How to Have the Termination Discussion

July 30, 2018

Termination meetings are always challenging. Minutes before you call the employee into your office, your heart pounds; you experience mixed emotions of guilt, fear and justification; and you mentally rehearse what to say and how to say it.

When a breach of progressive disciplinary warnings results in a termination for cause due to poor performance, you have choices: keep the individual at arm's length throughout the discussion; create a threatening and intimidating atmosphere to persuade the individual not to sue you; or extend an olive branch and help the individual come to terms with this new reality, heal the wound, and get on with his or her life.

Let's assume you've provided an employee with verbal, written and final written warnings as outlined in your company's policies and in accordance with past practices. You've also spoken with an outside consultant, as needed, to ensure that your termination is on solid and legally defensible ground should the individual pursue post-termination litigation activity, and you've received the appropriate approvals to move forward with the termination. What do you say and, more important, how do you say it?

The Meeting Opener

When starting your conversation, be direct get to the point right away: "David, we've met several times to discuss your performance, and unfortunately we need to separate your employment today." "Separating your employment' says the same thing as "terminating you" or, heaven forbid, "firing you," but in a much more humane way that allows the individual to retain dignity and self-respect.

The Justification

While the initial shock of the announcement reverberates in the individual's head, and emotions start kicking in, it's important that you state your justification in a clear and to-the-point manner. Follow the italicized phrases in the discussion below to see how the justification is delivered: "David, we've gone through a number of interventions with you regarding your overall performance on the job, via both verbal and written notices, and we've made the decision to go our separate ways."

The Meeting Closer and Exit

You have options when discussing the physical separation: permit the employee to pack up and leave now; allow him or her to return after hours or over the weekend, when fewer people will be around; or assign security to accompany the employee back to his or her desk and out the door. The options available should be customized to the situation at hand.

As such, your exit conversation may sound like this:

"In addition, David, we want to handle this respectfully and thoughtfully. Although we'd like you to leave the premises shortly, will you want boxes to pack up your personal materials? If you're not comfortable doing that now, we can arrange for you to come back and pack up later, or we could simply do that for you and courier your items back to your home later today. Also, would you prefer to leave quietly, or would you like to say goodbye to some of your co-workers before you leave the office?"

At this point, the employee should meet with another HR representative, who will conduct a formal exit interview. That's when the company will collect the employee's ID badge, cellphone, laptop, office keys and any other company items. Handled respectfully and communicated thoughtfully, this meeting should leave you feeling good about the way you've managed a particularly difficult situation and will give the employee the chance to focus on his or her future, rather than dwell on the past.