Separate with respect

Photo by Chris Liverani
Photo by Chris Liverani

One of the most unpleasant tasks for a manager is the separation from employees. Of course, I am not talking about a narcistic boss who needs this to confirm himself and secure his power, nor about immediate terminations after major misconduct on the part of the employee.

There are situations in which a business downswing or a change in the business model make separations necessary. Unfortunately, these are usually not isolated cases, but whole series. How to deal with them?

This process is not easy. It is a burden for the manager, the organization and, of course, also for the affected employees. Much can go wrong in these separation processes. Emotions can get out of control; legal disputes can drag on for a long time and especially in larger rounds it can lead to bad press in old and new media such as company portals. The damage can get huge for everyone involved. But just like recruiting this process also belongs to the task of a manager.

In recent years I have been able to gain some experience with these processes. Some of my findings are therefore first-hand. What I noted for myself:

Create clarity

I heard about separation talks in which the manager talked so much about development opportunities that the employee thought he had been promoted. The subject must be clearly stated at the beginning so you can concentrate on the emotional aftercare and the next steps during the rest of the talk.

Never alone

An experienced colleague from the human resources department at your side is crucial. During the preparation, he helps to work out legal effects and severance packages. He has also accompanied such talks several times and can help out in technical questions or if the situation escalates.

Show empathy

Neither hide own feelings with a Poker face nor crying together. Genuine empathy and understanding of the employee’s difficult situation are required at this moment. You need to show compassion for the employee in this situation – while keeping own emotions under control. A demanding leadership situation.

Explain the decision

It does not help much to hide behind the “system” or the “board decision”. As a manager, you are not only the messenger of a message, you must also be able to explain it conclusively and stand behind it.

Show perspectives

You know your employee – at least you need to gather some information upfront: Skills, strengths, interests. During the talk, you might be able to give him options for the future.

Perhaps you know even colleagues in other enterprises, to whom you can recommend the employee. In any case, it helps here to offer support in finding a job and to offer yourself as a reference.

Give time to digest

In some countries, the labor law even prohibits a direct signing of the termination agreement in the first meeting. The employee can thus take the time to inform himself sufficiently about his legal situation.

Watch the herd

A wave of dismissals creates extreme uncertainty among the other employees – especially if this was the first one in this environment and the job so far seemed “secure”.

It is crucial to explain conclusively the rationale for the decision and to focus on the big picture going forward. Otherwise, there is a great danger that more employees will resign due to the created uncertainty – and the good ones will be the first. That’s why you have to take care of them above all.

This is primarily the duty of the managers of the target organization. They now have to look after their team.

Set the scene

It can be a meeting room or the classic office of the boss. Ideally, the setup should not be a 2 vs. 1 situation at the table, but around a table or a corner. You should be prepared for emotional outbursts, but placing a tissue box directly on the table does not set the right stage. (If you shake your head in disbelief and think “Who does something like that?”: You only have to invert all the clues to see what has gone wrong somewhere else before. Remember my old rule: it is physically possible, so it also happens).

Establish security

A very delicate point is the separation of employees with critical access to operations. The first frustration can lead to actions that cause great damage and will be regretted by the employee later. Especially for IT employees who have access to critical production systems, access needs to be blocked immediately for security reasons. If you escort the employee out with the security service, then you should be aware of the effect on the other employees. They immediately feel like they’re in a bad American movie. Here, too, communicative aftercare and explanation are urgently needed.

Follow Communication plan

It makes sense to agree on the communication strategy with the employee right away including the clear designation of the confidentiality circle. The agreed confidentiality must be maintained by both sides to avoid damage to the company and maintain integrity.

Send home immediately

After such a message normal work is possible any more. The employee has to digest first. At least for this working day, he goes home. He might also be sent directly to a garden leave. By the way, a short conversation about necessary handovers is also useful to get the employee back from a difficult emotion – if the situation allows for it. Otherwise, a follow-up discussion on the next day is also a good idea.

Of course, these is just some practical advice from my own experience and from what I have seen around. They are certainly not complete but may give some important clues for your difficult conversations.

The goal should always be a termination agreement. This is the best solution at eye level for both the employee and the company. You say goodbye respectfully because your industry is not that big after all.

Who knows when you will meet again and in what role: as a competitor, as a customer or even as a boss? In contrast to a divorce from a spouse, it is even quite likely that you will enter into a new relationship with each other later. This makes it all the more important how you separated.

It is a very stressful leadership situation and at the same time a very good growth opportunity – for managers and employees. I have experienced that such separations were also perceived as liberation, at least with some distance. Each chapter’s closing also opens up an exciting new chapter.

What about you?

Have you ever had to do a separation talk?

How did it go?

How did you feel about it?

Are you still in contact with the former employee today?

Translation into English supported by DeepL and Grammarly

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