When questions arise about an employee’s fit, decisions are best made promptly and proactively. Ask yourself, “Have we communicated with the employee verbally or in writing about the gap in our work expectations?” If so, have you given the employee—with your support and encouragement—a fair and equitable opportunity to close the gap? The key is to be proactive and clear in your expectations.
Planning the Termination Meeting
At times, even the best efforts fail, and an employee needs to leave the operation. It’s normal for an employee to leave their termination meeting in a foul mood, so plan the meeting carefully. Make sure the employee’s manager and your HR professional are present. If you don’t have an HR professional on staff, make sure that you have an appropriate witness—not a co-worker of the employee. Consider scheduling the meeting early in the day and early in the week. You may also want to check to make sure there are no significant events occurring on the day of release, such as a birthday or employment anniversary.
In the Meeting
The manager should lead the meeting and delivers the news up front without rehashing a mountain of details about what led to the termination. One inflammatory phrase from a manager can spark a lawsuit. Remember your goal, and briefly deliver the news by summarizing the well documented, job-related reasons for the termination. That way, while the employee may not like it, he or she will have little to dispute. Be sure to make it clear that the decision is final.
Don’t succumb to sadness. Remember, this is not about you, the manager; it is about them. Don’t say something like, “I know this is hard” because you don’t. Don’t pretend to be in the employee’s shoes. At the same time, avoid using harsh words during the termination meeting. This only serves to inflame the issue. Stick to the facts, and avoid generalizing statements. Don’t give the employee any reason to march straight to an attorney’s office after leaving yours.
Here are a few quick tips for legally smart terminations:
1. Avoid surprises.
When supervisors document poor performance and give regular feedback, separations shouldn’t take anyone by surprise. That will help prevent lawsuits, and if the operation is ever the subject of a lawsuit, documentation can prove to a court that the firing was justified.
2. Keep your cool
Never holler, “You’re fired!” or berate a terminated employee. Remain calm. If employees ask for reasons, stick to concrete, documented, job-related facts.
3. Be honest.
If an employee’s work was substandard, say it. Don’t offer compliments to soften the blow. Doing so will only further aggravate the situation because it will appear that the separation is without cause, which could spark a wrongful termination lawsuit.
4. Play by the rules.
Follow the organization’s established discipline policy, and don’t stray from past practices without a clear reason for doing so. An attorney or the local unemployment office will pick apart any inconsistencies.
Employers have the right to digress from discipline policies and fire employees immediately if an employee engages in serious misconduct. Progressive discipline should be designed and implemented as a process of corrective action to modify behavior or performance, not as a way to address serious misconduct. If misused, progressive discipline can quickly make work relationships adversarial.
But before skipping a progressive disciplinary process, verify the facts and discuss the issue with an HR professional. It’s not enough to act on rumors of wrongdoing. Employers must conduct a thorough investigation and ask the employee for their side of the story.
5. Keep it private and quiet.
No matter how much prior communication you have had with the employee, the moment of discharge will still be a shock. Discharge the employee in a closed-door meeting, and have an HR representative present. If you must escort an employee from the premises, don’t call attention to it by marching them through a busy workspace. You may want to consider arranging a day for the employee to return to privately collect personal property. Letting an employee return to their workspace immediately following the meeting may cause an emotional or embarrassing situation.
Don’t discuss your reason for the termination with other employees. It’s enough to say that the employee will not be working with the operation anymore. Some supervisors who have spoken too freely about the reasons for a firing have found themselves in court defending defamation lawsuits.
Firing someone is never easy, but the consequences associated with holding on to an underperforming worker can be far worse. When you hire someone, always start with appreciation, recognition, and investment in the employee’s growth and development. However, don’t fall into to the trap of tolerating underperformance or misbehavior. When efforts to close the gap are unsuccessful, act with respect, sensitivity, professionalism, and decisiveness.
Stay calm and call HR.
FamilyFarms Group provides training and resources to help family farmers like you on the farm for generations to come. Click here to learn about our training opportunities, or click the link below to download our free ebook about measuring farm employee performance.