Letting an employee go – the right way

Dismissing someone is a daunting prospect but if you approach it sensitively and follow the rules, the rest of the team may even thank you for it.

You have a fair and valid reason to fire someone – they may be consistently under-performing or unwilling to learn, they may be disruptive and always stirring up conflict. They could be infecting others with their negative attitude, too. You’ve talked to them, you’ve coached them, but nothing has changed. You know what you must do, yet something’s still keeping you from cutting the ties.

“Perhaps you worry it’ll be difficult to hire a replacement or that you can’t afford the associated recruitment costs,” says Claire Brook, employment law partner at legal firm Aaron & Partners. “You may also be concerned for the employee’s personal circumstances, or fear that you will ruin the relationship if he or she is a member of your family.”

You might also think: How will they react? Will they kick-off? And what will the rest of the team think? Will I be the boss that everyone hates?

Last but not least, you may worry that you’ll get the dismissal wrong and will be taken to employment tribunal. “It could be because you lack the necessary knowledge and skills, or appropriate business policies and procedures,” says leadership coach Lara Khalaf.

But burying your head in the sand just won’t do.

“Your employees hold the future of your livelihood in their hands,” says Michelle Minnikin, chartered business psychologist at Insights Business Psychology. “Keeping someone too long after you’ve realised they aren’t working out can literally cost you your business. So, take the emotion out of it as much as possible and do what’s best for you and for the other employees.”

Follow a fair procedure

You can only fire someone on the spot in the case of “gross misconduct” (theft, fraud, violence, gross negligence or serious insubordination), but even then you first have to go through a “fair” and “reasonable” process – investigate the incident and give the employee a chance to respond.

Less serious misconduct (for example, persistent lateness) or performance issues also need to be investigated, although in such cases the “fair” procedure is longer and should involve a series of formal disciplinary meetings, written warnings and appeals, before you can dismiss someone if their behaviour or performance doesn’t improve.

“You need to explain the process to be followed to the employee and ensure they are provided with the relevant evidence for comment,” says Brook. “You also need to document the process and take proper minutes of meetings.”

Different disciplinary procedures are appropriate for different circumstances.

“You need to follow the correct process as set out in the ACAS Code of Practice for disciplinary and grievance procedures, because even small errors in the procedure can leave you open to claims of unfair dismissal,” says Jacob Demeza-Wilkinson, legal consultant at ELAS. “The biggest mistakes we see are employers jumping into the process, or even jumping to a decision, before taking stock of the situation and ensuring they are doing the right thing.”

However, he points out: “When an employee hasn’t yet worked for you for over two years, you can implement a shorter process known as an employment review meeting.”

Employees need to have two years’ continuous service to bring unfair dismissal claims. If they don’t, they can still claim for breach of contract (for example, if you dismiss them without giving them proper notice) or for breach of their statutory employment rights (for example, dismissals related to pregnancy, maternity and paternity).

“You also need to treat everyone the same (deal with comparable cases consistently), otherwise you open yourself up to claims for discrimination,” says Helen Jamison, CEO of HR and employment consultancy Jaluch.

In any case, it’s best to seek legal or HR advice before you get the ball rolling.

Take the emotion out of it as much as possible and do what’s best for you

Preserve their dignity

Dismissing someone the right way means more than just doing it ‘by the book’, though.

Irrespective of circumstances, you should treat them sensitively and with respect. Jamison says: “People hate not being given the chance to say how they feel. Or being treated as though they don’t matter, so giving them a dismissal letter that contains no courtesies is bound to cause upset. You should tailor each and every letter to ensure it sets the right tone in a difficult situation.”

She adds that frogmarching someone to the door or dismissing them in front of colleagues would also be highly insensitive. “Treat others as you would like to be treated – most of the bitterness about dismissal comes about because of the way people get treated during the process, not because they are dismissed,” Jamison says.

Still, be prepared for a range of emotions and reactions.

Minnikin explains: “The emotions associated with losing a job can be explained by a well-known model of change / grief and loss. The first stage is denial (this isn’t happening), then anger (at themselves, their boss, their situation), bargaining (‘if only’ thinking), depression (feeling sad and low), then finally acceptance (letting go, moving on). But this process isn’t linear and people can work their way through these stages backwards.”

Reassure others

To be seen to be acting fairly, you also need to keep the process confidential.

“After the dismissal, however, make the necessary announcement to the rest of the team, preferably in person, not by email,” Khalaf says.

It’s a fine balance between not saying enough and saying too much, but if you don’t communicate and explain your reasons, people will gossip. They may even fear for their own jobs and start to look elsewhere.

If you detect the morale and the general mood in the office are low, some team building can help with that, Jamison says.

Still worried you’re now the boss that everyone hates? You shouldn’t be.

“If you’ve dismissed someone who was an under-performer or for serial misbehaviour, your team will have greater respect for your management and leadership skills than if you just let people get away with it,” says Jamison.

Iwona Tokc-Wilde is a business journalist.

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