By Linda Siniard, SHRM-SCP

There is a simple wooden box on my desk, and taped to it is a piece of paper with two words: “Thank you.” Stored inside is one of the most profound lessons I’ve learned in my 20-plus years as a human resources professional.

The story begins years ago, when I was hurrying into an airport for a flight. Striding across the lobby at high speed, I heard my name being called. “Linda! Linda! Wait!” Following the sound of the voice, my gaze found a woman, waving frantically, and charging towards me. At first I had no recollection of her, but as she neared I remembered: I’d had the difficult task of terminating a year before. “Oh no,” I said to myself, bracing for the conversation. “This could get ugly.”

But as the woman reached me, she threw her arms around me. “Linda, I want to thank you for firing me,” she exclaimed, as she started to rattle off all of the cool things she was doing with her life. “If you hadn’t fired me I’d never discovered the career I was meant to have,” she said. “You changed my life.”

As a human resources consultant, I am called on to help my HR colleagues to not only institute policies but to quite often deal with what is perceived as the worst task of HR: terminating underperforming or dishonest employees. I cannot tell you how many HR professionals I’ve worked with who will do anything to avoid having to terminate employees, twisting themselves into knots to avoid confrontation.

In doing so they ignore another lesson I’ve seen illustrated throughout my career: employees rarely get terminated for cause; in fact, they usually fire themselves. By that I mean they are usually going down a path where they know something is wrong and do nothing to correct it, even if they’ve been warned repeatedly or they’ve lost interest in the job, the company, or both. Terminations start a long time before the final paycheck gets cut.

Given these realities, we must fall back on the HR truism: “Document, document, document.” Some companies document nothing, and rely on the At-Will clause to provide legal coverage. They may terminate based on a single incident, believing that documentation isn’t important. This isn’t the end of the world if nothing comes of it and there is no dispute — but that isn’t always the case. When someone disputes a firing, documentation matters, and it’s usually the side with the best documentation that wins.

You may think the termination is a just one—for cause, for performance issues, or some violation of state or Federal law, or company policy—and the person being terminated may initially agree that the grounds are valid. But give them a couple of days to think about it—and feel the absence of a paycheck—and they may pursue legal recourse. When a person stays on a job long enough, it’s often relatively easy for them to build a case against the termination.

This is why it's important that you prepare your managers and supervisors deal with these issues. For example, is the employee in a protected class? If so, which one? Have you terminated enough employees in the same protected classes that a pattern can be discerned? This is where documentation becomes a crucial factor. You have to have good cause, which would include a history of poor performance, violation of company policies, of state of Federal employment laws, or some other defensible reason for the termination.

Of course, termination is very different in cases of gross negligence or gross misconduct. With gross negligence, employees should have known they were doing something that would negatively impact themselves, the company, or customers, but didn’t. They made an error in judgment and it’s easy to demonstrate that they should have known better. In most companies it should be enough to warrant termination, because it is usually something that is highly visible or has significant impact.

With gross misconduct the employee knowingly commits an egregious act. It could be knowingly breaking state or Federal laws, or violating company policy. These are usually grounds for immediate termination.

Both forms of misconduct should be defined in your employee handbook, and vetted by an employment law attorney. If you don’t, you may find yourself in a situation where the courts decide whether it was a clean termination.

If documentation is the #1 recommendation for a good termination, then #2 is preparation. How much knowledge will walk out the door when a termination takes place, and what is the transition plan for redistributing the work? In the best cases, employers will have a contingency plan for getting the knowledge transferred and work completed… and yet, time after time, I’ve worked with clients who have not made a single preparation for terminating an employee – with or without cause. They have all the approvals from the manager, upper management, and HR, but have not taken steps to prepare for the reality of the employee’s termination.

It’s estimated that it costs between one and two years(!) of a departing employee’s salary to fully replace them. These costs include recruiting costs, lost productivity for co-workers and the manager, who now need to review and approve the job posting, time taken for interviews, as well as time debriefing with other team members involved in the process.  This doesn’t even include the time it takes HR to review resumes at they come in. And it can take anywhere from a month to a year, depending on the complexity of the job being filled, to get the new person up to the same speed as the person who left. No two ways about it: this can be a significant cast, and a loss of productivity — so make a plan, and be prepared.

Some HR people are terrified of terminating, which always surprises me. Didn’t they realize this was part of the job? They may be scared of the legal ramifications, of being the bad guy (“The Terminator”), or feeling they have a personal responsibility in ending someone’s paycheck. But the truth is that most times, an employee knows when something is wrong. They know when the job is no longer a fit. When I sit down with them and allay their fears, I will tell them, “Let’s put a plan in place and call it quits sooner rather than later.” It’s often a significant relief for people to have this degree of honesty when it comes to a job ending.

So, you ask, what is inside that wooden “Thank You” box on my desk? It is filled with the letters, cards, and emails from former colleagues I’ve had to terminate who wrote to thank me for clearing their paths to finding the destiny they were meant to have.

Yes, termination is the end of one job — but just as often, it is also the beginning of the next one.


Our Successful Termination course will help you manage successful terminations.

Linda is a Senior Human Resources consultant at HR Options. She has over 20 years of experience in Human Resources in a wide variety of industries (publishing and media, technology, performing arts, hotels, oil and gas, manufacturing, wineries, financial services, and law firms) with private, public, union, non-union, multi-state, and multi-national organizations. She has a B.A. in Organizational Leadership, an M.A. in Transpersonal Psychology, a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) certification, and is currently balancing work with the pursuit of her Ph.D.

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