There are many reasons for terminating employees.  There can be well documented performance rationale.  Your company may be down-sizing due to a market contraction.  In an acquisition or merger, you may need to eliminate duplicate roles.  Whatever the reason, terminating employees is rarely a comfortable or pleasant experience.  However with a plan and proper preparation, it is possible to conduct an efficient and professional meeting and reduce the potential for wrongful termination claims.  

Planning the Meeting
To set the right tone, select a private neutral meeting place that will communicate to the departing employee that you respect their privacy.  It’s a good idea to have another member of management or human resources present as a witness.

During the Meeting
Termination meetings should last no longer than 15 minutes.  While it is important to be respectful and cordial, it is not the time for an in depth look at the employee’s past behavior or performance.  The reason for termination should be made clear, but keep it simple.  Being given a reason will help the employee understand and feel closure, but discussing details may put your organization at risk for opening up an unnecessary discussion that can lead to unwanted claims.

It is critical that the decision to terminate is presented as a final decision.  This will help the person delivering the news maintain composure and avoid an emotionally-charged discussion.  Allowing the employee to speak their mind and vent appropriately also can be beneficial in that it provides them a release and allows you to assess their mental state and potential for retaliation.   However it is not constructive to open up a debate about the grounds for termination.  Make it clear that this decision has been unanimously agreed upon and is non-negotiable.

Closing the Meeting
Although the outcome of the meeting is likely not the desired one for the employee, showing respect and being honest will demonstrate your respect for their dignity.  Employees who sue for wrongful termination often do so because of resentment, not due to hard evidence.  In closing the meeting, make sure you have prepared a final paycheck, and all required federal and state documents.  You should provide information about what to expect regarding their health insurance, retirement plans and other benefits.  Providing a written summary of benefits is advisable as it finalizes administrative pieces that have the potential for drawing out an already uncomfortable process.

Lastly, let the employee compose themselves and try to be accommodating with an exit plan.  Putting a terminated employee in the situation where they must face their co-workers might make them feel ashamed or embarrassed.

While termination meetings will never be a pleasant undertaking, having a plan in place can help them proceed in the best way possible.  Ultimately, being prepared, concise, compassionate and straightforward can help you manage an emotionally-charged situation.

For more information about how to deal with employee issues appropriately and professionally, get answers from the HR Pros in our HR Support Center.