The Art of Respectful Termination


Sometimes, despite your best efforts to train, coach and counsel an employee, you need to terminate his or her employment. In a way, termination is like the break-up of a relationship. One party is dissatisfied and wants to end it; while the other party is shocked even though the writing has been on the wall. In an employment relationship, performance reviews, performance improvement plans and/or disciplinary actions that precede termination should make the situation clear, however, breaking up is hard to do. Both parties will likely wind up feeling a little bruised. 

Walk for a few moments in your employee’s shoes. Imagine you’ve been coached for several months and have made multiple attempts to improve. You’ve been asked to change from who you are to the person your manager believes you can be. Envision how hard it must be to dread going to work every day knowing you don’t measure up to the standards of the job or of the manager to whom you report. Would you want to be told over and over again that your enough isn’t enough? 

To paraphrase Kevin O’Leary, from the TV show “Dragon’s Den,” the time to terminate an employee is when you first think of it. While it’s important to coach and develop your workforce, the point is not to be afraid of the decision to terminate someone’s employment. It’s a decision that depends on circumstances, the position, the risk, the employee, the manager, and to a lesser degree on how hard it will be to find a replacement employee. You will lose sleep over it, asking yourself, is it right for the business? Is it right for the employee? Will this employee be better off when their job search matches them with an employer who recognizes and needs their unique talents? 

If terminations are new to you or you could use a refresher; here are a few tips to make this difficult business a bit easier to manage:

  • Review your notes to verify what actions you’ve taken to date. Have you done what is reasonable to help the employee achieve success? Have you smoothed the path to their development or created barriers? Own your piece of this failure and learn from it.
  • Know what the Employment Standards Act minimum standards are, and what common law provisions apply to this unique situation. Get support from a Certified Human Resources Professional or employment lawyer.
  • Think it over. Never terminate on the spot. If the matter is that grave, send the employee home to allow you time to plan your next step. 
  • If termination is the right decision, put it in writing and have three copies of the letter available; two for the employee and one for you to review with them.
  • Plan the meeting, ensuring your chair is closest to the door with a clear exit route. Just in case. 
  • Do the deed in private and at the end of the day when inquiring minds are less likely to pay attention. Always have someone else present during the termination to take notes. 
  • Keep it short. Even when termination is expected, chances are the employee isn’t hearing much of what is being said anyway. 
  • Gently escort the employee to their desk or locker. Be respectful of their space and the emotional impact of the action. Offer to pack up and deliver their personal belongings, if they’re not up to it. Ask for building access cards, keys, electronic devices, and phone and computer passwords before they leave the building. 
  • Always ask the employee if they can make their way home safety. Be sure to offer a taxi service if the employee is too distraught to drive safely.

Terminations are never a pleasant task; but they are often part of being an effective manager. Plan them carefully and be respectful and compassionate. Your employee’s feelings and the company’s reputation is worth the extra steps you take to ensure the termination goes well.