Workplace culture: The human side of offboarding

July 4, 2016 Kim Schollick No Comments

A week or two ago, for those keeping score at home, we talked a little about offboarding – a crucial, if somewhat complex stage in the talent management lifecycle. Given the sheer breadth of the topic, we only touched on the mechanics of the process – some of the why, and a little of the how.

What we didn’t touch on, however, was the emotional and human aspect of saying goodbye to an employee.

Regardless of whether the employee has been dismissed or has decided to leave voluntarily, the termination of an employment agreement can be a far more emotionally charged exercise than most of us would care for. Unfortunately, the odds of an employee leaving on bad terms are pretty high. As we mentioned in last week’s blog:

  • 75% of people leave their jobs because they’re unhappy with either their job or boss
  • 32% of job separations are attributed to layoffs
  • 58% of job separations are attributed to employees quitting

Most guides on offboarding (including our own) assume the sort of tidiness that rarely occurs when an employee leaves. They assume a best-case scenario – a separation in which knowledge transfer, property and data retrieval and exit interviews can all be conducted and completed with relative ease.

Of course, as anyone who’s ever tried to catch a tram in Melbourne peak hour can attest, the best-case scenario is rarely the one that plays out.

So is it possible to properly offboard an employee who leaves on bad terms?

Here are four less-than-ideal scenarios in which employees and employers often part ways, and some ways you can minimise harm in each of those scenarios.

You dismiss an employee for inadequate performance

No matter how good your interviewing and screening processes are, there will come a time when you need to let an employee go for not adequately performing their role. What that actually looks like can, of course, vary wildly – it could be someone wilfully neglecting their duties, or someone who just isn’t up to the challenge.

Either way, it may be in your best interest to let that person go.

This particular scenario is one that can evoke a strong reaction in the employee – be it anger, sadness, or something else together. That means you need to take provisions to break the news gently, and manage the aftermath as best as possible.

There are a few things you can do to make this process less traumatic for your soon-to-be ex-employee. The real world is not an episode of The Apprentice, and yelling ‘you’re fired’ at someone isn’t going to do you any favours. To minimise the impact on both you and your employee, try to adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Tell them yourself, face-to-face Honestly, it’s staggering that this needs to be said, but do not fire your employees over voicemail, email, sticky note or other method that does not involve you telling someone to their face that their services are no longer required.Even when an employee is being let go because they’ve performed abysmally, they deserve to be treated with respect. Look, I understand – when a situation has the potential to be uncomfortable, I also prefer to hide behind email, but as a manager, you don’t always have that luxury. To paraphrase Professor Dumbledore, sometimes we have to choose between what is right, and what is easy.
  • Have some backup In the increasingly litigious world in which we live, having someone else in the room with you when you let someone go is good insurance. In larger companies, that extra person will usually be someone from HR, but if you don’t have a dedicated HR department, another manager or senior member of your department will suffice.Ideally, the departing employee should have at least a civil relationship with both people present, to minimise the potential for a volatile situation.
  • Pick the right time While there’s no real ‘good’ time to fire someone, there may be times that are better than others. There are two schools of thought when it comes to this – those that think the start of the week is the best time and those that think the end of the week is better.Those who are in Camp Monday believe that letting someone go at the start of the week gives them time to touch base with their network and immediately source new opportunities. Those in Camp Friday, however, believe an end-of-week firing is less likely to be disruptive. The proximity of the weekend may also serve to soften the blow a little.
  • Keep it simple When emotions are high, it can be easy to get caught up in dramatic apologies or arguments. However, this is not the time. Keep things civil, to the point, and brief. If the employee pleads their case, let them know that your decision is final. It’s up to you to take control of the situation and ensure it doesn’t escalate.

You fire someone for financial or structural reasons

There are, unfortunately, times when perfectly competent staff need to be let go for the sake of the business. It’s possible that this kind of separation may be the most difficult for a business owner or manager to take care of – after all, upending an employee’s life when they’ve done nothing to deserve it isn’t likely to be pleasant.

