Departing with Dignity

Firings must be done with care and consideration.

“R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me.” Words by Otis Redding. A colossal hit for Aretha Franklin and an all-time R&B favorite. More and more, businesses are finding out what the “R” word means in employee relations.

Take the situation where you have to fire an otherwise genial employee who, as it turned out, simply failed to show any aptitude for the responsibilities of his or her position. Perhaps the employee regularly failed to show up for work or meetings on time or never seemed able to deliver a report or project on schedule. Maybe the problem was how he or she talked with colleagues or acted with customers.

Assume that a supervisor had a series of conversations with the employee, pointing out shortcomings and suggesting strategies to improve performance. For good measure, let's say the supervisor followed up each of these talks with a memo to the worker reciting the problems and the desirable way forward. And still, no improvement.

When failures can't be eliminated and complaints satisfactorily resolved, the best solution might be to terminate the employee. The trick is to accomplish the dismissal in a businesslike fashion, preserving the employees' dignity and your own.

Laws vary from state to state, but, as a general rule, most employment, if not covered by a written contract, is considered “at-will,” which means a worker can be fired for any valid reason or for no reason at all. An employer can act in a completely arbitrary fashion as long as its decisions aren't based on race, religion, gender, age or nationality. In some states, employers cannot fire an individual for whistle-blower activity or sexual orientation, medical condition or disability.

Fairness in dismissals must reflect a process that long precedes the termination date. It begins with applying consistent standards to employees who are performing similar jobs. If promptness is a must, then all workers who are late must be warned or disciplined by the same measures. If and when a worker is counseled or disciplined about work habits and job performance, then notes and records of conversations should be kept in the employee's personnel folder.

Dismissal often is a traumatic event for a worker, whether or not the employee has been kept in the dark about his or her performance. The anger, frustration and fear in such a situation can be heightened by an employer's clumsiness in breaking the news. An employer risks a greater likelihood of a retaliatory lawsuit when the separation process is not carefully orchestrated. That's not to say that kindness and decency always are a shield.

Mindful of potential litigation, employment law specialists recommend keeping an exit interview short and simple, avoiding “helpful” suggestions to the departing employee, and offering prospective future employers only a confirmation of job start and end dates.

By keeping in mind the concepts described above, employers can be more comfortable about handling difficult job termination situations.
Barry Shanoff
Legal Editor
Rockville, Md.