Career Advice Expert Advice

Firing lines

Finding the right words when terminating staff can help to avoid things going bang

Imagine reading in the news headlines that you will be sacked within the week. This is what happened last month to Manchester United coach David Moyes, whose dismissal was officially announced on April 22, a day after the news broke. Not a dignified way to go.

“There are two guiding principles to terminating employees. Preserve the respect for, and dignity of, the employee, and ensure the timing and action [taken] to not jeopardise the company’s interest,” says Francis Mok, president of the Hong Kong Institute of Human Resource Management.

People are usually let go due to unsatisfactory performance or for misconduct, which covers a wide range of problematic behaviour, such as dishonesty, theft, bullying, harassment or damage to company property.

In the case of unsatisfactory performance, the firing has to be aligned with clear performance-management goals, regular monitoring and feedback, and warnings about poor performance. As a next step, an improvement plan should be prepared and coaching offered, monitored and clearly documented, before resorting to axing the employee.

“A conversation will flush out any misunderstanding about standards, and in case someone’s performance suddenly goes downhill, ask the employee early why their performance has declined,” says Paul Lyons, co-founder of recruitment firm Ambition.

This is how Lyons found out that one of his originally high-performing employees was going through a difficult divorce which affected his performance. “We were able to work through that by giving him some time off and access to help,” Lyons says.

For gross misconduct, staff can be summarily dismissed and should leave right away to make sure further damage does not happen.

Some people choose Friday evening to let people go as it is a clear-cut end to the working week. But people’s energy levels are usually low at this time and they can easily become emotional and hurt themselves or the company, Mok says. “On Monday morning the energy level is higher and people are in a better emotional state,” he explains.

It is harder when a large number of people need to be axed due to, for example, downsizing, relocating, merging or a buy-out. The lay-off must be lawful; the company needs to start open, honest and frequent communication as early as possible so that staff understand the situation. The company must also ensure that those staying feel secure and settled.

It pays off to offer help to those let go. Making counselling available and helping them to apply for new jobs is appreciated and strengthens the company’s employee brand.

Lyons, who has had personal experience in large-scale downsizing in an economic downturn, says there are many potential pitfalls when letting someone go – the main ones stemming from the person holding the termination meeting being insensitive, vague or losing control of the meeting.

“It’s important that you don’t get drawn into small talk or pleasantries before the message, or into a conversation about why the termination has taken place after it has happened. Almost immediately you want to set the tone through saying something like, ‘I’m afraid I have some bad news. The company has decided to make your role redundant and we will have to cease your employment.’

“There is likely to be shock, possibly anger and additional questions which you should avoid answering unless they are to do with the terms of the redundancy. Keep it as short and factual as you can.” He adds that there should be a room set up for employees who might break down, and someone on hand to offer support.

Whether for individual or large-scale terminations, HR representatives should always be present, as they are trained and can offer valuable help, “bringing objectivity and consistency to the meeting” as Lyons puts it.

Those executing the firing must remain unemotional, even if it is a very emotional time. “If that happens, you just have to do it. Plan it thoroughly and execute it well,” Lyons says.

There are two more situations which often end in sacking. One is when a new boss joins the company, analyses who will fit his working style and vision, and lets the rest of the team go while filling the positions with his trusted workers.

“It’s normal for leaders when they get into a new role to want to make changes,” Lyons says. “It usually happens over six to 12 months. If you get a new boss, you are almost on notice and you have to prove yourself again.” He adds that new leaders make changes 90 per cent of the time, involving as many as 30 to 40 per cent of their direct reports.

Another situation is when a senior executive becomes “too expensive” for the company and gets laid off in an economic downturn, with someone younger and cheaper coming in to replace him.

According to Mok, if people are paid more than the value they generate, the problem lays with the company’s HR management practices. The value should be roughly three times salary and benefits.

“A company should ask long before it lays off someone if the position generates enough value for the company,” Mok advises.

If it is found that an employee does not create enough value, it will put a company in good stead to do a quick job review, revise purpose, grade and pay for the job, or even change the job description. “If companies do this, they will not have to fear layoffs when bad times come,” Mok says.

Mok warns that firing a senior executive and re-hiring a replacement is not so simple and can cost up to 15 to 18 months of the executive’s salary in loss of productivity and lost opportunity and business potential.