It’s never pleasant to think about terminating an employee. But if a change in personnel is needed during 2015, then it’s best to plan ahead to make a tough process go as smoothly as possible.
We talked with Kimberly Sullivan, an attorney at Horack Talley in Charlotte whose practice includes employment law, about the process of terminating an employee. Here are some key points to consider before taking the final step:
* Most employment in North Carolina is considered at will. “That means an employee may be terminated at any time for any reason or no reason, as long as it is non-discriminatory,” Sullivan says.
* Documentation is the key. If the employee has a history of glowing reviews, it’s best to document when and how the employee’s performance changed. Create a file with evidence, including your own notes on performance or complaints from customers, with dates. The employee’s file should include any substandard work product as examples, or emails that show substandard conduct or other problems. Email communications may demonstrate poor or untimely responses to customers, or inappropriate communications with other staff.
* Plan what you will say and have a witness. Ask another representative of the company to join you and the employee during the termination meeting. Notify the employee of the termination, the date that it is effective, and the general reason why this action is being taken. Then shift the conversation to personnel matters. Talk about when the employee’s final check will be sent. Provide information regarding the handling of benefit items, such as accrued vacation time, health insurance, and the 401(k) account. Request the return of company property, such as a cell phone or office keys, and record when you have received it.
You may wish to create a termination memo in checklist format, demonstrating that these topics were reviewed. You and the employee should both sign it.
“Bring your compassion to the meeting but keep the content focused on business,” Sullivan advises. “Give some thought to the best location for privacy and keep the meeting short.”
* Think through severance issues in advance. Before the meeting, determine whether your company will offer a severance package and will request a release of claims form – which releases your company from all claims of a wrongful termination in exchange for severance pay. Be sure to comply with any company handbook provisions and prior company practices. There are pros and cons with requesting a release of claims. You may wish to consult with your attorney first.
* Follow your employee handbook, if one is available. “A good employee handbook is essential,” Sullivan says. Make sure yours is comprehensive, updated regularly, and describes roles and expectations for employment. Show the company’s good-faith basis for the firing and that it was due to the employee failing to meet guidelines established in the handbook, rather than the employee’s sex or age.
* Make it clear the employee must collect personal items and leave immediately after the meeting. Accompany the employee while these tasks are completed so the employee has little opportunity to sabotage computers or cause other problems.
* Inform your remaining employees. A termination can be unsettling to employees who remain. Let your other employees know immediately about the termination, reassign responsibilities of the terminated employee, and discuss any change in the company direction as needed.
Firing an employee is never going to be a happy experience. But when it must be done, try to follow these steps to keep within the law and to make the transition easier for the remaining employees. The end result will be a space for a new person who can enhance your company’s good work and reputation.