How to Limit the Damage When You Fire Your Employee

Protect Your Organization From Internal and External Damage With These Tips

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Reader Question:

Someone I had to let go recently is making his departure very difficult for everyone. He was fired, not because he was a horrible person, but because he was not getting the job done. He just is not a fit for the environment - and over the years could not improve his performance.

We provided him with two options. Stay and undergo continued evaluation after re-evaluation until he improved, or leave and get a settlement. He chose the former at first, then opted for the latter and is now saying he was coerced into resigning.

I work for an organization that is very public and visible and the last thing I want to do is get us on the front page of the local paper! Any advice or suggestions that you could share?

Human Resources Response:

The problem with bad employees is that the denial can run very deep. It's not that he's not doing a good job, it's that you're terribly mean and unfair. As a result, he feels perfectly justified in badmouthing the organization.

Limit the External Damage to Your Organization

You can lessen the chance of that happening. Nothing is foolproof, of course, but there are many things you can do

Be fair. Before the termination, do your best to treat the employee fairly. Don't give your employee any reason to think you're treating him poorly. You may or may not find this effective; after all, perception is not always accurate - but it's critical that you do this. If you don't, you'll deserve it if you get bad press.

Offer severance in exchange for a general release. Everyone knows what severance is - money given when someone is laid off or fired. It's rarely required by law, but can be critical in keeping your company out of the news.

How severance works, in this case, is simple: In exchange for the money, the employee must sign a document which limits his rights to sue or speak negatively about the company. These documents are extremely common.

If your employee signs one with a properly written non-disparagement clause and then speaks out, he loses his severance. Make the severance offer a reasonable one, and he won't become a problem.

Don't impede his job hunt. Sometimes managers are so angry about bad performers (or even people who just quit), that they try to ruin lives. They give false or exaggerated bad references. They set out to make sure that the terminated employee never works in this town again! Don't do this.

Yes, you need to answer honestly when someone asks you for a reference, but you don't need to be vindictive. If your ex-employee had good characteristics or strengths you can mention these in a reference check.

Why is this important? Because the longer a person remains unemployed, the more likely the former employee will become bitter. When someone is bitter they are far more likely to go public with their complaints.

Don't oppose unemployment. Even if you think he doesn't deserve unemployment due to his horrible performance, opposing it serves no purpose other than to make the person unhappy. Yes, I know it affects your company's bottom line, but not nearly as much as a boatload of bad press will affect it.

These actions can substantially reduce your risk of bad press, but your terminated employee is not the only person you need to worry about.

Limit the Internal Damage to Your Organization

Employees, even bad ones, are likely to have friends at the office. Worse, they may have enemies. Enemies love to talk. So, here's what you need to do.

Limit internal gossip. I realize that this is easier said than done. It's imperative that managers and HR keep employee issues confidential. While poor performers often affect their entire department (and sometimes the entire company), it's your job to make sure people aren't talking about it.

This means that sometimes you have to be incredibly blunt with your other staff members. “Jane, I understand that you are frustrated with Steve's performance. I am taking care of it. Do not talk about it with others. It makes the problem worse.”

Do share final decisions. While it's critical to not let gossip run rampant, it's also critical to provide information when needed. Some companies terminate employees and then don't say a word to the remaining employees.

This creates a knowledge vacuum and you know that won't last. People will fill in the unknowns themselves - either through their own creative thinking or through what the terminated employee says. Remember, many of your employees connect with each other outside work through social media.

If your fired employee is ranting on his Facebook page and you've said nothing, his former coworkers have no other realistic option than believing what he said.

Instead, you've informed the employee that today is his last day. Tell your other staff, “Steve will no longer be working here. This company was not a good fit for his skills. We wish him well in his future endeavors.”

Don't forbid them from speaking with the terminated employee, or make any other drastic attempts to control the staff. That almost always backfires. Instead, provide the necessary information and move forward.