, without gloating. While the employee should have a clear understanding of why he or she was terminated, this is not the time for blame, guilt trips, throwing in the kitchen sink, or to overly dwell on the reasons for termination. The supervisor who has followed a proper disciplinary process will have little to add at this time—unless the employee has questions. Some words, to the effect that the person is likely to be successful elsewhere despite the lack of match here, should be offered.

Two common mistakes at this stage are when the supervisor (1) is vague to the point the employee does not know he or she has been terminated; and (2) talks too much. Silence can make interpersonal situations uncomfortable, and in an effort to fill this silence, the supervisor is likely to say more than what should be said.

No matter how prepared the employee is for the termination, the moment itself will nevertheless be a bit of a shock. The employee is likely to be torn with feelings of numbness and various other emotions. How will I tell my family, friends and acquaintances? How will I make ends meet? What will be said behind my back? The employee is likely to tune everything else out as these thoughts crash against his mind.

The focus of the supervisor needs to be one where the employee can verbalize any feelings, up to a point. The supervisor may encourage the employee to speak by asking a question such as: "I am sure you have a lot on your mind, but are there any feelings or questions you feel you want to share or discuss with me at this time?" If the employee does not immediately answer, the supervisor should resist the temptation to jump to another subject. Even a couple of seconds will seem like an eternity to the supervisor, let alone a sufficiently long pause, yet it is important to give the employee time to formulate an answer.

If the employee does speak, the supervisor needs to fight the even greater temptation to interrupt or contradict (even if the supervisor may think the perspective is twisted). While stoic silence is not what is generally called for and could easily be counter-productive, the supervisor should remember that this is the employee’s chance to do most of the talking.

The employee should be listened to in an empathic manner and thanked for sharing his or her perspective, and once again thanked for the qualities and positive contributions brought to the organization. The sincerity, or lack of sincerity of these comments, will be easily felt by the terminated employee.

Before concluding the interview, the supervisor should offer words of encouragement and confidence in the future career of the affected employee. When it is time to indicate the interview is over, the supervisor can stand and extend his or her hand, and remain standing until the former employee has left the office. [F5]

Anything that reduces the totality of the separation is likely to be appreciated by the terminated employee. Depending on the degree of friendship developed over time, a follow-up card or note, or a phone call from time to time may help the former employee through this difficult transition.

1. R. Todd Scott, Business Consultant. Personal conversation, August 1999.
2. “Setting up the termination meeting” CCH Inc. Go Business, Business Owner’s Toolkit.
3. Alison Davis, personal communications, HRnet forum. August 23, 1999.
4. “Parting Ways: Effective Termination Techniques” Preparing for a Termination section. Online Women’s Business Center
5. "Termination Checklist" FindLaw.SmallBusiness.

For a comprehensive article on what to do before you get to this point of having to terminate an employee, see Ch. 14. Discipline and Termination

© 1999 by The Regents of the University of California and Gregorio Billikopf
Agricultural Extension, Stanislaus County. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the written permission of the publisher and the author. Printing this electronic Web page is permitted for personal, non-commercial use as long as the author and the University of California are credited.

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15 November 2004