What to Say When Terminating an Employee (with Sample Scripts)

Separating an employee is never easy – for the worker or the HR staff member. The challenge is to conduct the meeting in a professional way that not only protects the rights of the business, but those of the employee as well.

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This article outlines how to terminate an employee and includes a short script that outlines what to say

Ask any HR professional the best and worst parts of their job, and they’ll tell you the day they extend a job offer, and the day when they have to let someone go.

Too many employers avoid terminating bad employees altogether, because they’re so intimidated by the prospect of saying “you’re fired.”

But not releasing an employee who isn’t performing sends the wrong message to employees who pull their weight: it tells them their efforts are not valued or important.

That can spread within a company to the point where no one is motivated or engaged. Better to remove the problem quickly and effectively.

Termination meetings be handled with tact, brevity and dignity for the employee and employer.

Terminations shouldn’t come as a surprise

No employee should be taken by surprise if they’re terminated.

They should know it’s coming (and have had a chance to stop it) because of a series of disciplinary actions that culminated in their dismissal.

Or they should know they’ve violated a company policy so serious that their immediate termination is warranted. The only surprise terminations should come if there’s been a significant loss of revenue or a takeover.

Plan ahead

Before you’ve even scheduled the termination meeting you should be prepared to manage the situation quickly and efficiently. You’ve made your decision – it’s not negotiable.

The only reason for the meeting is to provide the employee with the information they need for separation and to collect any company property they may hold. Typically these meetings last around 20 minutes. Your goal is not to drag it out – it’s to get the employee the information they need. They can turn to friends and family for sympathy – that’s not your role.

What to have in a termination meeting

Paperwork at the ready

For the meeting you should have a host of materials at the ready. Preparing and reviewing the materials so you know exactly what you’re going to say can help make the meeting go as smoothly as possible.

For some companies, a formal letter of termination is presented to the employee. It outlines the reason (if any) the employee is being let go. It needn’t be lengthy or detailed.

Read how to write a termination letter.

Many companies notify terminated employees that unless a policy violation was significant (theft, threatening others, violence) they will provide a neutral reference – offering dates of employment and title only.

You don’t have to provide a written letter of termination, but be prepared to discuss all these elements when you meet with the employee.

What about benefits? 

COBRA notification is needed if the employee and/or their dependents were covered under any health plans. The notification should include:

  • Detailed information on when their coverage under the employee plan will cease
  • When they must begin making payments
  • The rate
  • Where to submit payments and the length of time they will be eligible to continue their benefits under COBRA

Company property 

A property checklist is critically important to assure any company property is returned before the employee leaves the premises. Every company should have a standardized checklist. It should include:

  • Tools
  • Equipment
  • Materials that were issued
  • Keys
  • Uniforms
  • Computer equipment
  • Passwords
  • Any other employee-issued property

Severance pay

Severance pay is occasionally offered to employees being relieved of their duties. If you are providing a severance package you’ll want to do so in writing and in consideration of something the employee is offering in return.

Many companies ask employees to sign a waiver against future lawsuits or claims against the organization in return for the severance package/payout. These contracts can be complex and may be subject to legislation in your area. It’s wise to discuss severance packages with your attorney to make sure you are protecting the rights of the company and the employee.

Scheduling a termination meeting

Nothing strikes fear in employees more than being told at 9 a.m.. they have a meeting with HR at the end of the day. While this is common practice among employers, the fallout can be severe.

Not only will you have a nervous, non-productive staffer all day, the likelihood they’ll be complaining to and disrupting others is high. Additionally, it’s somewhat cruel. Like dragging a bandage off slowly, scheduling well in advance of the meeting is unnecessarily unpleasant.

Whether you need the employee off premises immediately or at the end of the day, have their manager bring them to HR or collect them yourself to meet right away. Yanking that bandage off quickly and with as little buildup as possible is the most professional (and kindest) way to manage a difficult situation.

What to say in a termination meeting

With your materials at the ready and the employee in a private area (it should go without saying that employers should never terminate someone publicly), it’s time to get through the meeting.

Your tone and demeanor should be professional: terminating an employee is a business decision – not an opportunity to unload grievances. The object is to remove the employee as quickly and efficiently as possible without stripping them of their dignity.

There’s no point sugar-coating it: let the employee know they’re being let go at the onset. If you’re firing the employee for cause, you may want to briefly cover the policy violation or infractions that led to their dismissal. If you’re relieving the employee of their duties “at-will” you’ll want to let them know that is the reason they’re being terminated.

The employee will likely have questions, and it’s a good idea to answer one or two. But don’t get into a lengthy discussion. Let them know the decision has been made and it’s not negotiable. The meeting is to inform them of the organization’s decision and provide them with the paperwork necessary to sever their employment.

Move on quickly to their rights under COBRA, providing them with the needed paperwork, and then move on to your property checklist. Conclude the meeting informing the employee that if they have any questions later, they’re free to contact you.

Sample conversation: Termination for cause

“John, today will be your last day at XYZ Company. We’ve provided ongoing warnings about getting to work on time and you were notified continued tardiness would lead to your dismissal. I’m providing you with your COBRA notification, please take a moment to read through it and ask any questions you may have, and then we’ll need to collect company property. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me.”

Sample conversation: Termination at-will

“Jane, today will be your last day at XYZ Company. We’re severing your employment at-will. I’m providing you with your COBRA notification, please take a moment to read through it and ask any questions you may have, and then we’ll need to collect company property. If you have any questions later, feel free to contact me.”

What not to say in a termination meeting 

Again, your tone should be professional and businesslike. Don’t apologize or assume blame. “This is really hard for me” not only provides no comfort to the employee, but infers the situation is as bad for you as it is for them.

“Let’s discuss that,” isn’t appropriate when an employee is being fired for cause.

These employees should not be surprised if they’re being let go — they should know it’s coming and have had many opportunities to correct or avoid whatever behavior is the reason they’re being terminated. You’ve already discussed the behavior repeatedly — there’s nothing further to say.

Don’t negotiate.

Occasionally employees will promise to do better or offer alternatives to being fired. Don’t allow this conversation. Your decision has been made — it’s not negotiable.  Don’t let an employee humiliate themselves when there is no chance they’ll keep their job. Let them know your decision is final and move on with the rest of the meeting.

Don’t discuss personalities or traits. “Michael just does a better job than you do,” isn’t helpful and may actually be problematic if employees are in a protected class. An example might be telling a woman, “men are stronger and faster,” or telling another employee “your communication skills aren’t as good as your coworkers.” Avoid any discussion that touches on an individual’s character or qualities.

“I’m sorry this is happening,” is only appropriate if the company is laying off employees or downsizing for reasons the business or employee couldn’t control.

Termination meetings: Finalization

After the paperwork has been issued and discussed and company property is returned, it’s time they collect their things and leave. If you believe there will be problems, accompany the employee to collect their possessions and escort them off premises.

Many businesses accompany all employees through this process, whether they think there will be an issue or not. Standardizing is a best practice: it demonstrates that whether they were upper management or entry-level, they’ll be treated the same.

The challenge is to get through a termination meeting as quickly and effectively as possible. It’s not your role to sympathize with the employee – it’s your role to get them through the meeting and allow them to leave your company with their dignity intact.

The more professionally you can make the transition, the faster they can connect with friends and family who can provide the compassion and assistance they need.

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