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Farewells can be difficult—but if you’re in human resources management, they can be downright painful. Sure, sometimes poor performance, bad attitude or other shortcomings dictate a goodbye, but if you don’t follow the proper steps and procedure, you could be in for serious trouble.

Small businesses like yours are vulnerable to headache-inducing suits from terminated employees. Small- to mid-size companies have a nearly 12% chance of getting nailed with legal action brought by former employees. What’s more, those legal actions are a pain in your wallet, too, and not just your butt. Each claim could cost $50,000 and $250,000 thanks to court fees, settlements—and lawyers don’t work for free.

Considering the exposure a botched termination meeting creates for your company, it’s wise to avoid “oops”es that can get you in hot water.

Grasp “at will” employment

Unwise human resources management might think “at will” is a magical phrase that protects the company from legal attacks. Sadly, it’s not. It’s not absolute, the burden of proof is on the company, there’s little protection if discrimination comes up—and every termination creates risk. Further, it doesn’t mean you can willy-nilly fire people for age, gender, pregnancy, disability and other protected issues. Be smart.

No surprises

When ending someone’s employment for cause, make sure they aren’t blindsided when you call them in for that fateful meeting. Hopefully you read our post about progressive discipline (if you didn’t, go do that now), where we talked about the proper steps needed before showing someone the door. If you’ve issued verbal and written warnings, outlined a plan for improvement, been clear about goals and only sent them packing after they missed those marks, you’ll be in better shape.

Let ‘em down easy

Sensitive, savvy human resources managers know termination will go smoother if they do their best to avoid things that make the employee uncomfortable. Don’t set a meeting and then change the time or location; be clear about when they’ll be expected to skedaddle from the premises; be tactful about spreading the word of their departure. Most of all, be compassionate—keep in mind that while terminating a staffer is tough for you as human resources management, it’s much harder for them.

Keep things clear and on point

As we said, telling someone they no longer have a job is hard. Part of your job is not to make it more difficult by being unprofessional. When you’re giving the reasons for their departure and telling them what’s next, be clear and unemotional, don’t be afraid to repeat yourself and—while you should be compassionate—don’t apologize.

Setting the company up for an unemployment claim

The do’s of a termination include having multiple human resources management representatives present, documenting everything, keeping explanations consistent and considering a severance agreement if appropriate. The don’ts, then, include terminating for illegitimate reasons, acting on unfounded allegations, and being unable to offer solid reasons for the termination.

Think of the ‘survivors’

All too often, HR managers fail to consider the people left behind—termination affects them, too. When having the talk, be as open as you can, without revealing sensitive or confidential information. Assure them the company acted out of necessity and not out of the blue. Show respect to the dearly departed employee by being honest about what you can reveal. Finally, invite remaining employees to ask questions. These will go a long way in avoiding mutiny, and prevent morale from taking a huge hit.

It’s always tough being a human resources manager, but among your responsibilities, termination is one of the toughest. Contact the experts at Human Elements—we’ve got the knowledge and resources to help see you through.