When President Trump fired then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson earlier this month, he did it in one of the most public ways possible: on Twitter. The kicker? He had not told Tillerson, who was traveling in Africa at the time, about the decision in person before tweeting it. (Although White House officials have stated that Tillerson was given the news in advance on a phone call with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, Tillerson was not told face-to-face before the rest of the world found out). Tillerson’s “termination by tweet” offers a timely reminder to all employers about the right (and wrong) ways to handle the firing of employees.
Separating an employee can be a stressful process for everyone involved. Prudent employers will keep in mind the following tips to handle the situation in an appropriate way:
Handle an employee termination in person.
Firing an employee by email or letter (or tweet!) might seem like the easy way out. But, even if the employment relationship ultimately is not working out, you owe it to your former employee to discuss the decision in person.
On that note: make sure this in-person meeting occurs in the office, in a private setting. There is more possibility of confusion when someone is fired in a more informal setting, such as at a company event or offsite meeting. Additionally, there is more possibility of embarrassment or even public displays of emotion by the employee when someone is fired in front of other people.
While there are some very rare circumstances that may require separating an employee in a way other than through a face-to-face meeting, those should truly be exceptional, and discussed with key HR leaders and legal counsel before they occur to make sure there is not a better way to handle things.
When possible, make sure you’ve given clear signs prior to termination that the employee’s performance is not meeting expectations.
It is important to have a truthful, business-related, and non-discriminatory reason to fire an employee. When possible, back this up with a clear record of the employee’s behavior, whether it’s poor performance, a bad attitude, or something else, over time, and maintain those records. Make sure you share your thoughts with the employee in formal and informal reviews and evaluations before you fire them. This gives them the opportunity to improve, and, if they do not, will help minimize the chances for surprise, anger and confusion as the employee will not be able to (legitimately) say they didn’t see (or at least couldn’t have seen) the termination coming.
Also, when firing the employee, make sure that your truthful, business-related reason for the termination is clearly communicated to him or her at the time of the termination. This will become critical in the event the parties wind up in court.
Keep emotions in check.
Make sure that you never fire someone in the middle of a disagreement or other emotionally charged situation—you do not want a decision about someone’s employment to come out of the heat of the moment. Take a moment (or longer) to cool down first and make a sound decision.
On the other hand, do not let your personal sympathies for the employee keep you from being clear (and standing your ground) once you have made the decision to fire them. Although you might feel better “letting them down easy,” such behavior will only lead them on, ultimately making the termination more painful and drawn out for everyone involved. Let them respond and ask questions, if they wish, and respond honestly and with courtesy, but avoid getting caught in an argument regarding the decision.
In sum, take a “what not to do” lesson from the President and make sure you keep the above tips in mind the next time you find yourself handling an employee termination. If you need assistance in managing the process or have questions, reach out to your favorite lawyer – before you fire that problem employee.