HR’s Role in Employee Termination

When it comes to terminating employees, HR can help shape the process, guide the conversation and minimize potential damage to both company and employee. But it can't assume the responsibility nor make the task pleasant for anyone involved.

Still, "HR should always be a significant part of any termination in any company," says Amy Schrameck, regional director of human resources for a large retail company. HR provides checks and balances, ensures company policy and procedures are followed and, often working with the legal department, makes sure all actions conform to legal guidelines.

Jeanne Knight, a former HR director for high tech companies, prefers to become involved before termination becomes necessary. "Through proactive coaching and training with managers, we can help them understand that they shouldn't get to the point where they want to fire the person ‘today,'" she says. "If they come to us when they first suspect a problem, we can help them manage the process" that can lead to improved performance or create a well-documented path toward termination.

Your Company's Culture Determines HR's Involvement

At companies where HR is seen as strategically partnered with executives and business lines, it's common for HR to be called in early to help shape the discussions and steer the actions. These companies also typically have a well-defined process for performance reviews and employee termination. At other companies, HR may have to be more assertive about becoming involved, developing a track record and building trust to prove your value in this process.

Help Managers Have Clear Conversations

According to Knight, a career coach in Melrose, Massachusetts, a key HR role is helping managers have clear, forthright performance conversations with employees. "Managers don't like having those conversations," she says. "They're uncomfortable, and that can result in lack of clarity."

HR can help the manager clearly define goals, objectives and performance expectations and might provide wording. HR also can follow up to make sure the employee clearly understands expectations and next steps.

Clear communication, a well-documented process and early HR support for managers can eliminate the firing surprise factor for employees. "The worst thing that can happen is that an employee is shocked by being fired," says Knight. "That's when you have lawsuits."

Adds Schrameck, "In fact, we find that employees ultimately terminate themselves, because they don't change their behaviors or improve their performance."

When the Ax Falls

When it's time to terminate, both Schrameck and Knight recommend doing it right away rather than waiting for a specific time of day or weekday. "It's going to feel bad no matter what day you do it," says Knight. "More important than when you do it is how it's handled."

Schrameck says the conversation should be "short, sweet and to the point." HR can coach managers on what to say and may serve as an objective observer during the termination conversation, ensuring managers use appropriate language and avoid escalating a potentially emotional situation.

According to Schrameck and Knight, managers should:

  • Tell the employee that because he has not adhered to agreed-upon performance expectations, he is being terminated immediately.
  • Be empathetic but not sympathetic.
  • Avoid wavering if the employee becomes emotional or promises to reform.
  • Clearly state what will happen next: "I'm going to walk you down to HR now; we'll complete some paperwork, and you can arrange to get your things."
  • Tell the employee additional questions can be handled by HR.

Exceptions to the Rule

If you think a terminated employee might become extremely emotional, consider scheduling the discussion for when the fewest people will be around to observe the scene. And if there is even the remotest possibility of violence, "put the security staff on notice, or let another trusted member of management know what is about to take place," says Schrameck.

The Fundamental Goal of Termination

Both Schrameck and Knight stress the primary goal is to maintain the employee's dignity throughout a difficult process. "Just because we're terminating an employee doesn't mean they're a bad human being," says Schrameck. "We want to walk away having handled them professionally and with respect."

Knight concurs. "HR's role through the whole process is to help the employee leave with dignity." Even more fundamentally, "HR can shape the culture of the company, where employees don't live in fear and where employment processes are equitable," she says.

In the end, when HR intervention results in a smoother process and fewer disgruntled employees, managers should come to value your expertise and call on you at an early stage whenever there is the potential for termination.