Worked Up At Work

How to handle sticky office situations

Avoid Disasters in Sticky Terminations

Firing someone is never easy, but don't let it become a disaster.

I recently wrote about the very real grief that often accompanies the termination of an employee. The employee being let go most often feels this stress, but it can impact the entire company. Lawsuits, stressful confrontations and even workplace violence are also common.

Most business owners and managers move to dismiss employees for good reason, but the process requires special care. Poorly handled terminations can result in morale problems among otherwise solid staff or other unintended consequence.

Employers also know that employees have significant rights to recourse if they have been wrongly terminated. Many states have employment “at-will” statutes, but going into court with these can be a weak defense. The Department of Labor has granted protected status to minorities, people over the age of 40, women and other groups. If employees fit any other category, they are probably in one or more areas of protected class. Termination of employees in protected classes can be very expensive if done poorly.

There are some steps that can reduce your risk. The process can be handled intelligently and humanely by following a few simple rules:

• Take the high road. Never attack an employee with disparaging remarks about personal health and never break confidentiality rights about a staff member's medical history by speculating that he or she has or needs a psychiatrist.

• Talk to the employee, not the world. Never speak to the employee through the media or other third parties. Publicizing the firing of an employee works against the employer and in most cases violates the employee's rights to confidentiality.

• Negotiate a separation. This is one of the best strategies. A structured exit has win-win advantages for the employer and the employee. A flat-out termination is a win-lose situation that the employee can turn against the employer by filing wrongful discharge during the statute of limitations, which is up to two years. There may be costs involved, but they are often a fraction of possible legal and other costs.

Businesses may need to give in order to get a desired result. I had a client with a particularly troublesome employee who was threatening an expensive suit over a questionable action by the business. The worker had never been a good fit for the company, and the best move for both parties was helping him with training in order to move on. The cost was $30,000 for the company, but it was less expensive than a lawsuit and allowed both to move forward.

Lawsuits, bad workplace environment and other issues are not fun. You may be justified in terminating an employee, but take time to make sure the decision is the right one and that it is executed intelligently.

Steve M. Cohen, Ed.D., C.M.C., is the president of Labor Management Advisory Group and HR Solutions: On-Call, and the author of Mess Management: Lessons From a Corporate Hit Man.

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