Termination and layoff planning

Terminating employees can be done in a psychologically safer way. The following suggestions can help minimize the risk of harm to all involved. 

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Termination of an employee will always include some level of stress for all concerned. Certainly, for the employee who is being let go, but potentially also for the person responsible for letting them know, their leader and their co-workers. The following are suggestions contributed by Susan Jakobson, RN, CHRP to help minimize the risk.

Supporting the employee being let go

  • Review and be clear on the reason for termination. The person being terminated deserves to know the reason – whether it’s due to downsizing, restructuring, misconduct, or performance related. If the reason is ambiguous, it may be difficult for the person to process what’s happening, gain perspective on their situation, and move forward with their life.
  • Consider the timing of terminations. Try to avoid the end of the week or late afternoons to terminate an employee. There may be restricted access to support services (e.g. employee assistance plan (EAP) or a family doctor) which may be needed to help the distressed employee or their family members.
  • Be ready for the conversation. If you feel unprepared for the discussion, review Preparing for a difficult conversation and Discussing difficult topics effectively.
  • Give the employee options where possible. Choose the approach you believe is the least traumatic for the employee given their situation. Where possible, offer options that give them the most control over the situation. In the case of lay-off or giving notice of upcoming job loss, this may include allowing them to leave for the remainder of the day, or the rest of the week, so that they can process what has happened. Arrangements can be made for the employee to come back to pick up belongings or speak with co-workers. (Note: There may be legal and/or financial implications if an employee continues to work after notice of termination has been served.)
  • Respond to any specific health concerns for the employee. If there are health concerns apparent before, at the time of termination, or immediately afterwards, steps should be taken to provide appropriate support. Consider whether the health concern requires immediate attention of a health care professional or first aider to offer assistance. Feelings of extreme anxiety, panic, or being overwhelmed may cause underlying conditions to surface and create an urgent situation.
  • Plan a safe way for the person to get home. People may say they can get home or to another safe location, but be prepared to assist them – offer to call a family member or a friend to pick them up or call a taxi. The person may be reluctant to call family without having had time to sort out how to break the news to them.
  • Ensure that support for the employee is available at the time of termination and into the future. Where possible offer support such as an employee assistance plan (EAP) or outplacement counsellor to be on site. Although the employee may be unable or unwilling to talk due to shock or anger, the counsellor can ask permission to follow up the next day and assess whether the employee is at any risk for self-harm.
  • Determine the setting for the termination meeting. The termination meeting should be away from the employee’s actual work area but, if possible, within the confines of the workplace. Have items such as tissues, taxi vouchers, the details of the severance or termination package, and contact numbers for EAP and other supports readily available. Being well prepared will allow you to focus on the person rather than on looking for needed items.
  • Develop the relevant severance package. Consider reasonable or required severance amounts, continuation of benefits, and ongoing EAP or other support. The more supportive the package seems to the employee, the more likely they’ll be able to move past being terminated. The psychological bond between the person and their employer has been broken and feelings of disappointment, shock, denial, anger and even possibly relief, are common. These feelings can create barriers to the person’s future success. With a fair package, the employee’s perception may be, "My employer at least cared and valued me enough to make sure I was in a place where I could support myself and my family." People can benefit from this kind of support while rebounding from the termination and beginning the new job search.
  • Plan for the tone of the actual termination meeting. The meeting should be respectful and dignified for the employee. Even if there has been gross misconduct, you’re dealing with another human being who has their own problems, now likely made worse because of the termination. This is not the time to be rude, defensive, vengeful, or spiteful. Showing compassion, consideration, and kindness, given the difficulty of the situation, may be appreciated and remembered by the employee.

Supporting co-workers

  • Develop a communication plan to inform others. Ensure that those working closest to the terminated employee hear this news first from their leader. Although the amount of information and how widely it is communicated varies according to position and corporate practices, it’s important to communicate promptly to those affected by the termination. The leader will often want to meet with immediate co-workers either as a group or individually. The amount of information is usually restricted to the fact that the person is no longer working with the team. However, the leader should also be ready to respond to employee concerns such as:
    • How the person will be replaced, or if they will be replaced
    • How the work will be reassigned (have a plan for how the work will be managed moving forward, or if possible, engage the remaining team in developing the plan together)
    • How the person’s desk and equipment will be used or repurposed
    • Worry that their own jobs are at risk
    • Concerns that management permission is required to contact the terminated employee, with whom they may have had a close relationship
  • Try to be available in the days following a termination. As questions or concerns come up from co-workers, the leader should address any rumours to and help co-workers process what happened and lower any anxiety. If a co-worker didn’t have a positive relationship with the terminated employee, there can be some feelings of responsibility or guilt. If they did have a positive relationship, there may a sense of loss or fear that they may be terminated next.
  • Create opportunities to bring the remaining team members together in a meaningful way. One suggestion is to gather co-workers for team-building exercises such as those provided in Building stronger teams | PDF. Perhaps begin with an exercise asking co-workers to write a note about how other people in the workplace have made a positive difference to them. This restores faith in the workplace even during times of change. It’s important the leader avoid promising that there won’t be future terminations.

