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How to talk to staff when you fire a coworker

How to talk to staff when you fire a coworker

When you decide to terminate the employment of a poor performer, you know your action will create shockwaves. Even if other employees complained to you in the past about that coworker not pulling her own weight, a termination is still a reminder that their own jobs aren’t completely secure.

Employers are reluctant to speak openly about terminations, out of concerns about legal ramifications. There could be risks in publicizing explicit details about the circumstances of a firing, and you should certainly seek your attorney’s advice.

At the same time, if your only response to employee questions about their missing coworker, is, “I can’t talk about it,” you make it look like you’ve got something to hide. This only stokes the rumor mill and creates mistrust toward management.

Instead you can be proactive about communicating with your staff. Speak face-to-face with each member of the department where the recently terminated employee worked. These meetings can be as a group at the start of a shift and, if needed, individually with the employees who come to work later in the day or week. Communicate in person, not by email or logbook.

Your message should be brief, factually accurate and non-defensive in tone. What matters is that the employee hears it from you personally and hears it from you first.

Years ago, the co-owners of an independent retailer fired a popular employee. The two owners divided the list of employees between them and each met briefly one-on-one with half the staff. They told each employee that they’d fired Matthew and weren’t free to discuss why, but they wanted everyone to know that it wasn't because he’d done anything unethical.

The following week I conducted an employee survey for the owners. After each person filled out a questionnaire, s/he met with me for a 15-minute interview. One of my questions was, "What are your observations about how corrective action is handled here?"

About half the employees interviewed brought up the recent termination. They all said something like, "I don't know how I feel about Matthew getting fired, but I do appreciate the owners telling me personally." There was no aura of scandal or sense of injustice. Instead, the store came out of that experience with deepened trust between owners and employees.

Follow this example

"Laura won’t be working here anymore. Yesterday was her last day. You may wonder about her sudden departure after she worked here for so long. Out of respect for Laura’s privacy, I’m not going to go into details. What I can tell you is that her termination was the end point of a long process. Nothing happened 'out of the blue.' We followed our corrective action policy. Now, here’s how we’re going to cover her work shifts till we hire a replacement…"

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