Employee separations happen during good times and bad. Whether terminating an employee with cause or having to manage a workforce reduction due to a facility closing, employment loss is fraught with emotion and uncertainty. The employer has made a decision that rarely lands favorably with the employee. Added to the elements of unpredictability are alignment with WARN Act or state mini-WARN requirements, whether severance packages need to be offered and if the employer hopes to rehire the employee at some point in the future.
It’s important to remember that employees were hired for their skills and qualifications in the first place. On-the-job learning and development advanced these credentials and increased the employee’s value to the organization and, potentially, the served market. From the employee’s perspective, they’ve been asked to “bring their whole self” to work and participate in cultures framed as families. A termination not only impacts the employees separating from the organization; it also significantly impacts those remaining behind.
Whether voluntary or involuntary, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly half of the workforce leaves their jobs annually. One in 10 employees are asked to leave by their company as part of a workforce reduction. A rarely illuminated fact is that one in 20 is ultimately rehired, according to LinkedIn. No laws prevent an employer from rehiring a laid-off employee. Yet, why would the employee want to return if the initial separation wasn’t handled with empathy?
Parting ways is painful; however, leaders can take compassionate and practical steps to wish employees well in their career journeys while leaving the door open, when it makes sense.
Clear communication counts
Delivering bad news is never pleasant, especially when it comes as a surprise to the recipient. Sugarcoating what’s happening doesn’t serve anyone well, as employees will have lots of questions upon learning they’re leaving the organization. Be honest about what’s happening and communicate in detail about what’s important to them. Be sure to provide a written separation notice covering personal issues such 401(k) details, their final paycheck and any accrued paid time off. Also, inform separated employees of their right to apply for unemployment benefits. This is a legal obligation in many states, necessitating separation notices that align with state laws while enabling employees to understand their eligibility for these benefits.
Every employee is a brand ambassador
Social media has enabled everyone to communicate their displeasure in real-time and your customers, prospects, employees and investors are listening. An employer brand that took years to build can be sullied with a few tweets and LinkedIn posts. Employers need to be contemplative about the exit experience; how departing employees are treated will be noticed. In the case of a workforce reduction, proactively explaining the business decisions behind the action engages the remaining employees while ensuring those being separated are treated fairly and with respect. In the case of involuntary termination with cause, making sure the terminated employee’s privacy is regarded is paramount.
Know your severance
Severance is in the spotlight, and while there is no requirement in the Fair Labor Standards Act, a new decision from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has the potential for broad ramifications. The latest ruling from NLRB makes it unlawful to offer a departing employee a severance agreement predicated on non-disparagement and confidentiality. The NLRB found that the non-disparagement provision violated the employees’ rights because “[p]ublic statements by employees about the workplace are central to the exercise of employee rights.” Not only does this underscore the earlier point about employees as brand ambassadors, it also draws focus to severance pay in general. While severance isn’t necessarily guaranteed – except in New Jersey, where a law took effect April 10, 2023, mandating that companies with more than 100 employees that lay off more than 50 must pay severance – making it part of the employee exit experience eases the transition.
Train your managers
Most managers do not know how to terminate employees. Hopefully, terminations are rare. Managers should be focused and incentivized to drive business results, not on what to say in a termination meeting. That’s why it’s critical that HR be part of every termination meeting and have every manager participate in termination training. Being supportive and respectful while protecting the organization from potential litigation is a delicate balance for any manager. Learning how to have difficult conversations while staying calm and being respectful are skills to be developed.
Empathic employee separations require directness, are void of blame and shift to discussions of severance packages and any potential support, such as outplacement services, employment verifications and employee assistance programs. Wherever possible, assuring the employees have continued healthcare insurance for a reasonable time will help avoid negative publicity. Creating an alumni talent pool for possible re-hire can facilitate career opportunities by staying in touch.