Employee Termination Procedures: How to Get It Right
No one hires employees with the expectation of firing them. Nonetheless, you will be required to let staff go at some point, and getting this very unpleasant task right is crucial.
Legitimate reasons to let an employee go include unethical behavior, poor job performance, excessive absences and even sexual harassment. It can also be that your work requirements or company culture clash with your employee’s personality, leading to friction in the workplace.
"A lot of pest companies, ourselves included, have kept people on much longer than we should have because we felt we didn’t have a choice," said Brett Lieberman, owner of My Pest Pros, an independent pest control provider located in the Fairfax, Virginia area. "Because of that, we’ve kept people on that didn’t fit our culture or core values. They weren’t doing a good job, and they just needed to go."
This was a tough choice for Lieberman as his is a small business and losing employees would be felt harder than those with a larger staff. "Don’t get me wrong, it hurt. But it was the right decision to make, and it helped improve things."
Before You Act
Policy is always key. While it might seem counterintuitive to focus on the onboarding process concerning the termination procedure, the potential for drama-free firings starts here.
"Before a candidate joins us, the recruiting process communicates what it’s like to be a member of the Abell team and the expectations of our team members as well," said Sara Cromwell, human resources manager at Abell Pest Control based in Etobicoke, Ontario. "We want to ensure we provide a real-life preview of what’s to come should they be the successful candidate. There are many times where once the expectations are communicated, a candidate will self-select themselves out of the process."
"Upon joining us, we understand that it can be information overload," Cromwell added. "We communicate the expectations for the role in multiple ways throughout the onboarding process to ensure clarity. Not only is their manager meeting regularly with them, but their trainer, ‘next level’ manager and QA resources are as well. Aside from these personal training touch points, all expectations are clearly communicated through our online university, which provides self-directed training programs."
Per My Pest Pros’ Lieberman, their company handbook is provided early. "Rather than view the handbook as the set of rules—if you don’t do this, you’re going to be in trouble—instead, we frame (the rules) as the playbook for success. Knowing these, you can do your best and your success can be our success, too."
This is also the right time to make employees aware of non-solicitation agreements and client privacy protocols. While these are not as problematic while this person actively works for you, they may raise issues should you need to let them go.
"When we onboard a person, we have them sign a non-disclosure agreement stating that the employee affirms they’re not going to disclose any company secrets, which include things like client information," said Leila Starwich, MA, PHR, SHRM-CP, director of people operations at Sprague Pest Solutions, a commercial-oriented company based in Tacoma, Washington.
Management needs to be an active participant throughout the employee’s career to keep things moving successfully, and in the worst of times, to make them aware of issues and guide them back on course.
"We started recently—rather than static reviews at a specific time of the year—bringing employees on regular conversations about 30-, 60- and 90-days into their employment," said Lieberman. "These check-ins help us find out how it is going, what questions they might have, and things that we can do better to help them succeed. On our end, we let them know what we’re seeing and what we’d like them to work on to help them be more successful."
The issue down the line may not be job performance as much as personality conflicts. Starwich noted, "There are plenty of times when you get pieces of information (from others), and people can jump to conclusions. And then, sometimes, you get additional pieces of information, and it’s not what you expected. We make sure that we thoroughly gather data to ensure we know what actions, if any, to take."
One way to avoid personality conflicts according to Sandy Seay, president of Seay Management Consultants, Inc., is to have the candidate take a personality temperament assessment, like the DISC profile, the Predictive Index or another reputable assessment tool. This "pulls back the veil" and helps an employer understand whether an applicant is going to be a good fit because what you see in an interview is not always what you get.
What if the employee isn’t working to expectations? Cromwell, Lieberman and Starwich echoed similar trust in best practices. "We give people ample opportunities for coaching and mentoring, and an opportunity to change behavior," Starwich said. "Should they choose not to, then our having to separate from them should not come as a surprise—it should be something that they clearly see coming as a reflection and a consequence of their choices, unfortunately."
"Before a decision is made, human resources and the manager will review the situation and any relevant employee documentation," said Cromwell. "Managers should be able to show written documentation of when the expectations were communicated, when the employee failed to meet them, when the manager communicated to the employee that they were not meeting expectations and any further training provided to realign the employee to those expectations."
When You Have the Meeting
Proactive and preemptive management is highly effective, but not 100%. After you’ve decided that there is no other way, be prepared for the difficult meeting.
