AccelPro | Employment & Labor Law
AccelPro | Employment Law
On How to Fire Someone

On How to Fire Someone

With Marie Stehmer, longtime HR executive in the healthcare industry | Interviewed by Matt Crossman

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Welcome to AccelPro Employment Law, where we provide expert interviews and coaching to accelerate your professional development. Today, we are featuring a discussion with Marie Stehmer about how to fire someone.

Stehmer has had a decades long career as a human resources executive, including many years as a chief human resources officer. She walks us through best practices to make a horrible situation a little less so, both for the person receiving the news and the person delivering it. The key, she says, is to treat the person with respect.

“It’s been my experience that it lessens the chance of lawsuits,” she says. “It lessens the chance of somebody being really angry. If they walk away knowing that they’ve been treated and seen as a whole person, that helps a lot.”

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Matt Crossman, Host: Today we’re going to talk about the day every HR executive, in-house counsel and manager dreads: firing someone, a task you had to complete often in your decades as an HR executive, including many years as a Chief Human Resources Officer. We’re going to dive into best practices on handling cases when it’s more of a layoff than it is for cause. First, let me ask you, how often did you involve legal counsel?

Marie Stehmer: In general, it’s always a good idea to involve legal counsel, I believe, to ensure that your selection process is going to stand up. You don’t want to get accused and then be found liable for something that would involve disparate impact. So you want to make sure that your selection process is really above board.

MC: We’re going to cover several tips on how to make that day something less than awful for both the person being released and for the person doing the releasing. Let’s start with an overall question about how you treat the person. The key word from your perspective is respect. Why did you choose that word? And how can you make the person feel respected?

MS: This is one of the most awful jobs that any HR professional needs to do. It’s also an awful day for the person who’s being impacted. And so you need to remember that, and you need to remember that this is going to potentially impact their ability to pay their rent, to buy groceries for their children. It’s going to impact their lives dramatically. 

You can deliver a tough message with kindness. When you treat someone with kindness and respect, it’s been my experience, maybe I just got lucky, but it’s been my experience that it lessens the chance of lawsuits. It lessens the chance of somebody being really angry. If they walk away knowing that they’ve been treated and seen as a whole person, that helps a lot. 

It’s still not a fun meeting. It’s still a horrible day for everybody involved, but it helps it be a little bit easier.

MC: Let’s move on to the actual meeting. Who should be there?

MS: Obviously, HR is there. The person who’s being impacted is there, and whoever is that person’s immediate leader should be there. I’ve had individuals want their manager, their director, their vice president, all the different layers there. That feels to me like you’re ganging up on them. 

And then there have been times where I had a union rep there, depending on who it is. 

When you’re in the planning stages, you plan all this out. Would it make the delivery easier to have that union rep in there? Sometimes it won’t be. So you’ve got to make that call. You’ve got to think about what your relationship with that union is like. 

MC: When I got laid off, it was with three other people at the same time. There was supposed to be a fourth, but they couldn’t find him. Is that OK or do you recommend doing it one on one if you can?

MS: I’ve done it both ways. If you’re doing a whole department, sometimes actually it makes it easier to do it with everybody at once. Should you wait if somebody’s late? No, that’s disrespectful. And we go back to that word, respect. That’s disrespectful to those people that showed up on time or early for the meeting.

If you do it in a group setting, you want to be sure that you’ve got enough HR folks available to meet with each person one on one to go over documents that are going to be needed, and you don’t want to have them wait. There’s nothing worse than having that person wait. They may not wait, they may leave, and you may never get the opportunity to meet with them.

MC: What you just said there about having someone to meet with each individual reminded me of something I’ve heard over and over again in employment law conversations. It connects back to respect, and that is the importance of being heard, of being listened to. So if you don’t have any one-on-one time with somebody, you leave there feeling like you missed that opportunity. Is that important to you?

MS: That absolutely is important. One risk you take, frankly, and I’ve seen this when you do it in a group session: you end up in this big gripe session where people pile on. One person says something, and they all feel empowered to say things. Not that you don’t want them to, but you don’t want them to walk away and be irate. When you go and meet with them individually, that’s their opportunity to begin to really begin processing this really tough news.

MC: You treat people with respect. You have one-on-one conversations with them. You’re strategic about who’s in that meeting. You also recommend developing a script of what each person will say in the meeting. Why do you do that?

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