Terminating employees is never easy, but it can be an unmitigated disaster. Just scan the headlines about workplace shootings. Many, even most occur in connection with an employee being let go.

Most business owners and managers move to dismiss employees for good reason, but the process is so prone to bad results that it deserves special attention. A disgruntled former employee may return with a lawyer, or a gun. Even without these twin terrors, poorly handled terminations can result in morale problems among otherwise solid staff or other unintended consequence.

The process is a minefield for several reasons. Employees have significant rights to recourse if they have been wrongly terminated. Many states have employment “at-will” statutes, which seem to mean that employees can be terminated at the will of the employer, but the rules often vary by state. Relying on these statutes is like going into battle with a sword and shield made of tinfoil.

The Department of Labor has also granted formal protected class status to minorities, to people over the age of 40, to women, and other large groups. The only people, practically speaking, that could be terminated using employment at-will statutes are white men under the age of 40. 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 the risk. The decision to terminate an employee is never easy, but the process can be handled intelligently and humanely by following a few simple rules:

• 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 separation. 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.

• 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.

In some cases, businesses may need to give in order to get a desired result. I had one 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 business, 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, but also done right.

About the Author

Steve M. Cohen, Ed.D., CMC

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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