Amy Davies starts with a simple piece of advice for anyone who has to fire a worker, either because of a downsizing or for cause

“Treat your employees the same way you’d want a close family member who you love to be treated,” said Davies, the Toronto-based founder of First30, a firm specializing in onboarding and outplacement. “That’s the perspective we should have, because it’s going to be really hard on them.”

Respect the worker

When scheduling termination meetings, avoid scheduling them back-to-back, she said. Leave at least a 30-minute buffer so employees feel valued and heard during the process.

The people delivering the news also need to be well prepared to answer any questions in the moment and to understand that a lot of what they say will not be absorbed by the worker.

“Employees will forget almost everything they’ve heard in the meeting,” said Davies. “It’s stressful, and when they walk away their mind is like a sieve.”

Sending the information via email, as a follow-up, can help them navigate through the process once the initial shock wears off. That includes things like the severance agreement, outplacement support and an invitation to contact you if they have any followup questions.

“That little touch point, or TLC, goes a very long way for them,” she said.

It’s also worth remembering that nearly everyone who is terminated is shocked by the news — and will likely take it personally regardless of the circumstances.

“I’ve spoken with so many incredible professionals who have been laid off, who you’d think have all the confidence in the world,” she said, but it is still very hard news to receive.

While it’s no picnic for the people delivering the news, the termination meeting isn’t the time to commiserate with the worker, she said.

“There are cases were HR folks or managers will say things like, ‘You have no idea how hard this is on me or how stressful this has been,’” she said. “We know it’s stressful and difficult, but there’s a time and place for anyone running those meetings to share those feelings.”

Humanize the process

While not everything can be discussed in a termination, Davies is not a fan of just sticking to a script and acting robotic in the conversation. If you don’t know the answer to a question, or genuinely can’t answer it for legal reasons, it’s okay to tell the person you will have to get back to them about it, she said.

Unless the termination is specifically for cause, she advocates for not bringing up their performance whatsoever. Stick to the fact that the role has been eliminated, she said.

Everyone in the room on the employer side needs to stay focused and not get distracted, she said. Don’t check your phone, don’t let your mind drift and start staring out the window or start checking emails on your laptop.

How a worker is treated on the way out matters a lot, she said, and not just to them.

“It’s about your employer brand. It’s about the people you have left behind,” she said. “The person being terminated doesn’t walk out the door that day and disappear. They’re still in contact with your current employees. And they might be good friends — and you’re sending a signal to all your employees that I’m asking for your 100 per cent right now, but the minute I’m done with you I’m going to treat you poorly.”

The legal perspective

Tahir Khorasanee, an employment lawyer and senior associate at Steinbergs LLP in Toronto, said the meeting prep is arguably the most important part.

That includes calculating the employee’s severance entitlements, picking a location to deliver the news, and determining who will be present in the room when the news is delivered. If there are concerns the worker may become belligerent or even violent, it might be a good idea to have security nearby, he said.

A termination checklist can ensure that no steps are missed, including a list of company property that needs to be returned — and what employees can take with them. In an era where phones are critical, it might be advisable to let them keep it for a few days to ensure they can still communicate with family members and give them time to get a new device.

“Not just telephones, but even laptops — let them have it a little while longer and send a prepaid courier box and then have them return it,” said Khorasanee. “It’s not just severance you need to negotiate, but also data transfer.”

Where employers usually end up in trouble is if they go too far off-script during the meeting, said Khorasanee.

“Make sure the same information is reflected in the termination letter,” he said. “If it didn’t make it into the termination letter, it’s not worth mentioning.”

Provide a reference letter

Some employers are reluctant to provide reference letters to departing employees, but Khorasanee said that is a misplaced fear.

“In Canada, we have unfortunately taken on or have this mistaken belief that American law on reference letters applies here,” he said.

And if they do, they often provide the bare minimum — what Khorasanee calls a “tombstone letter” — that simply confirms the title and the dates employed.

“There is a huge advantage to providing a reference letter immediately, because the employer gets the credit for the employee being able to find another job as quickly as possible,” said Khorasanee.

It can also take some of the heat off the employer, as the worker will focus on their new job rather than seeking legal retribution against their former company.

Be empathetic

In that same vein, he said a little empathy during the meeting can go a long way. Khorasanee often represents workers in wrongful dismissal lawsuits and sees a big difference in the mindset of employees who were treated well during the termination process.

“If they feel that the manager cared about them, that they were actually hurt by the news, then they’re much more likely to be reasonable,” he said. “If managers can be empathetic, they will benefit the company greatly.”

Also, it’s a good idea to act like your words are being recorded — because, in Ontario for example, it is legal to record a conversation with the consent of only one person taking part in that conversation.

“That will be admissible evidence in court,” said Khorasanee. “So be mindful of what you say.”

Virtual terminations

Both Khorasanee and Davies said conducting a termination meeting virtually, using technology like Zoom or Teams, is fine.

“If you’re an employee who is a hybrid or remote employee, how bad is it going to feel to be told you have to trek into the office on a day when you normally wouldn’t be there — organize all your child care, your dog care, everything else just to come into the office and be terminated and sent home?” said Davies.

But there are some additional precautions that must be taken that don’t apply in an office environment.

“First, make sure your camera is on,” she said. “Second, make sure that the person is alone and there aren't any kids in the room.”

The person can be advised that this is going to be a “tough conversation,” she said, giving them the option to move to another room or to send family members out of earshot.

Do you think that more empathy should be integrated in employee terminations?

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