"Clean out your desk. You're fired!"
For bosses who graduated from the Simon Legree school of management, terminating a worker might be as easy as those six words. But more often, firing an employee can be almost as traumatic for the manager as it is for the worker.
"Managers, like most people, find it difficult to be confrontational," said Molly Shepard, president of the career development consulting firm Manchester Inc. in King of Prussia, Pa. "Firing needs to be a more dignified process."
As the economy slows to a crawl, a wave of layoffs is sweeping through American business. Job growth is virtually nonexistent and unemployment, now at 5.7 percent, seems almost certain to climb higher.
Faced with these sobering circumstances, what can a manager do to ease the pain of being fired? Experts offered a few tips on how to handle the dismissal process in ways that are humane to both boss and worker:
Tough talk: In preparing to fire a worker, managers tend to build up anger about the person being let go by recalling the most negative points to justify the decision. Time should be set aside to gather thoughts on how to dismiss the worker in calm, clear words. Writing down the employee's strengths and weaknesses is helpful.
"Managers need to put into perspective why the company is letting the worker go," Shepard said. "They have to say it in such a way so as not to give the worker the double blow of not only having lost the job but telling him that he is incompetent. There is no need to kick the worker when he is down."
Fair warning: In many cases, experts said, the dismissal comes as a surprise to the worker, even though managers insist they gave plenty of warning, both written and oral. Documentation and making sure expectations have been communicated to workers are essential to successful management, they said.
"This goes a long way to alleviating a lot of the trauma for the employer in firing a worker," said Ross A. Webber, a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
State of the company: Another common mistake is for managers to neglect telling workers being laid off that their fate is partially the result of the company's poor economic condition, if that is the case. "It's very difficult to make a choice between the survival of a company and the compassion of people," said Stephen Temlock, president of Organization Consultants of Westport, Conn. "Most companies can't put an umbrella of complete protection over them. I believe strongly that companies owe people an honest appraisal of the economic situation."
Treatment: Companies that escort a former worker from the building essentially are treating the person like a criminal, Shepard said. "This is uncalled for," she said. "Unless the person is in charge of highly sensitive information or holds the key to the company's computer, there is no reason to believe that the individual might do something destructive. A company should trust the employee."
Right place, right time: Consultants agreed that Friday is the worst day to let go of workers, as is a usually hectic Monday. Tuesday is better because it gives the worker time to adjust to the reality of leaving the job while allowing time to wrap up business affairs and regain some confidence before starting to look for another job. Thomas R. Horton, chairman and chief executive of the American Mangement Association in New York, suggests a neutral site be selected to give an employee the bad news, preferably away from his or her co-workers.
Severance: Because it can take some workers up to three months to find a new job, severance pay should be granted, the experts said. "Severance pay is really transitional pay to cover the point of leaving one job to joining another job," Shepard said, adding that a company should outline severance pay in a letter at the time of dismissal. "The worst thing for a company to do is to say to the worker, 'You'll hear from us on severance.' "
A firing, like any tragedy, leaves co-workers feeling a sense of loss. The fired worker should be allowed to say goodbye to grieving colleagues. The job of the manager with the remaining workers thus becomes twofold: to help them deal with the reality of the firing by being open about it, and to get them to pull together and think about the future of the company.
"The more care and concern that managers can give to this process, the more palpable it will be to the individual and the better for the morale for those left behind," Shepard said. "They have to see that their colleague was taken care of and how this might affect how they are treated."