Laying someone off is probably the hardest thing for a manager – but it is much harder for the employee. For most people, losing the job has a serious impact on their life as it provides the base to pay rent, dinner etc. A lay-off is often a personal tragedy and should always be the last alternative. It is a very sensitive, emotional and touchy issue and a clear timing and agenda are important.
Here are the 3 steps of doing it properly and respectfully:
Prepare: what are the possible reactions? Tears, anger or apathy? What do you know about the personal circumstances, is a family involved? Be prepared to hear terrible stories – but do not change your opinion. Some people will try to convince you to give them a second try. Make clear that your decision is non-negotiable, that it was hard to take and that you will not change it.
Program the meeting very short-hand, never do something like inviting someone on Friday for Tuesday next as your employee will spend a terrible week-end. Rather ask your employee to see you directly without an invitation.
Some sources recommed to lay off on a Friday afternoon as both the employee and the remaining team have the week-end to cool down and gossip among the team would be avoided. However, psychology tells us that suppressing and processing are not the same. I rather see the employee out on a normal week day and influence the gossip (see last point) instead of losing control over the week-end. Also, for the employee who has been fired, a potential week-end alone at home can be one more reason to make a depression.
Don’t schedule this meeting in your office but in a conference room: in case things get tight, you can walk out of a conference room and call security but you cannot walk out of your own office.
Never do this meeting alone but take another manager with you in case something unprogrammed happens. This can get very emotional and you never know how your opposite will react. I saw tears but also had people yelling at me.
During the meeting:
Do not smile, own the message, always remain respectful.
Bear in mind that you may be taken to court. Be very careful with everything you say and ask yourself if this is what you would like to hear again from a judge or read it on the internet.
Make it short, swift and clean. Avoid something like « You know, Tom, it hasn’t been easy for all of us and blablabla. » This is an unnecessary torture and your employee will think « Tell me, what you want! ». I usually start « Tom, I am very sorry but I have to dismiss you today ». PAUSE….. Count from 21 to 25 so your opposite can digest what you just said….. Then explain.
If you lay off for for reasons that lie within the employee’s behavior, do not blame your employee. It may be tempting to do so and to say everything you always wanted to say. This can be seen as justification and you do not have to justify yourself. Hopefully, you have already said everything in several previous (and well documented) meetings. If the employee is too blame, s/he knows it. At this point of time, you will not win anything but only run into possible risks such as being sued for discrimination or else.
If the employee will be sent home immediately, collect company possession such as keys, access cards or else. Inform IT beforehand to change passwords and block distance access to the email account by e.g. 11 AM. Do not let the employee go back to his/ her desk alone but accompany them to collect their belongings.
If the employee will stay until date X, make clear that you will give a positive reference in case the performance and hand-over will be correct. A negative attitude can have a desastrous impact on team morale and performance. Observe the behavior closely.
Communicate the news to the rest of the team on the same day, preferably immediately. Explain the reasons of your decision, do not blame the (ex)employee. Worst case you can say it proved not to be a good fit. Try to leave as little place as possible for bad rumours that might turn against you/ your company. At the same time, tell people how this action should be communicated to clients or other third parties.
This is the ugly part of being a manager but someone has to do it. If this someone happens to be you, be fair, firm and prepared. All you wish at this point of time is that your (former) employee will say « I do not agree with this decision and I did not deserve it. However, Jorg was respectful and I do not blame him personally for what happened »…
Jorg Stegemann is a Headhunter, Certified Coach, Business Writer. Managing Director of Kennedy Executive Search & Outplacement. Running the company blog at Kennedy Executive and writing for Forbes, Careerbuilder, BBC and other.