Last Respects –Terminations that Protect your Employment Brand

by Eileen Kirton & Barry Howard

Every day companies decide, for various reasons, to terminate employees. All too often, they mishandle delivering the news. A quick media search reveals hundreds of horror stories, from individuals dismissed on Christmas Eve to the infamous incident in which 400 staff members at a retail chain giant’s headquarters were terminated via email. As Career Transition consultants we have heard our share of anecdotes over the years. One company asked its HR Manager to wait by the fax machine for a confidential message to arrive, which turned out to be his own termination notice. Another

had employees line up along a single staircase leading to an executive office, forcing terminated employees to take a humiliating walk back past their colleagues, who were waiting to receive the news themselves.

The prevalence of such stories suggests that terminations remain a blind spot for businesses in building their employment brand. Organizations spend significant effort on hiring, developing and engaging staff to establish a reputation as a progressive, appealing employer in a competitive labour market. Yet many announce and conduct terminations with little care or thought paid to the implications beyond the short-term need to reduce staff. They fail to understand that how you conduct terminations may create a negative impression of your organization in the eyes of past, present and potential future employees. This can result in significant, long-term damage to your employment brand – directly impacting your ability to attract and retain talent.

Poorly executed terminations demonstrate a lack of trust and respect to affected employees – a serious offence to people at a vulnerable moment in their lives. They will remember and recount their termination experiences in vivid detail to many people – friends, family and other professionals. Each time the story is told, it influences the way the labour market perceives your employment brand. Negative experiences in particular are retold many times over. Just ask any restaurant owner how far and fast negative word of mouth travels, and how quickly it can impact a business. The current economic downturn only further raises the stakes. In the prevailing environment of fear and uncertainty, negative word of mouth about you will be amplified if you handle a termination poorly.

Yet, it’s not just the opinions of terminated employees you need worry about. Your top performers will take note of how you treat their departing friends and colleagues. If they perceive you have been insensitive, it will tarnish their image of you as an employer, and they will begin pursuing other employment options. Not surprisingly, those who remain will be your underperforming employees with fewer employment options, significantly impairing your ability to remain competitive and profitable down the road.

In our experience, many termination processes focus on the interests of the organization without proper consideration for the affected employee. These processes are often the result of intent to protect corporations from security threats and the risk of litigation. As a result, terminations are often conducted in a cold, abrupt, one-size-fits-all manner that only serves to make these difficult situations more negative than necessary. Progressive employers align their termination processes with their corporate values and culture. They consistently demonstrate respect to the individuals who are being terminated at every stage of the process while still protecting their organizations from possible harm.

The best way to protect your employment brand and demonstrate respect to your employees is to customize your termination process so that it addresses the unique personality and requirements of each affected individual. A best practice we recommend to clients is that they offer employees options on how they will collect their belongings, communicate to co-workers and leave the office after being terminated. With this small gesture, terminated employees are more likely to feel that they are departing on their own terms and with their dignity intact. Additionally, we recommend clients consider ‘what if’ scenarios – how the employee will react to the news – in planning where, when and how they will deliver it. For example, one employee may appreciate an early morning notification in his or her office to avoid embarrassment in front of colleagues, while another might prefer a neutral setting. Practices such as these demonstrate consideration for each departing employee – minimizing any negative perception of your organization with remaining and future employees. We will be exploring additional best practices for conducting terminations in an upcoming issue of Directions.

Ultimately, terminations, however necessary at times, are an unpleasant process for everyone – you, the terminated employees, and the staff you retain. The more consideration and respect you demonstrate in delivering the news, the greater the likelihood that you will maintain a healthy employment brand among current employees, and in the labour market. This will give you a distinct advantage when economic conditions improve and you start hiring once more.

Eileen Kirton leads KWA Partners in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, which operates as a Division of People First HR Services in these provinces. Eileen has extensive experience in consulting and in senior level human resource and organizational development positions in the telecom and financial services sectors. Barry Howard is a Career and Executive Coach with KWA Partners in British Columbia and Alberta, which operates as a Division of Toombs Inc. in these provinces. Barry has led numerous employee development and change initiatives and has considerable experience in assessment, coaching, and counselling. KWA Partners is Canada’s leading provider of quality, personalized career management services.