Dismissing Employees with Compassion – 11 tips for Employers

I have been advising businesses for nearly 20 years on employment law issues, and the clear winner of “least favourite part of the job” for most managers is that unfortunate situation where they have to dismiss an employee.   Most business owners and managers have had to do it at some point; in general they hate this part of their role and many do a terrible job with terminations.

Knowing the correct time and manner to carry out a dismissal is an essential part of running a good business and I have put together 11 tips to help business owners and managers along the way.

1 – Take your time to recruit, but dismiss employees quickly
When someone is recruited it may quickly become apparent that he or she is not the correct fit to the job or often importantly the culture of the business.   As soon as it is clear that you are unhappy, start dealing with the issues that arise, record them and if you feel that the situation cannot be fixed, start the process of removing them from the company.  Before starting an early dismissal process however, always check you have no potential liability (e.g. for discrimination) that may land you in a Tribunal.

2 – Issues may not become apparent straight away
Sometimes an employee might be great for months or years, but then something changes. Sometimes people become complacent, resentful, dishonest, feel indispensable to point of arrogance or any number of things which mean that they are no longer a good fit and become a liability.

In these cases, start a disciplinary process or in lesser cases start performance review meetings.  Ensure you keep a record and follow the company’s formal process.  Only if an employee does something that amounts to gross misconduct, and even then only in exceptional circumstances, can you surprise them with an immediate dismissal without risking a cost to the company.

Starting a formal process can even allow people to solve the problem themselves by finding other employment that suits them better.  Even if they don’t, their levels of anger or hostility are kept to a minimum because your expectations and the consequences of non-performance have already been made clear.

3 – Understand your priorities as a manager
The first priority as a manager or business owner is the health of the company.  Consider the cost incurred by your other workers and the company if one of your team consistently underperforms.  Balance this with the cost of recruiting new employees and training them, which will be expensive too, maybe more so in the short term than keeping your existing employees.  In the long term however, it’s nearly always worse to keep an underperfomer on the team.

4 – Plan what you want to say
I often help employers prepare a script or some notes with bullet points.  That way they are prepared for the meeting and do not digress from the original purpose.  A script also helps to deliver your message clearly.

5 – Decide on the best time
Fridays are a popular time to dismiss as the employer has the weekend to recover from the experience and it gives the employee some time to calm down and reflect.  While the end of the day on Friday can be easier for the employer, it may antagonize the employee who sees the dismissal as an afterthought, or the least important thing that had to be done that week.

I have often found that earlier in the day, or even Thursday is better, particularly if you are expecting the employee to sign a Settlement Agreement, as they need to be able to take legal advice which can be difficult to obtain at short notice or over the weekend.  The exception to this is where you know a certain employee will react very badly, or maybe in an extreme manner, in which case the end of Friday may cause least disruption to the workplace.

I would also suggest a time when the office is emptiest. Sometimes, you may need to send the people working nearby on break or take the employee to another office/building.   Plan how they will collect their possessions, ideally without lots of questions/prying eyes, and how you will deal with requests to see their colleagues and access their computers.  I usually advise that the employee take their bag, keys and coat and all other items will be boxed and delivered or another time will be arranged for them to collect in private.

6 – Keep the employee’s dignity intact
In your meeting, keep the dignity of the person being dismissed in mind.  Losing a job can be extremely personal and emotional.  Minimize any personal and insensitive attacks on the employee and deliver the messages professionally, firmly and sensitively.  Be prepared to answer some questions but also be prepared to remain firm and not engage in an argument.  Lastly, don’t be surprised if you get tears – it’s very common.

7 – Remain firm and professional
Dismissing people is unpleasant, but being fired is much worse.  Do your best to make it easy on the person by keeping things factual and brief.   It is important to reinforce that this is not personal even if it is.  Acknowledge that this is a hard decision for them and their family but this is the decision that’s been made.  If they have anything they want you to consider remind them they have a right of appeal and make sure you can explain the appeal process.  Be prepared to provide facts such as specific examples of performance and misconduct and how you have made your decision.  Do not get into an argument or gloat.  Keep to the point, speak with authority and remain professional at all times.

8 – If you intend to make an offer be prepared with it beforehand
If you are intending to offer the employee a payment (such as a payment in lieu of notice, or a sum under a Settlement Agreement) go into the meeting with clear details of what they will be getting.  They are less likely to panic if they know that they will have time to search for a new job, so the discussion is less likely to turn into an argument.  If you are offering a Settlement Agreement you should explain that they have time to seek legal advice and that you will be paying a contribution towards their legal fees.  This gives them some breathing space.

9 – Have a second person in the meeting
Bring an appropriate person to be a second set of eyes and ears in the meeting and to take notes.  This will be helpful if there is any dispute as to what was said, and it may help keep the situation calm if you do not get on well with the employee.

10 – Offer help if you can
By this stage your employees has seriously underperformed, and has been made aware of this fact and probably given an opportunity to improve.  They have been dismissed, and usually been given a severance package in a professional manner.  If you feel that they are a good person, but just not right for the job, you might offer to help them find new employment or least give them a suitable reference.  Larger Companies often do this as part of their process but a smaller employer may choose do this if the person leaves on good terms.  A Settlement Agreement, if offered, will usually include an agreed reference.

While you might feel obliged to offer help and a reference, you should always bear in mind that you owe a duty of care to a potential future employer when you provide a reference, as well as to the ex-employee.  Providing an unjustifiably bad or glowing reference may leave you open to a legal claim from one party or the other.

11 – Communicate the decision to others carefully and thoughtfully
Finally, let colleagues, customers, suppliers, or any other parties they have regularly dealt with know that the person is no longer with the company.  Don’t go into specifics unless agreed with the ex-employee.  If the disciplinary and performance procedures are followed then colleagues are usually aware of at least some of the circumstances and will understand that this person had opportunities and why they had to go.

Dismissing an employee will never be easy, but with the right approach you can keep disruption to a minimum, keep away from the Employment Tribunal and strengthen you team, while your ex-employee can move on to more suitable pastures.

If you would like to discuss any of my advice in more detail or need help with the dismissal process, then please contact us and one of our expert employment law solicitors will be happy to help.

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