Five ways to turn the traditional termination process on its head

Click here for a free comprehensive termination checklist


Terminate: To bring to an end.Saying_Goodbye1

Whatever the situation, we humans don’t usually do well with endings. Emotions get triggered. Things get messy.

When it comes to terminations, we are asking a colleague to leave our tribe. No matter the reason or the situation, it can be torturous for everyone involved.

Traditional termination processes don’t help. Risk reduction trumps trust and human decency.

What if there was a better way?

Why things go awry

Despite many great evolutionary developments, much of our wiring is still primitive. Our reptilian brain (yep, the same one that reptiles have) kicks in more often than we’d like to admit. As danger approaches, we regress quickly to basic fight, flight, or freeze responses.

When it comes to basic human needs, termination of employment hits all the wrong buttons. Uncertainty. Loss of social status. Fear of the unknown. Social exclusion. A deep sense of unfairness.

Whether staying or leaving, similar emotions of fear, anxiety and guilt flood your body.

Consider these paradigm shifts to make the process easier on everyone.

Who’s in the room?

Old paradigm: Two people meet with the employee to deliver the news

There are usually three fear-based “what if” drivers of this approach. One: What if we need a witness to what was said in the meeting? Two: What if the manager doesn’t do a good job delivering the message? Three: What if the terminated employee gets physical? In reality, the risks are small. We can manage every situation anticipating the worst, causing unnecessary trauma to everyone involved.

New paradigm: As the manager, you meet with your colleague alone

With a bit of training and role-playing, you can and should have these meetings alone. Someone more experienced can be standing by for those rare cases when you need support. If you don’t do the best job, that’s OK. The humanness of this approach will trump any mistakes.

How does the individual leave the building?

Old paradigm: You walk out the terminated employee

The “walk out” is traditional in many organizations and it’s a practice based in fear and anxiety. We fear the employee will make a scene, steal company property, or make colleagues uncomfortable.

New paradigm: Your colleague decides when and how to leave

Have a conversation with your colleague. How would they like to leave the organization? You can help them think through the personal impacts of the next few hours and days. Serious risks to the business are minimal. Discomfort and other emotions are inevitable. In fact, they are important in helping everyone process the experience.

How long should the termination take?

Old paradigm: It’s an event that should be as short as possible

The traditional view is that the termination message should be brief—as short as 60 seconds—followed quickly by paperwork and logistics. The end-to-end process can take as little as 30 minutes. Before they know it, the employee is out on the street and bewildered.

New paradigm: It’s a process that spans several meetings over multiple days.

It takes time to absorb difficult news. Once our reptilian brain takes over, we don’t absorb new information. We need time for our emotions to dissipate so we can have productive two-way dialogue. Spread out the conversation so everything gets covered. Quality over speed!

Who controls the process?

Old paradigm: The company calls the shots

When it comes to terminations, the company usually makes all the decisions. When. Where. Who. How. The exiting employee moves through a preset routine much like a child follows a teacher’s instructions.

New paradigm: The departing team member has meaningful choices

There’s a long list of meaningful decisions that departing employees can take part in. How would they like the message communicated to the team? Do they have work they would like to complete? Would they like to wrap up things right away? Would they find it helpful to interact with the team for a few days before leaving?

How does the conversation go?

Old paradigm: The company unilaterally makes all termination decisions

When this philosophy is in play, conversations go like this.

Manager: We have made a difficult business decision. Your employment with the company is being terminated effective today.

Employee: Really? I didn’t see this coming. Can we talk about this a bit?

Manager: I’m sorry but the decision is final and we’re not open to discussing.

New paradigm: There is a joint and transparent decision making process that includes your colleague

In this paradigm, conversation starts more like this:

Manager: I’ve been thinking about where this team needs to go in the future. There is an important skill gap that I need to fill. I am concerned that you don’t have this skill. And I’m concerned that you won’t be able to master this skill as quickly as the company needs the expertise. As I see things, we have a few options. Can we spend some time talking through things?


We can all think of examples where one or more of these new paradigms won’t work. The question becomes, are we tailoring our process to the exceptions? Or are we being kind and supportive to our colleagues who deserve a more positive experience?

Want help planning terminations at your organization? Click here for a comprehensive termination checklist. Also, check out the Building Blocks coaching program. In this program I help you create a strong foundation unique to your organization.

Click here for a free comprehensive termination checklist

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