HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsDismissal — axing with a human face

Dismissal — axing with a human face

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Dismissal has been referred to as “workplace death penalty” or “industrial capital punishment”.

Perhaps a better analogy would be “workplace divorce”. Justice Chinembiri Energy Bhunu in his presentation at the Institute of People Management of Zimbabwe (IPMZ) Labour Briefing in November 2009 puts it more succinctly:

“ . . . losing one’s job . . . is a heart-renting and traumatic experience. The loss of one’s job often has catastrophic consequences both socially and economically. It is a common experience that upon the loss of one’s job the family unit disintegrates, friends and relatives desert camp as one is condemned to abject poverty and untold misery”.

Dismissal is a unilateral act by the employer to end a contract of employment. It does not require the employee’s consent.

“Dismissal is the employer’s chief remedy and weapon”, says legal expert and University of Zimbabwe lecturer Munyaradzi Gwisai.

In terms of both common law and statutes, the employer is entitled to summarily dismiss an employee whose acts or omissions have rendered the employment relationship intolerable or unworkable or where such acts or omissions undermine the trust and confidence between the employer and the employee.

Offences such as dishonesty (for example theft or fraud), gross negligence, divulging confidential information, willful damage to the property of the employer, wilfully endangering the safety of others, physical assault and so on are punishable by dismissal in terms of most company disciplinary codes, National Employment Council codes or Statutory Instrument 15 of 2006.

Letting an employee go is a stressful experience for many managers, hearing chairmen or presiding officers.

Firing someone is the last thing we want to do, but if you are a leader, it is inevitable and you are going to have to get used to it.

For the uninitiated, the process is fraught with sleepless nights and bowl-churning anxiety.

The first time I had to fire someone, it took me four hours and the process was excruciatingly painful for me almost to the same extent that it was for the affected employee.

However, hanging on to an unsuitable employee, a square peg in a round hole, can actually make matters worse for you, your business and demoralise other employees.

Nobody likes conflict, but while you dither, your company may lose customers, money or productivity.

This article seeks to share a few principles of how to handle dismissals with minimum unpleasantness while preserving a certain amount of dignity for that employee whose employment is being terminated.

Maintain proper documentation — Do not let dismissal come as a surprise to the employee. If the employee is to be fired for poor performance, that moment should not be the first time that they are hearing about it.

Keep a record of the worker’s performance and any communications you have sent to him about missed targets.

There must be a record that you communicated your expectations clearly and provided sufficient feedback to the worker, opportunities to improve and how the worker fell short of expectations.

The employee must have known that continued failure would result in termination. In one organisation I worked for, the employee came to the hearing venue with all his possessions already packed!

Be honest and direct — The dismissal decision must be clear and unambiguous. Do not beat about the bush.

Have the guts and emotional strength to lay out the bare facts. Refrain from corporate doublespeak and gobbledygook.

Tell the employee his or her job has been terminated. Do not tell a worker you want to “move him out” as he may walk away thinking that you are transferring him to a different workstation!

Avoid a laundry list of the worker’s other faults. Tell it like it is, without rationalising or justifying your actions.

Be compassionate — The biggest mistake most managers or hearing chairmen make is terminating employees in a harsh, unkind and insensitive way. When you fire an employee, the purpose is neither to demean them nor to hurt their self-esteem.

The way you handle the dismissal can determine how the person reacts and whether they will pursue legal action.

A study by Ohio State University in the United States found that almost 15% of employees who felt they were treated badly when fired filed lawsuits against their employers as opposed to only 0,4% of employees who were treated with dignity and respect at the time of their dismissal.

Do not let it get personal — Be prepared for an emotional reaction such as anger, despair, hostility, disbelief and various other emotions from the employee.

He may try to “get even”, to lash out at you and tell you that you are a lousy or incompetent manager. Stay calm and stick to the facts.

Make sure your emotions are under control and avoid arguing with the employee. Resist the temptation to tell your side of the story.

Give the worker an opportunity to resign — This is the common practice when terminating high-level executives but may also apply in cases where there has a friendly relationship between employer and employee.

It makes it easier for terminated employees to put “resigned” rather than “dismissed” in job applications under “reason for leaving last job”. However, beware of claims of constructive dismissal later.

Choose a neutral venue — Avoid conducting hearings in an office. Instead, pick a neutral venue such as a conference room where others cannot hear or observe the “final conversation”.

You can also easily walk out when you are done. Choosing a neutral place other than an office has advantages in terms of allowing the employee to open up and also not to personalise the termination.

Process terminal benefits promptly — Arrange to have the employee’s final payments to be ready on the day of the termination or soon thereafter. If there are any papers to be signed, such as pension withdrawal forms, these should be made available right away.

Collection of personal belongings — Allow the employee to clean out his desk in private. Give the employee a choice of whether they wish to gather their personal belongings immediately or after hours.

Packing your things and walking out of a packed office with everyone looking at you questioningly cannot be the highlight of anyone’s career!

Allow the employee to depart with dignity without the prying eyes of his colleagues. Where sensitive matters involved or where the possibility of sabotage exists, it is advisable to escort the employee during the clean up and out of the office.

A detailed checklist must also have been done ahead of time of what items you have to collect from the employee – keys, door passes, laptop, passwords, badge, cell phone and any other company-owned equipment or supplies.

Timing — There is never a good time to tell somebody they are fired. However, it is advisable to fire on a Friday to give the employee an opportunity of preparing his CV for a job search beginning on Monday!

The employee also doesn’t have to face some people as most people take Fridays off or leave early. However the bottom line is there is no better day but rather a better way of terminating an employee.

Dismissing an employee will always be unpalatable. However, doing it respectfully and preserving the employee’s dignity can make a difference.

When you fire an employee, extend to them the courtesy you would give to any human being. The fired employee will remember and the remaining employees have even longer memories.

Who knows, perhaps one day your actions will even lead to the former employee recommending your company as a good place to work because of the respectful way their termination was handled.

Isaac Mazanhi is a labour analyst. He writes in his personal capacity. He can be contacted on e-mail: imazanhi@hotmail.com

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