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Employee terminations 101: What to say and do when it happens


When it comes to an employee termination, the steps leading up to the actual conversation might be the easier part. If you have a progressive discipline policy in place and you’ve followed all the appropriate steps leading up to a termination, your move really shouldn’t come as a surprise to the employee.

Even if they might be expecting it, how do you handle the actual conversation during which you deliver the unfortunate news?

Regardless of the reasons behind the decision, terminations will always be among one of the most difficult conversations you’ll have with an employee. However, with preparation and adherence to best practices, you can limit the awkwardness as well as any potential pitfalls.

Termination, defined

Termination means any separation from a company, for any reason. It could be:

  • Voluntary (resignation)
  • Involuntary (layoff or firing for performance, conduct and behavioral issues)
  • A mutual agreement that the employment arrangement isn’t a good fit for either the employee or company

Who should be involved in an employee termination

This may vary depending on a specific company and its organizational structure and culture, but generally the following parties should be present when an employee is terminated:

  • The employee’s direct supervisor or manager
  • A third-party witness (for example, the manager’s manager or a human resources (HR) professional)

If you work with a professional employer organization (PEO), a representative from the PEO can also sit in on the conversation to:

  • Provide additional HR support
  • Act as another witness
  • Help deliver the termination message
  • Consult on how to avoid other potential problems

Where employee terminations should take place

A face-to-face meeting is always preferred. This is a tough conversation to have and, out of respect for the employee, it’s best to deliver it personally.

Although open-concept office spaces are common, they’re definitely not conducive to the privacy and sensitivity that a termination conversation calls for. Find a conference room or huddle room space that is:

  • Enclosed so that other employees can’t overhear the discussion
  • Lacking large glass windows, walls or doors so that no one else can peek inside
  • Quiet

However, with the rise of remote work and the dispersion of employees across states and even time zones, it may be not be feasible to meet with an employee in person. In these cases, terminating an employee via videoconference is acceptable.

When sending meeting invitations to remote employees, access their calendar to confirm when they next have an opening, and schedule a meeting as soon as possible. Allow for a short turnaround time between when the invitation is sent and when the meeting starts – preferably less than an hour.

Make sure remote employees are in a private, quiet location – alone – before initiating the discussion.

Note: If an employee has abandoned their job and you have no way of reaching them, then the “location” becomes a termination letter sent to their mailing address.

When termination should happen

There’s much debate within the HR community on which day of the week and time of day are optimal for terminating an employee. Here are a few points to keep in mind:

  • Waiting until the end of the day to terminate an employee can be beneficial, because there will be less employees in the office to watch the terminated employee pack up their belongings at their desk and be escorted out.
  • If you terminate an employee on a Friday, they will have to wait a few days to file for unemployment benefits and put a plan into action.

As a general rule, once you’ve made the decision to terminate an employee, act as soon as possible – within a few days. Otherwise, if you wait several days or weeks, other issues could arise that may make a termination trickier, such as:

What you should bring

There is no required paperwork that you must bring with you to a termination conversation. However, it can be a good idea to have:

  • A termination letter simply stating that the employee no longer works for the company as of the day’s date. All parties present should sign the letter, and copies should be given to the employee and retained by the company for the personnel file. (Employees may need this documentation to be able to sign up for benefits under their spouse’s plan.)
  • An FAQ document for the employee that covers common post-employment questions
  • A checklist for the topics you’ll need to cover during the termination conversation and actions you’ll need to take immediately following.

Some companies provide a separation agreement, which usually covers:

  • Severance pay if applicable
  • Return of work property
  • No-solicitation provisions
  • Waivers of rights to file claims against former employers (except for wage claims)

If you plan to provide a separation agreement, it may be best to deliver it after the termination conversation. Instead, consider sending it to the employee via secure email once the meeting concludes so that they have ample time to review and process the information within the agreement.

What you should say during employee terminations

When planning what you’ll say during the conversation:

  • Have a game in plan in advance – don’t wing it
  • Keep in mind that every termination is unique; make sure all information shared is necessary and accurate
  • Be careful not to say anything that could open your company up to potential problems

If the termination results from a performance, behavioral or conduct issue, then you most likely have disciplined the employee previously, including issuing written and verbal warnings, and had prior discussions with the employee about resolving the problem. They should not be caught off guard. In this situation, not much else needs to be said besides:

Thank you for meeting with me today. As you’re aware, there have been concerns around [the issue]. Despite our attempts to solve the problem, we have not seen any improvement or achieved the results we expect. Therefore, we are terminating your employment. Your last paycheck will include all wages owed.”

You will want to determine in advance whether your state or locality:

  • Has any specific final pay provisions
  • Requires paid time off (PTO) balances to be included on final paychecks

The conversation surrounding layoffs may be somewhat lengthier. Because the termination is through no fault of the employee’s, you may want to explain the reasons for the layoff and review severance packages and other transition services your company may offer.

Ending the conversation and afterward

To close the conversation, ask the terminated employee, “Do you have any questions about your final paycheck or benefits?”

Avoid asking the more general, “Do you have any questions?” This provides employees with an opportunity to:

  • Challenge you
  • Argue about the (real or perceived) reasons for the termination
  • Become emotional

If an employee raises any new issues that you have not heard previously to protest their termination, such as a medical issue or disability, it’s a good idea to consult with your HR, legal team or PEO before responding.

Once the termination meeting is over, take the employee to their workspace to pack up their personal property. This is a good time to collect any company-issued cell phones, keycards, pay cards or access badges.

If the employee is emotional, it may be best to escort them out promptly. Have their personal belongings packed for them, and send it to their mailing address via courier.

If an employee works remotely, send a courier to their home or off-site workspace to pack and retrieve company property and deliver it back to you.

Don’t forget to switch off the employee’s access to company systems.

Summing it all up

When you decide to terminate an employee, act as soon as possible. But first, plan where the termination conversation will take place, who needs to be present and which materials you’ll bring with you. Write a script for what you plan to say – keep it concise. If you’re caught off guard by something an employee unexpectedly says that could have negative implications, consult with your HR team or PEO before responding. Your company is always evolving – and employment changes are just one of the many challenges you’ll encounter. To learn more about adapting to workplace changes, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to managing change.