Recently, Buffer (an app we use and love here at Ento) announced that, regrettably, they had to let 10 of their employees go, in order to get to a healthier financial position. As is the way with Buffer, they were utterly transparent about the how and why of that decision on their blog, which you can read here.

Here’s what we can learn from Buffer:

  • Use a specific methodology that helps avoid bias It’s a decision that’s mired in unfairness, but you need to find a way to make the process of selecting team members to let go as fair as possible. Buffer used a ‘last in, first out’ approach, the process of which you can see below:

    layoffs-methodology-768x855

  • Be transparent While getting fired or made redundant is always going to sting, being upfront about why this is happening can help lessen the blow somewhat. Buffer’s commitment to transparency means exiting employees can easily see the economic rationale behind the decision, helping them to understand that they shouldn’t take this personally.
  • Get support from the community In Buffer CEO Joel Gascoigne’s blog post about the layoffs, he mentions how floored he was by the support he received from others in the startup community. This support came not only in the form of advice, but in the form of offers to interview the exiting employees and see if they’d be a good fit at other startups. Use your own networks and connections to try and help your exiting employees find new opportunities.
  • Offer the best severance you can afford Depending on the financial position your company is in, you may not be able to offer much in the way of redundancy or severance. Buffer has offered their staff 3 – 6 weeks severance pay depending on how long they’d worked for Buffer and 3 months full healthcare coverage. Offer the best package you can afford – a little generosity can go a long way to fostering goodwill, and making the transition less painful.

Buffer has managed what is clearly a difficult decision well, but there are plenty of organisations that don’t. It’s important to realise that as difficult as this decision is for you, it’s not even close to how difficult it will be for your exiting employees. Handling the situation with sensitivity and grace will benefit not only the employees you’ve let go, but remaining employees, who may feel skittish in the wake of layoffs.

An employee leaves because they hate their manager

There’s an adage that goes something along these lines: People don’t quit jobs, they quit managers.

While I have a wealth of anecdotal evidence that suggests this is true (truly, I think every single person I know has left a job because of a personality clash with management), there’s also actual data to support this theory. A 2015 Gallup study of 7200 people found that around half of all US employees have left a job at some point to ‘get away from’ their boss.

So what can you do if this situation rises?

  • Try to discourage the employee from leaving When an employee resigns due to tension between them and a manager, it may be a decision that is made in the heat of the moment. Given that the costs of replacing an employee can easily run into the thousands, it’s in your best interests to see if there is anything you can do to get the employee to stay. Listen to why they want to leave, and do your best to strike up an agreement that will keep them onboard.
  • Use it as a learning opportunity If the employee is adamant that they want to leave, you need to treat it as a learning opportunity. A manager who has caused an employee to quit could potentially be a liability, and you need to get as much information as possible in order to minimise damage going forward. In my experience, employees who are leaving because of a manager are more than happy to give their feedback – take advantage of that fact.
  • Treat handover delicately A disgruntled employee is a dangerous employee – and one who has quit often hasn’t got a lot to lose. Given the security issues a departing employee can cause (you can read more about that here), you may need to tread lightly in order to offboard them properly. The employee may be more amenable to engaging with your standard offboarding and handover procedures if they feel that their concerns and issues have been listened to, and will be addressed going forward. And it almost goes without saying, but clearly, the manager the employee has the issue with should not be included in this process at all.

An employee leaves because of a HR issue, such as bullying or harassment

Let’s be frank – this is a very bad situation, and one you should avoid at all costs, by having comprehensive, enforceable policies on workplace bullying and harassment in place.

However, the best laid plans, so they say, often go awry, and even businesses with the best of intentions may come up against an issue like this at some stage. Given the legal issues that can stem from a workplace bullying/harassment claim, it’s imperative that you act swiftly and appropriately.

If an employee resigns due to claims of bullying, you should seek legal advice. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that the problem is over once they resign – even after resigning, an employee may still be entitled to make a number of claims against the employer, which could be a very costly and embarrassing exercise for your business.

Your employees are first and foremost human beings. Change – whether instigated by the employee or not – can be incredibly challenging to deal with. As a manager, it’s your responsibility to manage all job separations with grace and sensitivity. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the separation, you need to treat everyone with the respect they deserve.

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