Five Classic Termination Mistakes

Vol. 11 No. 7

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Letting someone go is never an easy task. Employees may become violent, defensive, or extremely emotional. If you have a strong working relationship with the person you must terminate, it can be difficult for you. As emotionally complicated as firing someone is, it can also quickly become a legal disaster if not handled properly.

Protecting yourself and your school should always be your main objective while carrying out the less-than-desirable duty of firing a faculty or staff member. Your second objective is to carry out the task as painlessly and swiftly as possible. The following tips will help you prepare and protect yourself.

Never Terminate On the Spot. While we often see dramatic scenes of people being fired on the spot on TV and in the movies, this is not a good practice in real life. If someone is behaving in a way that is dangerous, unprofessional, or unseemly, it may seem that firing them right there and then is the best solution (and the most emotionally satisfying)—but it never is. Your first duty is to regain control of the situation and make sure students, parents, and fellow employees aren't at risk. Removing the employee from the situation is often the best way to calm the waters. Tell them that they are being put on paid administrative leave so that you can investigate the situation. (It might only take a day to determine that they need to be fired.) BY doing this, you are terminating them in the calmness of day, not in the heat of the moment—based on facts, not emotions. Firing them in this way is much more likely to be well thought-out and will stand up much better in court.

Remain Calm. Firing situations can be intense. Don’t heighten an already emotional situation by revealing your feelings. It’s also important not to berate or belittle the employee in front of others. Practicing several "what if's" with a trusted confidante in advance of the termination meeting. This will help you keep your emotions in check. And, remember, you are in control of the situation, whatever happens.

Avoid Surprises. If your school has implemented a review process for faculty and staff members, the element of surprise shouldn’t be a concern. By having regular reviews and evaluation tools in place, employees should be aware of their strengths and weaknesses, as well as areas in need of improvement. There should have been several conversations leading up to the actual termination, discussing appropriate goals and actions for improvement. However, letting someone go doesn’t always have to do with his/her performance. Budget issues could warrant layoffs, declines in a particular grade could call for downsizing, or technology could make it more efficient to run an area with less support. In these cases, avoiding a surprise might not be an option, yet it is best to always be clear with the employee as to the reason for dismissal. It won’t make the pain of losing their job any less, but it will make it less personal to clarify that the layoff is for reasons beyond their control. Conversely, never say that a termination for cause is a “layoff” to save someone embarrassment, as this will muddy the situation for all concerned.

Be Careful of What You Say. What you say as you’re terminating someone will be remembered by that person in the worse possible light for a long time. Be especially cautious not to make any discriminatory comments or present false information. In fact, it’s a good idea to run through what you want to say a few times (privately) before the actual termination meeting.

Respect Privacy. Don’t discuss your reasons for terminating an employee with other employees. It’s enough to say, “Carl won’t be with us any longer” and leave it at that. Openly discussing reasons for termination can set you up for a defamation-of-character lawsuit. Remember, everyone is watching everything you do. While some employees might be eager for inside dirt or gossip everyone else will take note that you did the right thing and revealed nothing publicly.

Additional ISM resources of interest
The Human Resources Life Cycle: Safe and Effective Faculty Recruitment, Retention, and Dismissal Practices
ISM Monthly Update for Human Resources Vol. 11 No. 4 Ask Michael
ISM Monthly Update for Human Resources Vol. 8 No. 5 A School Firing Case That Cost $1.5 Million

Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members
I&P Vol. 31 No. 7 Protect Your School With a Separation Agreement and General Release When Paying Severance

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