by Joe Mendicino
Even after twenty-five years in Human Resources, terminating an employee is never easy. No matter the nature – whether management layoffs or due to the employee’s actions – the former employee always has a strong reaction that must be adequately handled to avoid dangerous or volatile situations. So how can the HR or Executive team member delivering the news be prepared to deal with the former employee’s reactions? Here are the top three emotional responses from terminated employees you can anticipate and what you can do to maintain your composure during the exchange.
The most common reaction I have encountered is self-pity. After being told their services are no longer needed, the former employee often expresses disbelief and responds by saying, “There must be a mistake.” Other common reactions are becoming argumentative, asking many questions, requests for reconsideration of the decision, or crying. Sometimes, the former employee will try to have the messenger empathize with them by sharing personal details such as, “I just bought a house,” “I just had a new baby,” or they may flat out state that they need their job. In these situations, the decision to terminate has already been made. It is important to stick to the “script” or sanctioned message that was pre-approved and don’t get side-tracked by the emotional pleas.
OVERLY CALM or RESERVED
The second most common reaction to being terminated is someone being overly calm or reserved. Some people, when caught off guard with shocking news, might listen to the messenger with a blank expression, frozen in disbelief and won’t speak or give any other sign they have comprehended what was said to them. It is easy for the company representative to communicate relevant exit information at this time (for example: medical, cobra, unemployment, etc.) as it pertains to their situation. But be aware that you may not have their full attention in that moment. Upon being asked if there are any questions, usually the person will say “no.” As the company representative, you should leave the door for future communication open. End the exchange by saying something such as, “Don’t hesitate to contact me directly at HR if you have any other questions.” This leaves the door open for them to have the information repeated to them at a later time when they are able to fully process what has been shared with them.
Anger is the third and most challenging emotion to deal with. An angry reaction must be handled delicately, as the individual may become dangerous and unpredictable. After being advised of termination or a layoff, an angry employee may jump up, start shouting or cursing, and could provoke a physical attack. No matter what happens, do not raise your voice. Remain calm. An old trick I learned early on in my career is to keep tapping your right foot while continuing to talk. The even pace keeps you focused, and makes it much easier to avoid raising your own voice in an already delicate situation, so as to not negatively escalate it. As a last resort, calling in a third party, such as the police, may be necessary in order to escort someone out of the building. However, this should only ever be considered as a last resort, as to not cause a disruptive scene in the workplace.
No matter which reaction you experience in the moment, it is important to have someone present with you in the room before the employee is called in. In case there is a disagreement amongst parties regarding what was said, it is always good practice to have a third-party witness. Also it is wise to do your best to ensure that the terminated employee is completely calm before they are escorted off the premises.
Ultimately, there is no definitive “how-to” guide for proper layoff etiquette. Hopefully my experiences have given you some insight on what to expect with helpful ways to handle these three common reactions.
About the Author
Joe Mendicino has worked over thirty years as a Human Resources Professional for several international union manufacturers. He is a SHRM member, and is on call as a college mentor for HR students at SUNY in Stony Brook, New York.
Reprinted from the Summer 2016 issue of Bellwether.
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