Compassionate Termination

Written by Abby Engers

We encourage a compassionate approach to termination.  

We know that many of our clients hire employees, work with them for years, and still want the best for them after the relationship has run its course. It’s impossible to be error-free in hiring — in fact, up to 50% of hires are considered to be failures. And, needs change, roles shift, and sometimes ending an employment relationship is the best solution for both employees and employers. Compassionate termination attempts to preserve dignity, self-esteem, and connection — even in the midst of a challenging decision.  

There isn’t one right way to compassionately terminate someone, but we have some recommendations. One of the most important things to remember is that there is no script, but how you treat people in the hard moments matters. Don’t let fears of litigation or a messy ending keep you from treating people with empathy.

6 best practices to keep in mind:

1) First and foremost, the termination should not be a surprise. To the extent possible, the employee and their manager should have had multiple conversations about the situation or individual issues, in as close to real time as possible. It should also not be a long, drawn-out process. When you know that a situation isn’t going to work out, it’s unfair to everyone to keep struggling along to avoid making a hard decision.

The termination itself should also not be a surprise. You don’t want to be the company whose employees find out their employment is ending when they suddenly lose access to their email and company logins. That’s the opposite of compassion.

2) Before termination, take care of logistics. Have a final paycheck ready and a plan for collecting equipment, removing access, returning personal possessions, etc. Be ready to communicate about severance (if applicable — it’s definitely something we recommend providing in most circumstances, with a legal release), continuing health insurance options, and any resources you’d like to provide (information on applying for unemployment, professional outplacement help, etc.).

3) Make it a graceful exit. Before the termination conversation, create a plan for communicating about the termination, both internally and externally. Know which exit logistics, like how you’re going to communicate the departure to the team, that you’re comfortable ceding control on.

Clarify how you can support their career in the future. Are you open to providing references or introductions to other firms? What kind of relationship will you have with the person going forward?

4) During the termination conversation, be both straightforward and direct at the outset: “I have some bad news — we’re terminating your employment.” You want to think through and practice what you’re going to say. You can’t control the other person’s reactions, but you can present that information in a way that is as kind and clear as possible.

The person being terminated might have questions, but you don’t need to debate, defend, or negotiate. Give clear explanations for why the decision was made, and then focus on the logistics of what will happen next.

5) Provide space for the employee to speak and be heard — but focus the conversation on acknowledging and appreciating their contributions, their strengths moving forward, and next steps in the process. Ideally, this conversation is short. Much more than 20 minutes or so and you’ve lost control of the conversation.

6) Prepare a follow-up communication regarding details. Know that a person being terminated is often not in a mental state to hear or remember these details during the initial conversation.

Know that it might not go well, and that’s okay. You’ve done your best provide a dignified end to a working relationship. 

We’ve seen the benefits of this mindset internally, where we are able to assist former employees find roles and organizations that are a better fit for their talents, and where they feel comfortable coming back to company parties and happy hours. Many of our alums still send us referrals and remain part of our lives in many ways. Some even come back, years later, as boomerang employees.

Keeping the employment relationship kind, clear, and compassionate through to the end matters for everyone. Terminations are never pleasant, but they don’t have to be traumatic.

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