Supporting others involved

Terminating an employee can be one the most stressful and difficult actions for anyone. The organization can take these steps to support those involved in conducting the termination:

  • Ensure the direct supervisor has participated in the termination decision and is made aware of the basis for the decision. It may be important to the direct supervisor’s sense of personal integrity that they believe the termination is the right thing to do for the business and/or their work team. This means they need to talk about this very difficult decision beforehand so they can manage their own feelings of anxiety.
  • Prepare those who will be involved in terminating the employee by doing "dry runs". Rehearsing the termination meeting by running through various scenarios and how they can most effectively respond may help decrease anxiety prior to the meeting, as well as during and after. Ensure that all parties are well prepared for any potential response.
  • Avoid speaking notes during the termination meeting. While speaking notes can be very helpful during dry runs, they should be avoided as they appear (and are) rehearsed and can be remembered very negatively by the person being terminated.
  • Consider who should be in the room. While it would be less intimidating or humiliating for the employee to just face one person at the termination meeting, sometimes that can be too stressful for the person who must communicate the termination. Consider having more than one person at the termination meeting when necessary.
  • Any concerns regarding violence must be taken seriously and addressed ahead of the termination meeting. The leader may be a good judge of the employee’s likely response to the termination. They may even know about their personal or home situation. If a leader is concerned that the person could become violent, this needs to be thoroughly examined by a trauma counsellor who may be available through EAP or other services. Checklists can be completed to assess the likelihood of violence, but note that there are no absolute methods for assessing whether someone is going to be violent in the workplace. Some suggested questions to consider when determining if any violent action may result before, during or after the termination include:
    • Does the person engage in poor judgment?
    • Have they exhibited violent behaviours (in the workplace or personally) in the past to resolve issues?
    • Do they show negative coping skills?
    • Are they known or suspected of abusing substances, which is correlated with violent behaviour?
    • Have they exhibited isolation, non-communication, and/or social withdrawal, which are tendencies that have been known to correlate with workplace violence?
    • Has a sufficient criminal background check been conducted in a manner that is allowed? The more recent any historical acts of violence, the more relevant.
    • Have there been any progressive or increasingly problematic indicators to potential workplace violence such as harassment, bullying, threats, intimidation, verbal/physical abuse, sense of entitlement, insubordination, isolation and any other potential indicators?
    • *Adapted from https://www.paseap.com/resources/propensity-violence-assessment/
  • Offer those involved post-termination support. Reassurance from senior leadership that those involved followed procedure and did the right thing can help reduce stress. This can involve a meeting immediately after the termination or a day or two later. An opportunity to talk about the sequence of events can also help participants sort out the experience in a logical way. Offer EAP or other support where available and desired. Check in again as needed.

Online termination considerations

Although it’s not ideal to terminate an employee online, there may be situations where it’s necessary. In these cases, it’s best practice to have the discussion face-to-face through video. Also consider the following:

  • Policies and procedures still apply, including legal obligations.
  • Decide in advance how you’ll provide the termination letter and any severance package or payment. You could email, send through chat or mail it.
  • If possible, avoid recording the call as that can significantly increase tension. 
  • As much as possible, use the same script and sensitivity to emotions that you would normally have if you were meeting face-to-face. 
  • It’s ideal to have someone with a direct relationship with the employee like their manager have the conversation, with support from a Human Resources professional. 
  • If the employee becomes upset, allow time for them to compose themselves or, if necessary, complete the call at another time. 
  • Remember to follow up with the terminated employee, to see if they require any further support. If your organization offers counselling or career counselling support, be sure to offer it.

Additional resources

Communicating with emotional employees. These strategies can help you have supportive conversations with employees and avoid triggering negative reactions.

Someone you care about is struggling with job loss. Questions and strategies to help you have a supportive conversation when someone you care about is struggling with job loss.

Contributors include.articlesMary Ann BayntonSusan Jakobson

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