The Big Finish: Four Keys to Exiting Employees the Right Way

A very close friend of mine was recently let go from the company for which she worked for a number of years. The numbers were down, the direction of the business was shifting, and in the end, there was simply not a role in the company that fit her talents and unique abilities. It was time for a change, and the decision did not come as a surprise to her— she recognized her uphill climb against the trends and saw the writing on the wall.

She had an overwhelmingly positive experience with the company. She had success in her role (personally and for the company), she made some great friends, and established fantastic relationships with vendors and partners. She truly enjoyed her time with the company and was filled with goodwill for her former employer. . . . which was undermined in the two weeks leading up to her departure. The transition was messy, the plan was unclear, she was kept out of the loop on team conversations where she could have added value and shared some institutional knowledge (and later found out that in many cases she was made to be a scapegoat in those transitions). Once the decision to move on was made, the actual transition felt like an afterthought. In talking with her afterward, she used words like “hurtful,” “humiliating,” and “kicked dog” to describe the experience.

Moments matter, and beginning and ending things on a high note matter a lot. In their book The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact, Chip and Dan Heath explore why specific moments in our lives affect us so deeply (positively or negatively), and how those moments can be created and shaped for the benefit of people (and organizations). Chip and Dan describe three types of Moments; Milestones, Transitions, and Pits. Laying off an employee checks all three boxes; the Last Day on the Job is a milestone moment (although not always a welcome one), it is a Transition, as the employee is moving from employed to job-seeking, and it is obviously a Pit, as no one likes to be let go—it hurts, professionally and personally. But there is an opportunity, if done properly, to move that Moment from a Pit to a Peak.

Here are four ways to make a tough day into a positive Moment:

Give People a Voice

When an employee is laid off, or let go for business reasons rather than bad blood or something seriously negative, send them off with a flourish. Send an email to the team, division, or even company if it is relevant, thanking the person for his or her service, and wishing them the best of luck. Send it out in advance to give people time to process before that last day. Give the employee an opportunity to reach out to people as well. Send them off on their last day— lunch with the team, happy hour, cake in the break room, even a gift to help the transition can go a long way. This is a deeply personal time, one where relationships will change (if not end) and the employee should be given the chance to acknowledge those relationships. You thank them, they thank you, hugs all around, and a positive Moment is created.

Have an Exit Plan

When you lay someone off or eliminate a position, the transition plan should be clear. Have the timeline ready to go. Know what you need from them in the process. Find out what they need from you. Know the timeline and lay it out clearly. If you are giving them options (“We can terminate you or you can resign”) make them clear and explain the pros and cons of each thoroughly— do be wishy-washy. If you are offering a severance package (a small price to pay to keep a former employee on your side and saying positive things about you), present it up front; don’t ask them what they would like and put the ball in their court. Have the checklist of exit items that need to take place ready to go, and walk through it with them to see if anything is missing. Take control of the situation and allow them to be a part of the process, and they will feel empowered and appreciated on their way out the door.

Authentically Communicate the Situation to the Remaining Team

Nature abhors a vacuum. Something will fill empty spaces. If those empty spaces are the result of a lack of transparency about an employee’s departure, that space will be filled with opinions, rumors, and speculation. The best thing to do— for the former employee, the current employees, and the company— is to be as transparent as possible about the departure. Answer questions frankly and honestly (as much as you can be, legally and ethically). Leaving employees to their own devices to determine “what happened” can be a recipe for disaster. Demonstrating to current employees that you handle employee exits with professionalism, courtesy, and caring can actually have a positive impact on the team.

Be Sincere and Positive

Thank the exiting employee genuinely. Clear the air on what happened and why (again, as much as you are allowed to do in the situation). Tie up the loose ends. Support them in the transition and their ensuing job search. Offer them outplacement assistance and direction on unemployment benefits, if possible. Give them a letter of recommendation (don’t wait for them to ask). Do everything you can to show that the decision to let them go was made thoughtfully and in a caring way.

No one likes firing people. And no one likes being fired. Sitting on either side of the table is often a low-point in a professional career. The last day is a hard day, but it can be a positive experience. Be firm and professional, but show empathy for the situation. Take time to talk with the employee, and those who are remaining, about what happened. Let people mourn the loss while celebrating the person's career. Show that the company cares about the transition, and transform a Pit into a Peak Moment.

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