The employment termination process is not pleasant for anyone. Surely not for the one whose employment is being terminated. And, contrary to what many might think, it is not pleasant for managers and human resources representatives either.
The hardest termination cases involve employees who feel that they did not break any rules, are conscientious, and have been with the company for a few years, yet consistently underperform in their roles and do not meet the expectations of the job. Regardless, part of the termination/exit interview process at most companies involves either allowing the employee to go back to his work area (usually escorted) to collect his personal belongings or selecting someone from the company to collect the exiting employee’s personal belongings by proxy.
This might seem inhuman to some and I am sure there are more than a few employers out there who do not carry out the process appropriately or with any modicum of empathy, fairness, or ethics. All one has to do is google “going postal” (which even has its own Wikipedia entry), or read or listen to the news.
But employment termination is a major risk factor for workplace violence. In general, companies do not show people the door to be inhuman, but rather to avoid a potential outbreak of violence or unproductive behavior that could negatively affect the other employees or the business. The balancing act is to conduct the exit interview with empathy for the terminated employee, while also minimizing any potential threats to the other employees or the organization.
Termination of employment is in the Top 10 list of stressful life events. People go through the stages of grief at their own pace and at different rates, and people are known for being unpredictable. For example, some experiences I have encountered over the past years include conducting a termination interview over the phone with the employee at home when there was evidence that the employee possessed a weapon. Cold or not, I conducted the termination interview over the phone because I was not going to endanger the rest of the employee population (not to mention myself).
Another time, an employee being terminated threatened to harm a supervisor. In another example, an employee resigned but owed the company some money. This employee seemed hard-working and honest, and there were no complaints. My dealings with the employee were always professional and courteous. Before the employee left the company, we came up with a repayment plan, but the employee never delivered. The point is that the ending of employment can trigger emotional, violent, or unpredictable behavior in anyone.
A stunned or disgruntled employee who is allowed to go back to her work area, attended or not, could cause irreparable damage with just a few strokes of the keyboard. If you explain the security process to the exiting employee and apply it consistently, she might not like the answer, but will understand the reasoning behind it.
Also, timing is everything. Conduct the termination meeting and collection of personal possessions during a time of day when the presence of employees will be sparse — early morning, lunch, or at the end of the work day. This helps preserve the employee’s self-respect, shows empathy, and serves as a safety precaution.
Do not get mired down in discussions of the past, the “why is this being done?” factor. Rather, focus on the future and explain to the employee what will happen next and what actions he can take — continuation of benefits, or COBRA; filing for unemployment; final pay; and, if available, an employee assistance program, or outplacement options.
Unfortunately, these termination processes are in place as the result of a bigger issue that needs to be tackled — an angry, bitter, selfish, violent society with an eroded sense of trust, commitment, loyalty, empathy, and respect for others. Cripes, if elementary school children need to pass through metal detectors in order to enter the building, these issues are not going to melt away soon. In fact, who knows what kind of workplaces these school children will encounter when they become adults?
A journey begins with a single step, so the first thing we all need to do is to stop overusing employment-at-will as the excuse for both parties to behave poorly. Yes, for the most part (and in principle), employment-at-will means that either the employee or the employer can sever the employment relationship at any time, with or without reason or cause.
However, the reality is that if an employee does this, he faces burning a bridge and could jeopardize his career future. If an employer does this by way of discrimination or other unlawful acts, that employer faces potential legal issues — and judges and juries sometimes view employer-induced employment severing differently than employers do.
We need to work on restoring the moral and ethical fabric behind this doctrine. We need trust, commitment, loyalty, empathy, and respect for others. This is basic knowledge most of us are taught fairly early in life. Applying the knowledge should come to us automatically. If it doesn’t, then here is a selfish reason why we should work on restoring these qualities: if the end justifies the means and at-will employment termination can occur at any time, then no one is beyond the reach of its tentacles. Not even you.
Laura Caille, a Lawrence resident, has 14 years experience in HR, including international experience, working in various industries. She also understands the firing process from both sides, having been downsized herself. Caille wrote an Interchange piece on her struggle to find employment in the June 30, 2010, issue of U.S. 1. The article above represents the views and opinions of Caille alone and not those of any past or present employers. She is currently the senior HR generalist for a global company that provides network security solutions for businesses.