Business Forum: Lessons from the JoePa ouster / Is there a right way to fire an employee?

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On the night of Nov. 9, Joe Paterno received an envelope from a courier at the door of his State College home. The letter inside the envelope told Mr. Paterno to call a phone number. Upon making the call, he learned that he had been "relieved of [his] duties" after 46 years as the head football coach at Penn State University.

While a special-delivery envelope and an abrupt pronouncement over the phone is not the traditional way to let an employee go, giving someone the news that he is being fired is never easy.

There are, however, ways to convey the message that lets employees depart with clarity and dignity. Human resources professionals from around the nation were recently polled online on the question, "How do you let an employee go?"

A human resources director from the Albuquerque, N.M., area noted that her company has had success with a "no surprises" philosophy.

If a policy is violated, an action plan accompanies each step of the disciplinary process. The employee is told what will happen on another violation. Disciplinary measures may include suspension, part-time status or a probation. If a policy is violated three times, the employee is terminated.

"This process took us several years to develop and fine-tune," she added. "But it's very clear to everyone what the rules are, how to stay in compliance and what happens if they don't."

When preparing to meet with an employee who is to be fired, all pertinent information should be gathered, and each step of the disciplinary process should be documented.

An HR manager from Ohio suggested working with the employee's manager to set up a meeting. During the meeting, the manager can explain that it is time for the company and employee to part ways, and then take himself or herself out of the equation. The HR professional can then explain the next steps for the dismissed employee and discuss any severance pay or benefits.

"Try to keep the employee focused on the steps going forward, not the past," the Ohio HR manager said.

There's no getting around the fact that the employee must be told that he or she has lost the job, but a manager from the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., area said don't use "fired" and "terminated" in the meeting.

"Treat the person with compassion. Say something like, 'Based on these issues, we have no choice but to end your employment.'"

During the meeting, the employee should turn over keys and company property. The employer can explain about the continuation of health coverage via COBRA and offer severance pay for a signed release from the terminated employee.

According to a marketing and client relations professional in the New York City area, the release can help the company protect itself from lawsuits or other claims by the employee. An employer should consult with an attorney when drafting the form, however, to make sure it will stand up in court.

The final step of the process is for the human resources professional to accompany the employee to his or her desk to gather personal belongings and then escort the employee out of the building.

"All follow-up communication with the terminated employee should be handled with HR only," said the Ohio HR manager. "The manager/supervisor should direct any emails or calls received from the former employee to HR and not respond." The employee should be presented with detailed reasons for the firing taking place. The employer should stick to facts during the meeting, not draw things out.


J.J. Keller and Associates Inc. is a compliance resource firm headquartered in Neenah, Wis.


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