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Mar 29, 2022

The first termination conversation I was ever part of ended in a lawsuit.

I had worked in HR for two years and was starting to assist the employee relations analyst on our team. I sat silently in investigations, carefully taking notes for the ER analyst while realizing that ER was my sweet spot.

But when the time came to sit in my first termination conversation, something felt wrong. It was just the analyst and myself conducting this conversation; no one from the employee’s leadership team joined. When I asked what we typically said in a termination conversation, the analyst simply replied that there was “no set script.” Even as brand new as I was at this ER thing, the entire situation made me feel uncomfortable.

And uncomfortable it really did turn out to be. On the day of the conversation I made sure I gathered all the correct separation and payroll documentation. I scheduled the ambiguously titled meeting 15 minutes before the actual meeting time, and I even gave IT a heads up about shutting down that person’s access.

But then it started. The employee came to the HR building and joined the analyst and myself in a small conference room that could fit maybe four people. It was obvious the employee knew what was happening. She put her purse on the table (so her phone could record the conversation easily), and she sat closest to the door, arms folded.

The analyst gave her a cold, disingenuous monologue; “Your time here has come to an end, thank you for your contributions, here’s your paperwork.”

The employee only said two sentences: “This is because I’m Native American. You’ll be hearing from my attorney.” And we did.

Things could have been done differently:

There were many mistakes that led to that point in the employee’s lifecycle. Mistakes made by HR, the business, and the employee. But while mistakes leading up to that point should have been addressed, the real issue came with such a horribly executed separation conversation. A lawsuit could have been avoided if HR had conducted things much differently.

Looking back on my career, at the hundreds of terminations I’ve since been part of (some ending in violence or threats, others ending in tears), it’s become clear that these mistakes can make or break your company and an employee.

HR is always so unprepared for terminations – why?

Terminating an employee should always come at an emotional cost to HR, regardless of the termination conversation. Looking into a person’s eyes and taking away their livelihood should be one of the hardest things we do, no matter how often we do it.

And yet knowing how difficult this is, HR is almost always unprepared for such an important conversation. It’s time we decide that HR will no longer permit such horrible human experiences.

Assuming the business has done everything it can to keep a person employed, after many years’ facilitating termination conversations, I’ve learned four key lessons to help make the situation as humane and people-focused as possible:

1) Present leadership:

Gone are the days when HR fires people. HR professionals assist the business in deciding and executing terminations, but we do not fire people. We do not allow business leaders to take the coward’s way out by asking HR to have this conversation. HR is present, and we help provide crucial information during the meeting, but we do not lead this meeting. Those that are exiting the business need to have a conversation from someone they’ve worked alongside, not a near stranger just processing an employment change.

2) Preparation is key:

We are not winging it, ever. Contrary to the ER analyst from my story, a script is needed – one that helps guide a meaningful, heartfelt, risk-averse conversation. This is the only way we can ensure we are consistently humanizing this process while protecting the business. I recommend setting up a meeting with the business leader before the termination conversation and role-playing the conversation with them. Let the leader get a feel for how the script sounds out-loud, and where they might want to personalize it. Let the leader stumble in front of you; coach them on their cadence, their tone, their eye contact, so the employee gets the best of this leader. Decide in that meeting when the leader should send the calendar invite, and what the title of the invite should be. Put plainly, if we are not putting NASA-level planning into this conversation, we have failed.

3) Create space:

Most HR professionals and business leaders are terrified of letting an employee ‘have space’ in these conversations. Whether an attorney has scared them into ‘compliance silence’, or they’re just too uncomfortable, we rarely allow employees the time to process what has just happened. Remember, an angry or hurt employee is a litigious employee, and so the best way to avoid litigation is to walk through these emotions with the employee. Sentences I’ve used to create space (and which have been successful) include: “This is a lot of information and a big life change. I want to give you a moment to process and speak your mind if you’d like.” Or: “While this decision is final, how you feel about it is still important. If you want to share those feelings, I’m all ears.” If employees start to bring up information that could result in a lawsuit, write it down, thank them for communicating, and move on. Silence in a termination meeting can cause much more damage than allowing employees to speak up.

4) Dignity is everything:

Wrongful termination cases tend to be won by employees with evidence that far precedes the termination conversation. Once the decision has been made to terminate, the only goal should be how to maintain employee dignity in this experience. It’s easy to protect the business when you’re authentically honoring the life in front of you. Ask the business leader in your prep conversation, “How can we cultivate the most dignity for this person?” Decide on a meeting time that honors the employee’s day and how they’ll be perceived. Write a script that’s about delivering tough news instead of covering your legal and technical bases. Make eye contact, slow down when you speak, and answer as many questions as you’re able to. Employees are not inhuman simply because they do not work for us any longer, and it’s our job to remember that throughout this entire process. Giving dignity is not apologizing or sympathizing with an employee, it is creating a space where the employee’s experience is top of mind.

Around the world employees are carrying huge amounts of HR baggage because of the uncaring way they were terminated.

It’s time to change the way we manage these conversations and provide the humanity and dignity such difficult conversations deserve.