Why You Should Offer Support to Separated Employees

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Sitting on a red leather throne, pointing a finger, and yelling “You’re fired!” into someone’s face might make for amusing television, but here in reality, business leaders should probably take a subtler approach. While letting a worker go will never be easy, there are steps that managers can take to ease the process for all involved.

It’s a frightening experience to lose one’s job, and it’s up to companies to make the transition a smooth one. Providing the most positive separation experience possible will be good for the employee, the manager, and the company’s brand.

Words Matter

When letting an employee go, preparation is key. Some managers will tell you that firing an employee should be like ripping off a band-aid, but that’s insensitive at best.

“Employee separations can be an emotional time for all involved — the employee, the manager communicating the separation, and the organization impacted,” says Elaine Varelas, managing partner at career management firm Keystone Partners. “Managers need to prepare a script with the company message about why this person’s position has been eliminated. A vital legal and human resources distinction is positions are ‘eliminated,’ [while] people are ‘separated.'”

When you sit an employee down to talk about their pending termination, it’s important to remember they are a human being. However hard it may be for a manager to fire someone, at the end of the day that manager still has their job. It’s harder on the separated party every time.

“Managers need to know the individual being impacted,” Varelas says. “Are there other stressful situations going on in the person’s life? An illness in the family, children, elderly parents, divorce, financial concerns? This information will prepare managers for the type of reactions and significant concerns the employee may be faced with upon receiving the news.”

Managers should prepare for separation conversations in advance. They should have all the details clearly ironed out, including:

  1. What is the official company rationale for the separation?
  2. How will the company support the impacted person? Will there be severance, benefits continuation, outplacement, and/or other support measures? Will the company provide a great reference?
  3. Will the employee be eligible for rehire?

“Employees will most typically have a list of concerns,” Varelas says. “Some need to be addressed that day, most often in writing, and managers need a resource to direct the employee to in the following days if they have other questions. This knowledge also helps managers anticipate employee reactions. Should medical personnel be available? Security? Outplacement consultant?”

Preparation goes beyond having answers for the separated employee. Managers must also find an appropriate space to have the conversation and ensure the protection of company assets.

“Managers need support on the logistics of these meetings,” says Varelas. “Private space is a must — in the days of open work areas, this can be a challenge. After logistics and the script, managers need to understand how to deal with any reaction an employee might have, and [managers should] have resources available to them.”

One thing managers need to think about: how to end the meeting properly. How the employee’s exit is managed and who does the managing should be clearly laid out, with input from other relevant stakeholders in the company.

“Having a next step is vital to move the process to closure,” Varelas says.

Life After Separation

Many companies have recently recognized the value of providing services to separated employees. Doing so can proactively eliminate multiple problems.

“Outplacement, once a transitional support provided to executives, is now provided at all levels of an organization when a firm sees the value in protecting its brand, avoiding litigation, delivering a positive message to remaining employees, and recognizing that separating employees may become valuable alumni,” Varelas says.

The fired worker isn’t the only one affected, especially when a larger layoff takes place. Remaining employees may start to question the security of their own roles, or even their desire to stay with their employer.

“Following a reduction, fear runs throughout the organization and employees ask themselves if this company is still where they want to be,” says Varelas. “They wonder if the company is in financial difficulty and if they may be next. They may not like the way they saw colleagues treated and decide it is time for them to look outside the organization. If many positions have been eliminated, they may see their workload increase, with no clear view on how that will change in the near future.”

In this type of situation, executives and management need to take steps to reassure their workforce that things will be fine. Hiding from employees and avoiding questions will only do more damage and push the remaining employees to seek new opportunities.

“Managers need to be highly visible,” Varelas says. “They need to re-recruit their people. They need to communicate and answer questions. Without breaking confidentiality about the individuals impacted, managers may need to reassure current employees that separated employees were treated fairly and provided with financial support, benefits continuation, and career transition support/outplacement. Managers need to ask how they can help employees [and] what they need, and [they need to] stay out of closed-door meetings. All eyes are on them as employees look to confirm whether or not there is a plan for another reduction. The organization needs to prepare a consistent answer to that very difficult question: ‘Is there another reduction in force coming?'”

By Jason McDowell