The Complete Guide to Conducting Terminations

What you need to know to keep the termination meeting on track, help the employee preserve their dignity, and protect the organization’s brand.
Rose Minichiello
August 13, 2019

Terminations are tough, there is no way around that. Between maintaining compassion and protecting the organization from legal risks, it can feel like walking on a tightrope. Furthermore, the scope of those affected is wider than those being terminated, particularly in tight-knit organizations or cases where the termination is a result of a larger restructuring. Every employee becomes integrated into the organization to some degree, and their departure can have broad impact. 

So, what can you do to make sure the termination meeting stays on track, the employee preserves their dignity, and the organization protects its brand? The reality is that you have to plan for the worst while hoping for the best. Advance preparation is key for making sure that things do not go off the rails, and we have covered every detail that you need to know. 

Keep the objective in mind

Your objective for every termination meeting should include two focus areas: the employee and the organization.

For the employee, the focus is on ensuring that the individual:

  • Hears and understands the message
  • Knows the next steps
  • Retains dignity and self-respect
  • Gets home safely

For the organization, the focus is on:

  • Fulfilling legal and ethical responsibilities
  • Minimizing risk
  • Preserving the organization’s brand
  • Maintaining morale and productivity of the remaining team members

Keeping these objectives in mind will provide structure to your planning and help guide your decision-making.

Get on board

Being able to deliver a consistent message is key, and the best way to do that is to understand the business decision behind the termination. Even if you do not agree with the decision, behave like you do. Make sure that your body language, tone of voice, and message are all communicating the same thing and are aligned to the organization’s message. Sending contradictory signals can confuse the employee and put your organization at risk. 

Invest time in thorough preparation

Taking time to plan ahead is the best way to ensure that you are not caught by surprise on notification day and left scrambling when emotions are already running high. Some things you will want to consider in advance are:

  • The date of the termination – whenever possible, plan to meet early in the day and early in the week. Be mindful of any significant dates such as birthdays or anniversaries.
  • The location – make sure that you have a private space reserved in advance.
  • Documentation – have all documents prepared and signed ahead of the meeting.
  • What you will say – write a script and practice it!
  • What happens after – decide how the employee will exit, how they will retrieve their belongings, and how you will collect the organization’s property, such as a cell phone or laptop.
  • Security – if security could be an issue, notify your security team in advance, but make sure no security personnel is visible during the meeting. Security should be nearby but out of sight.

Feeling overwhelmed about the number of things to do? Download our termination planning checklist to stay on top of it all.

Keep the message clear

Plan to keep the notification meeting to 5-10 minutes, enough time to deliver the message without turning the conversation into a performance review or a therapy session. Stick to the script (that you practiced in advance!) and be clear that the decision is final. Do not let your emotions or the employee’s reactions get you off track. Remember your core focus areas: for the employee to understand the message and the next steps, and for you to fulfill the organization’s legal responsibilities. 

If you are worried about saying or doing the wrong thing, check out our list of termination do’s and don’ts.

Be prepared to manage reactions

People are unpredictable. Often, your expectation of how an employee will handle the situation will not align with reality. Someone who you might think will become aggressive may, in fact, feel relieved because they have sensed that something was off and have had a weight on their shoulders. In contrast, a mild-mannered employee may become argumentative when faced with a termination notice. Do not make assumptions about how an employee might react and be prepared to handle a variety of emotions:

  • If the employee is angry, start by acknowledging the feelings. Maintain a low voice volume and speak slower than usual. Do not get defensive. Be firm, restate the situation and the next steps.
  • If the employee is in denial, use active listening techniques to get the person to talk. Continue to make it clear that the decision is final.
  • If the employee is showing sadness, allow the person to grieve. Do not make claims about knowing how they feel.
  • If the employee is being quiet or stoic, allow time for reaction and be prepared to wait quietly.
  • If the employee is relieved, use active listening techniques to get them to express their feelings. Recognize the stress they have been under and explain the next steps.

Leveraging a career transition consultant can also help to deal with the reaction. The consultant will step in after you have delivered the message, helping to manage emotions, allowing time for venting, and refocusing the individual on the future rather than the past. External consultants can feel less threatening to the employee because they are not affiliated with the organization.

Support the survivors

Terminations, especially ones that involve multiple individuals, have an impact on the remaining employees. The “survivors” may feel a range of emotions such as anger, confusion, mistrust, or lack of motivation. Being visible and available will be critical for these employees to feel supported by the organization, helping sustain morale and productivity. 

Once the affected individuals have been notified of their termination, communicate with the remaining employees. Be prepared for lots of questions, particularly if this was a larger-scale downsizing. Employees will want to know things like:

  • What happened?
  • Why was the decision made?
  • How does the decision support overall company goals?
  • How will responsibilities be redistributed or adjusted to ensure that work stays on track?

You may hear the same question asked in different ways multiple times with the hope of receiving a different answer. Your job is to be a broken record – provide the same answer every time. 

Although job loss has been declining in recent years and most employers report having the same number or fewer terminations year over year, you do not want to be caught off guard when you do have to handle a termination. Being prepared ahead of time is the best thing you can do for the employee and the organization. The employee gets to protect their dignity and gets the respect they deserve, while the organization protects its brand and keeps the remaining employees engaged. 
Looking for expert advice and support throughout the entire transition process? Verity offers high-touch career transition support that helps organizations protect their brand and minimize risk, while giving individuals the tools they need to move forward. We are proudly Canadian-owned, providing support across Canada and in 30 countries worldwide through our longstanding partnerships. Learn more about the services we offer.

Rose Minichiello is a Managing Director at Verity, overseeing all aspects of our career transition practice. She is a career management expert with more than 30 years of experience supporting organizations during large scale restructurings, working with leaders to help facilitate change and partnering with executives in transition. Rose has a fundamental commitment to delivering service excellence to corporations and individuals going through change.

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