The Fine Art of Saying, You’re Fired

Financial Post: 17 August 2005. All Rights Reserved.

Shirley believed she was doing Sam a favour when she fired him. Concerned that he would repeat his mistakes in his next job, she calmly detailed all of the reasons for his dismissal and offered advice to prevent those problems’ recurrence. Sam took it well, requesting clarification on some points and agreeing with others.

Pleased, Shirley ended the meeting, informing Sam that she would send a letter to his home confirming their discussion.

But the next day, Sam attended work earlier then usual. He marched into Shirley’s office announcing: “I’ve thought carefully about your criticisms and will work hard on improving.”

He did not realize he had been fired.

Firing with the bon vivant bravado exhibited in The Apprentice will result in additional damages. But Shirley’s method is equally dangerous.

How should dismissals be conducted?

  1. Be prepared. Without careful preparation and training, the meeting can deteriorate into irrelevancies that distract the parties from its purpose. The timing and content must be controlled. You should prepare a checklist of items that are to be covered. That checklist is evidence as to what actually occurred if there is a subsequent dispute. For the same reason, a witness should attend to take notes during the meeting. Those notes should also be signed by the manager conducting the interview immediately upon its conclusion.
  2. Brevity is best. A dismissal should never last more than 10 minutes. Get to the point quickly. In the first few sentences, the employee should be told unmistakably that she is to be terminated and, but only in a general way, why. But the directness must not be so brutal as to further undermine the employee’s confidence. Also avoid Shirley’s misdirected kindness. Do not go over the reasons repeatedly or have a prolonged debate about the merits of the decision. If the meeting deteriorates into recriminations, the court could award additional damages. Prolonged explanations can also lead to lawsuits including misrepresentation and bad faith. Finally, the less you say, the more positional flexibility you retain in the event of a lawsuit.
  3. Conclude with an explanation of what your company will do for the employee. The terms of severance, references, outplacement counselling, employee assistance and anything else offered should be delineated. The employee should leave with a letter so there is no ambiguity. But never request the employee to read the letter or sign the release on the spot.
  4. Arrangements should be made to return company property and allow the employee to remove personal effects. The employee should be at liberty to remove those either immediately or at a later date when other employees are absent. A review of company property in the employee’s personal possession should be undertaken to ensure the employee does not subsequently conceal that possession. If the employee is a security risk, he should be required to leave the office immediately but in a way that is not confrontational or humiliating.
  5. Who? The person’s supervisor should generally conduct the dismissal with another senior person in attendance. It should be otherwise only if the employee has a poor relationship with that supervisor. Whoever it is should be trained in the art of firing. There are serious consequences to “not getting it right.”
  6. Where? It should take place in the office of the dismissed employee or of the person conducting the termination, out of earshot of everyone.
  7. When? It should never be conducted at 5 p.m. on a Friday since the succeeding weekend prevents the employee from contacting her personal support group and alternative sources of employment. As a result, shock and tension build unabated. It also should not take place after an important event in the employee’s life: on a birthday, just before Christmas, etc. Dismissal should be conducted early in the week and late in the day so the former employee can leave without encountering co-workers.
  8. If the employee responds in anger, be strong, sensitive but firm. If there is a risk of danger, security should be available by telephone. But the employee should never be aware of that. If possible, extend the employee assistance program to provide psychological assistance beyond the dismissal date.