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After they’re gone: Communicating about departed employees

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You’ve just informed an employee on your team that he or she has been terminated. What you do next is important to the morale and the productivity of the rest of your team. Whether the termination is due to eliminating a position, poor performance that hasn’t improved despite remediation efforts, or an egregious action that warrants immediate dismissal, the affected employee’s co-workers will have questions. To maintain trust, morale and productivity, you must quickly divulge the separation and explain what it means for the remaining staff. What you communicate depends on the reason behind the employee’s termination.

 

Position elimination

If the situation allows, it’s helpful to the healing process to allow the departing employee to say goodbye to his or her co-workers. That way, the team can see that the person was treated with respect and ultimately will be OK.

When a team member is laid off due to a position elimination, call a meeting with the remaining employees to acknowledge and address what has occurred: “Everyone, this is an unfortunate situation and a sad one to lose one of our co-workers. I know it’s always unnerving to hear these kinds of things, which is why I wanted to bring us all together to discuss this. You can see that Laura handled the news professionally. We’ve treated her with respect and dignity, and she responded in kind.”

After that brief statement concerning the terminated employee’s well-being, focus on the team by stating that the company has no further plans to eliminate other positions as of today. As a manager, you can’t make any promises beyond that. Assure your team members that with the redundancy eliminated, the organization will get stronger—with their help. End the meeting with an action plan: “As a next step, we will take a close look at Laura’s responsibilities, as they will need to be divided among the rest of us. As always, I appreciate your support.”

Delivering the news in a professional manner will help quell uneasiness. Allow team members to express their thoughts, to vent and to grieve, but then remind them that they are still employed and have a job to do.

 

Performance problems

Performance and attendance problems typically don’t occur in a vacuum. The employee receives notices and corrective action plans that convey that the individual’s job is in jeopardy if his or her performance doesn’t improve. Most of the time, co-workers are well aware of the individual’s struggles, so a termination is often not a surprise.

“In fairly straightforward situations like these, it’s OK to make a generic statement to the team members informing them that John Doe is no longer with the company,” says Jathan Janove, managing shareholder at law firm Ogletree Deakins in Portland, Ore. “The key is to keep it simple, respectful and short.”

Call a quick meeting to make a straightforward announcement: “John Doe is no longer with the company effective yesterday, and we appreciate his efforts during the past two years. We will discuss backfilling his position and temporarily reassigning some of his responsibilities to keep things moving while we recruit for the opening. Out of respect for John, please keep this news fairly quiet. While we’re sorry he’s no longer here, we wish him well in his future endeavors. If you have any questions, please see me privately.”

 

Egregious Misconduct

Conduct-related infractions can be a source of intrigue for co-workers, especially if you can’t provide all the facts for legal reasons. Such misconduct includes harassment, bullying, discrimination, violence, gross insubordination, theft, fraud, embezzlement, falsification of records and substance abuse. “A sudden change in employment for these reasons can have much more of a shock value,” Janove says. “People don’t know all the specifics and are more inclined to fill in the void with inaccurate assumptions.” Therefore, the announcement should focus more on instructions and guidelines rather than alluding to details surrounding the separation.

For example, “Everyone, I called this meeting to let you know that Lucy Brown is no longer with the company. Please understand that I’m not at liberty to discuss specifics with you, but I can tell you that we treated Lucy respectfully, listened to what she had to say and took appropriate action based on our findings. Out of respect for Lucy, please do not engage in hearsay about her termination.”

Remind employees that they cannot respond to external queries about the employee’s time at the organization: “If you receive any reference calls or e-mails regarding Lucy’s employment, please refer them directly to HR. We have a policy and active practice of not sharing references with third parties like prospective employers or headhunters, and violating that policy could have serious consequences for you and the company.”

It’s important that your team members know not to participate in third-party reference checks under any circumstances. “Doing so could open your organization to claims of breach of privacy and defamation and potentially hold the referent as well as your company liable for damages resulting from lost wages due to a rescinded job offer,” Janove notes.

 

Break the silence

While it may be easier to let the news of a termination blow over, silence speaks volumes—and you may not like what it has to say. Take control of the message by communicating the circumstances of the separation in a concise, quick manner. Your clear, direct approach will be appreciated, and it will allow the healing process to begin.

Paul Falcone is an HR executive and has written numerous books, including 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems: A Guide to Progressive Discipline and Termination (AMACOM/SHRM, 2010).

© 2013, Society for Human Resource Management

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