"We have many checks and balances that run all the way up to the president of the organization to ensure that we have all the proper documentation—and that we have the right people in place to take care of the separation," Starwich said. "We believe in exiting people with grace and doing it the right way, no matter what the situation is with a team member, or how they behave. We take the high road to ensure they’ve been respected throughout the process."
Sprague Pest Solutions makes pre-termination checklists to have everything lined up and ready to go, according to Starwich. "We write out the termination paperwork ahead of time. For newer managers, or maybe a termination that would be more complicated, people sometimes roleplay and practice what might be said before the actual meeting itself."
"Written termination documentation is so important," asserted Cromwell. "The termination letter should be an accurate summarization of the discussion and provide any language in regards to severance, benefits, pension, company property, etc. An employee must be provided a copy of this, whether it is on paper or by email, after the termination meeting."
According to Seay, most states don’t require a termination letter—if your state doesn’t require it, consider not providing a letter as it could be used in potential lawsuits.
"We make sure that we have their direct supervisor there, and usually another person from the management team will also attend," added Starwich. "We always have two people in the room with the person being let go."
While this might be an awkward task for your employee acting as a witness, the organization should have someone else there, and the witness should be a manager or supervisor. If the former employee subsequently claims this separation meeting was improper in any way, this individual will attest to the professionalism of the organization.
The termination meeting is not the time for a drawn-out conversation about the circumstances prompting the firing. Cromwell continued, "I encourage managers to provide a small summary such as, ‘As you’re aware, there have been some quality concerns over the last year. Unfortunately, we have not seen the improvement required to continue your employment.’"
When a pest control company needs to end a relationship with a service technician, the procedure is complicated by the fact that these individuals have not only interacted with customer addresses but have been at customer locations/residences. That’s why it’s so imperative to communicate the rules during the onboarding process, just in case job separation is required one day, upfront, and with no surprises.
"It’s important to remind them of their obligations under their employment agreement," said Cromwell. "Should they fail to respect their employment agreement upon conclusion of the relationship, warning letters should be sent and legal included in the process if required."
Leaving the Premises
Two actions must take place when attempting a successful termination: helping your former employee leave with dignity, and making sure everything that is the company’s property remains with the company.
"We prefer to receive all equipment at the time of the termination meeting," said Cromwell. "The majority of staff will have it with them. Should there be items not in their possession, we will email them courier slips to send them back to us."
Need additional assistance?
Contact Seay Management Consultants, NPMA’s human resources consulting service. Members can call, email or text to connect with one of their HR consultants free of charge on issues like employee termination. Go to www.npmapestworld.org/hrconsulting for more information.
Lieberman said My Pest Pros conducts a materials checklist process between the former employee and their manager to assure all items are accounted for. "It helps protect them and us. We’re not coming back to them later saying, ‘you’re missing this backpack sprayer,’ or ‘you’re missing all this other equipment.’ We’ve got everything we need and we avoid any further, more severe action."
"When we terminate office people, we would do it in the office," said Starwich. "We would typically try to pick a time when we knew there weren’t going to be other people coming into the office. If there’s something special that they want to grab out of their office, of course, they can. Otherwise, we typically tell them we’ll box everything up and we’ll send it home for them so that they don’t have to go through that process."
These times require sensitivity and understanding, not only to respect the feelings of the former co-worker, but to keep any potential emotional escalation from taking place. Additionally, if this separation involves a service technician, their work vehicle obviously stays behind. "With every single person we’ve terminated, we’ve always paid for the Uber," said Lieberman. "I just think that would be really heartless to fire somebody and then make them pay for their own way home."
What Can Be Learned from This?
Was this an isolated incident, a lapse in judgment during the hiring process, or potentially a fault in operations requiring investigation and soul-searching so that other employees might not follow similarly?
Starwich said that Sprague Pest Solutions conducts exit interviews to address these concerns. "(The interviews) give us a lot of data because that person is brutally honest with you about what worked and what didn’t work. I think that’s really helpful information to share to make sure that there aren’t gaps in onboarding or a problem with their relationship with their manager." She concluded that if such are discovered, they need to be addressed so that problems aren’t replicated.
Having to let a worker go is never easy. But striving to solve issues before they become termination-worthy problems, and planning proactively for the hardest choices, while getting through the difficult meeting and respecting the feelings of your former employee is not impossible. It’s a skill, and one that every manager should learn because, in a long career, it will be called upon.