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Best Practices in Handling Terminations

Best Practices in Handling Terminations

Are you prepared for an employee departure? "We've decided to let you go," or "I quit" is just the beginning of the termination process, one that can be rocky and laden with risks if you are not adequately prepared.

The average domestic employee changes jobs every two years.  While we are working closely with our clients to improve that statistic, most domestic employers will at some point have to deal with the termination of an employee.  Even when it is expected, transitions can be difficult and create disruption in the operation of your home and life.

To minimize the risk of an interruption in service, or worse, a contentious termination that results in threats, legal action, lost property, or security issues, it is wise to plan ahead.  Here are some tips for making separations as smooth as possible.

1. Cross Training.  Periodically cross-training each of your employees on one another’s duties can have several benefits.  If someone is ill or leaves your employ suddenly, the other members of your team can fill the gap until a suitable replacement is found.  Additionally, knowing that someone else in the home can fill in for them, employees may feel more comfortable taking much-needed time off, making them less likely to quit.  Finally, cross training helps build respect and teamwork among your employees, who often feel that their own jobs are more difficult than those of their colleagues.

2. Documentation.  If an employee lacks a written job description, task list, or manual that spells out the details of their job, or if an employee has been in their position for more than two years without a thorough review of such documentation, you can expect a significant loss of know-how when that employee leaves.  Likewise, a new employee will have a much harder time learning the details of a new position without a roadmap to work from.  Documentation is a vital underpinning to job performance, consistency, and continuity in times of transition.  It can help head-off turnover (as discussed last month) and can facilitate cross-training.

3. Feedback.  Lack of communication is among the single greatest complaints we hear from staff leaving their positions.  And, it cuts both ways.  Clients will often tell us about performance or personality flaws in their previous staff members, then admit that they never voiced their concerns.  Candidates will insist that their previous principals failed to live up to employment promises regarding bonuses, raises, training, or perks, but then admit that they never asked about such benefits again after the initial interview. 

The bottom line is that neither you nor your employees can rely on ESP for direction.  At least once every quarter (preferably once per month), be sure to have a brief, private, sit-down conversation with each employee to ask how s/he is doing, what could be better, what concerns s/he might have, and how you could be a better employer.  Then offer your points of view regarding what you think is working well or needs improvement.

4. Progressive Discipline Policy.  The first sign of a poor termination is surprise.  A surprised employee can quickly resort to very unproductive behavior.  You will do yourself a favor by implementing a Progressive Discipline Policy that clearly states that you agree to warn employees if their performance is unacceptable and give them an opportunity to improve before letting them go.  Such a policy should also reiterate that you are an At-Will Employer and reserve the right to end employment at any time with or without cause, but when followed, these policies generally make employees feel respected and informed about their livelihood.  When they fail to meet expectations, in spite of a second chance, they are also more likely to accept your decision gracefully.

5. Termination Meeting.  Most people dread the final meeting in which you tell an employee that it is time to move on (as do most employees).  However, there are ways to keep it from going awry.  First, prepare.  Pick a time and place that will make the meeting as discrete as possible, preferably at the end of a day or week, or while other employees are on break.  Run through what you plan to say, and consider doing a dry run with another person to give you practice and help you anticipate the employee’s response.  Even in the best of scenarios, the meeting may become emotional, and you don’t want to expose yourself or your employees to unnecessarily awkward situations.

Give a warning shot.  When the meeting starts, avoid shock by first telling the person that you have some difficult news to share. 

Don’t beat around the bush.  Be clear that you have given the decision careful consideration, and that you have decided to let the person go and end his/her employment with the family.  Do not leave what you are saying to question.  Employees who hear that you ‘have decided to make a change’ may think they are being promoted!  Employees who hear that you ‘have decided to move on’ may think you are dying or moving.  It must be clear that the person’s employment with the family is being terminated.

Have a witness.  Have someone (ideally someone objective, but at least someone) in the termination meeting with you.  It may be terribly uncomfortable, but you want to be sure someone can corroborate exactly what was or wasn’t said.  Employees are also more likely to act civilly in the presence of another party.

6. Exit Interview.  Whether the termination was smooth or turbulent, be sure to conduct an exit interview within a few days of the termination.  If the employee resigned, schedule the exit interview for his/her last day.  If the termination was more sudden, give the employee an opportunity to absorb and reflect on what has happened.  The exit interview is an opportunity to capture valuable feedback on issues that may improve the satisfaction and tenure of other employees, and it gives the employee another opportunity to vent rather than ponder legal recourse for their termination.  It is also helpful to have an objective third party conduct the interview.

7. Severance.  While some employers see severance as a reward only for their longest term employees or as an incentive to keep employees (“If you stay through Christmas, I will give you severance.”), it is best practice to offer it equally to all employees and explain eligibility for severance at the outset of the employment relationship.  For example, you may craft your policy with retention in mind by stating that all employees who work at least one year will be paid two weeks of severance upon termination of employment and an additional week of severance for each additional year worked, up to six weeks total.  You may also make severance conditional upon a signed separation agreement.

Severance shows respect for the terminated employee by recognizing that it will take them time to find a new position and secure their livelihood, and these jestures can make the difference between a disappointed former employee and an angry former employee.

8. Separation Agreement.  Like an employment agreement, a separation agreement prevents misunderstandings and ensures that everyone gets what is coming to them.  It should outline what payments or expenses are to be resolved and what property or information is to be returned.  It should also include a non-disparagement clause and/or remind employees of their confidentiality obligations to prevent the spread of private information.  Finally, it should release the employer of any potential liability based on grounds of unlawful treatment or termination.

The time for taking proactive measures to avoid an ugly separation is when everyone is still happily engaged in their work.  Again, several of these measures may even improve performance and retention, further reducing the risk of a termination going wrong.

For more information or assistance with preparing documentation (job descriptions, employment agreements, task lists, property manuals, or employee manuals), conducting exit interviews, or other aspects of domestic human resource administration, please contact the Manager of your local office.