5 stupid things to say when firing someone

By Joanna L. Krotz

The boss who doesn't lose sleep over having to fire someone is a rare breed indeed. It's every supervisor's nightmare.

But there is a worse ordeal: being on the receiving end.

These days, with daily headlines about layoffs and shuttered doors, many managers are so busy with their own discomfort that they overlook the pain they're inflicting with dismissals.

The moment, the meeting, the entire day sears into memory and burrows there. People remember every detail for the rest of their lives.

"Employers underestimate the personal nature of firing," says Neil Lebovits, chief operating officer of Ajilon Finance Office and Legal, a staffing firm in Saddle Brook, N.J.

To maintain perspective, picture yourself on the other side of the desk. Imagine how you'd want to be treated.

Compassion counts

The reason for any termination is important, of course. Before making the decision, get advice from a human resources expert or employment lawyer. You don't want to fall afoul of state or federal laws or stray far from company policies, whether set by past precedent or formally laid out in a handbook.

Nevertheless, the cause typically has little bearing on how to break the news. Whether it's because of staff reductions and you're truly sorry or it's owing to lousy performance and you can't wait to see the back of someone, there is still a respectful way to terminate an employee—and there are downright awful ways.

Here's a thumbnail guide to the basics, including tips about legal and pay issues. Here, too, are the five heartless and smarmy things you must bite your tongue not to say.

1. "How's the family?" There should be no small talk at this meeting. Don't try to warm the mood or pretend it's an ordinary exchange. You're only delaying the blow. Later, when the employee relives the conversation (and he or she will), any gratuitous comments will provide ammunition for deeper resentment. "Make the meeting short—10 minutes, tops—and get right to the point," advises Sharon Jordan-Evans, co-author of Love 'Em or Lose 'Em: Getting Good People to Stay.Also, plan ahead. Figure out what you will say or prepare a script of talking points that is reviewed by the HR manager or an outside lawyer.

2. "I'm sure you're surprised." If the company must cut staff, managers ought to have prepared employees. If it's a performance concern, this meeting certainly should not blindside an employee. "The biggest mistake employers make is that they don't give employees a chance to improve behavior," says John Zambito, president of Zambito Executive Search in Columbus, Ohio. Dismissal is a last resort. Not only is it smart and cost-effective to try to improve performance first, but you also—for legal protection—should have a paper trail documenting your efforts. Write summary reports of what's discussed at each meeting to discuss performance with an employee. Ask the employee to sign the memos, which shows he understands and agrees to the action or behavior requested. Set deadlines for results and the next reviews. If you'd rather be informal, make sure another manager joins each meeting. That way, you have a witness in case it ends in dismissal and a legal hearing. No one else on staff should be surprised about job cuts, either. Let other employees know about the termination—expeditiously, especially if there's more than one. Communicate the reasons without rancor or confidential details. People will want reassurance about their own jobs and the state of the company.

3. "I know how you feel." This is a doozy, isn't it? Any such patronizing remarks (another being: "I'm sorry to have to do this") are only uttered to make a boss feel less guilty. You're hurting someone. This comment rubs salt in the wound. On the other hand, managers frequently shut down their emotions at such times, presuming it's more "businesslike." But that translates as cold and uncaring. There's a happy medium. You can candidly and carefully explain the reasons and still offer sympathy. "Respect the person enough to talk business," says Carole Martin, an outplacement coach in Burlingame, Calif. "This is a business decision and it was for 'whatever' reason. You are taking away a person's job. Don't rob him of his dignity as well. "If the employee wants to talk or argue, hear him out. Don't argue back. Firmly repeat your honest reasons, your final decision, your sincere sympathy—then politely show him out.

4. "Let me know how I can help." Managers actually sometimes mean this, at least momentarily. But even when mergers or downsizing fuel terminations, it's usually a transparent sop. Some staffers are obviously staying. This one is getting axed. Unless you plan to be a solid reference or you're willing to make calls on the employee's behalf, don't offer help. It's a dangerous and false sentiment. You're belying the message you've just delivered, which may give the employee grounds for legal or other appeals. If you do extend support, "be sure and place a time limit on any help offered," advises Dan Lybrook, a management professor at Purdue University.

5. "Take all the time you need." Don't cloud the need for an exit with misplaced sympathy. Be clear about departure: "We've made the decision and this is your last day," or week or whatever's appropriate. There's little consensus from experts about when to deliver such bad news. Some say Friday, because there's the weekend to recover. Others say Friday leads to two days of withdrawal and depression, or worse. Some gurus suggest midmorning, so the employee can head out to lunch and get support from friends. There's the end of the business day, so he can leave quickly without causing undue gossip. Everyone agrees about one thing: Firing someone first thing in the morning is never done for the sake of an employee. It's always so the boss can get the burden off his chest. Usually, it's a good idea to anchor the news with money. Have the final paycheck ready. Hand it over at the end of the meeting or give the employee a business card or note with the name and contact information of whoever handles arrangements. "If you give severance and you don't have to, ask for something in return," says Lebovits. Companies often request that employees sign waivers of their legal rights in exchange for extra pay, commissions, outplacement or any other discretionary severance. Some states give employees up to 21 days to consider such offers. Check out the details in your locale.

Clearly, there is no easy or right time to fire anyone. But that doesn't mean you must be harsh or unfeeling. Do not rush into a termination meeting just to get it over with. Think it through. Put yourself in the employee's shoes. The more candid and respectful you can be, the less pain you will cause. And the more respect you might get back.

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