These days organizations seem more interested in limiting their financial and legal liability than they are with preserving the ongoing effectiveness of the firm, even if unintended. Despite twenty years of lessons learned from William Bridges et al. – lip service? – many organizations do not seem to realize that current employees watch very closely how their outgoing colleagues are treated, and this has profound effects on the culture of the organization going forward. Employers claim to seek ‘engaged employees’ but fail to see that engagement requires reciprocal commitments.

That said, here are some timeless principles for managing effective terminations and lay-offs. (Hard cases of termination for cause my be different but these are exceedingly rare.):

Preserve Employee Dignity

The termination interview should be conducted as soon as possible after the decision to terminate has been made. Organizations are notoriously leaky with respect to ‘confidential information’. So don’t let the employee hear about his/her termination through the grapevine.

The termination interview is a one-on-one discussion between the employee and the immediate boss. There is no need for a witness. If the boss is inexperienced or nervous, give him training.

The message is delivered in a firm but warm tone. But the notice is not a negotiation – the decision has been made and there should never be confusion about it.

Except for a termination for cause there is no place for a discussion about performance. The employee is entitled to a

[broad] explanation of the reasons for the employee’s termination; if you don’t have one, you better revisit your rationale.

Tell the truth – it always comes out sooner or later; minimize any unnecessary damage from the stories the employee, or other onlookers, will make up themselves.

Let the employee recover from the shock of the news, no matter how long it takes; ask if they want the aid of another employee. Let them return to their desks if they choose; this allows them some modicum of normal routine. If they wish to leave for the day, fine; make sure they have transportation and are able to manage.

There is no need for a consultant standing by in the next office to ‘provide support’; most people can cope and meeting a stranger under trying circumstances only makes it more stressful. Why would a stranger do a better job than the boss, or hr priofessional, who knows his employee. (Of course we assume the boss is competent!)

Do not make the termination effective the same day as the notice and do not walk the employee to the door [unless you have legitimate and serious apprehension of destructive behaviour by the employee; this is extremely rare and greatly exaggerated]. Treat the termination as reverse resignation. A ‘working period’ of up to two weeks allows the employee to wind up his internal assignments and exit with grace and normalcy. Colleagues will want to take him or her to lunch. Allow it.

Consequently there is no need to immediately recover passes, credit cards, keys and such. If the employee was trusted before the termination sustain that trust after the termination.

If the employee wants to terminate immediately, let him. Working notice for a long period (beyond 10 – 14 days) is generally unproductive. Enforced working notice is, well, unenforceable. Be sure other employees know it was the exiting employee’s choice to leave immediately.

The termination letter should have some warmth, appreciation, apology and regret. Other than the date of termination, all other terms and conditions can be contained in an appendix. Even there the terms and conditions should be in plain language, not legalese.

Do not include a clause which expects a conditional signoff by the employee. You have a legal obligation to treat the employee fairly and appropriately under the Employment Standards Act and under Common Law. There is no need for a release. Don’t appear to be railroading the employee; this only serves to make him more likely to become adversarial.

Stay away from statements such as “this will be good for you in the long run”, “I know how you feel” or, “this has been very difficult for me”’; these are gratuitous and insulting.

Minimize Negative Career Impacts

Be prepared to give a factual and objective assessment to the employee of his or her accomplishments, strengths and weaknesses; this is not usually done in the notice meeting but at a later date.

Be prepared to give a comprehensive letter of reference and also to provide oral reference checks when the time comes.

Provide sincere and stated willingness to assist the employee in his or her subsequent job search campaign, sharing contacts and leads.

Provide agreement on references, reason for departure and what to tell prospective employers.

Provide career counseling services either with a professional external consultant/counselor or skilled internal HR practitioner. Be direct and honest with the consultant so he/she can guide the employee appropriately.

Grant Fair and Reasonable Financial Compensation and Assistance.

Ensure HR has current ‘best practice’ on termination compensation. Do not allow the CFO or legal counsel or other to low-ball the employee forcing him/her to negotiate or capitulate. It could be illegal, it certainly is demoralizing and it definitely sends signals to continuing employees. When it come to values, nothing speaks louder than action.

Provide financial counseling advice so the employee can make informed decisions as to how he will use the financial package that is paid out to him.

Consider being flexible with the disbursement of the package [with no additional costs to the company] to allow an employee options with his/her unique situation. Consistency may seem fair to the rational manager but not to the employee affected.

Do not make decisions on the employee’s behalf – they must be responsible for their own decisions – but ensure they have all the necessary information they need.

Terminated employees may not thank you for this, but they will respect you. And so will your ongoing employees.