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Sharing Difficult News With Employees

In the world of employee management, things unfortunately don’t always go as planned. From discipline meetings and performance evaluations to termination meetings, managers often have to share difficult news with employees. Finding an honest, respectful way to do so can be the difference between an employee on the path to improvement and one who throws a scene on his way out the door and drives straight to the EEOC to file a charge of discrimination. While there are numerous strategies for how to best navigate these difficult conversations, read on for a few suggestions on keeping these meetings on track.

Performance Evaluations
Performance evaluations are one of an employer’s most valuable tools for communicating with employees. They provide a built-in opportunity to give clear direction to employees about what is going well and what isn’t.
The most important rule when it comes to evaluations is to tell the truth, even when it’s difficult. Unfortunately, our workplaces are not in Lake Wobegone, and not all our employees are above average. If you have a low-performing employee, it is only fair to the employee and the employer to be honest with the employee about that performance. If an employee is performing acceptably in one area but not meeting expectations in another, the evaluation should explain to the employee in clear, simple language both the successes and the opportunities for improvement. There are numerous cases in Kansas and beyond where employers lost their summary judgment motions when they argued that they fired an employee for poor performance, but the employee argued that reason must be pretext for discrimination, because their evaluations did not reflect that poor performance. When an employee gets mixed messages, it’s no surprise that they sometimes suspect something unlawful has occurred.
Discipline Meetings
I once came across a discipline document during litigation that simply said, “You know what you did.” While the employee who was disciplined may have known what he did at the time, such a document gives the employee no direction as to what needs to change or how to improve. It also does little to create a record supporting a later termination of the employee if his performance or conduct fails to improve.
Instead, when issuing discipline, be respectful, specific, and direct. Rather than accusing an employee of being “always late,” for example, state each of the dates the employee was late, the number of minutes late, and the ways the employee’s tardiness impacts the workplace. If that tardiness meant another employee needed to incur overtime, include those details in the write-up, and explain them to the employee during the discipline meeting. These details make the facts clearer to the employee and set measurable expectations for the employee moving forward.
Termination Meetings
Use a script, and if this is new to you, practice before the meeting. Individuals often see their job as a fundamental part of who they are. So it’s no surprise that when an employee is fired, it can create a deep wound for the employee, and it’s not uncommon for the impacted employee to have an emotional reaction. Rather than wing it and risk saying something you’ll regret later (whether that be something hurtful to the employee or potentially damaging to the company), come into the termination meeting with a document that covers all the topics you need to address during the meeting. That will typically include a statement about the reason the employee is being terminated, as well as several logistical items, including payment of the final paycheck, return of company property, termination of benefits, and other similar matters. Reading through your script a time or two with another manager or an HR professional in your organization before the meeting can give you an added layer of confidence before the actual termination meeting begins. Your script can keep you on message and get you through what’s undoubtedly going to be a difficult conversation for both you and the impacted employee.
Final thoughts
There’s no getting around the fact that bad news is hard to deliver. With some planning, you can maximize the potential for rehabilitating a struggling employee and minimize the risk that the document or conversation will come back to haunt you later.

Don Berner Image
Don Berner, the Labor Law, OSHA, & Immigration Law Guy
Boyd Byers Image
Boyd Byers, the General Employment Law Guy
Jason Lacey Image
Jason Lacey, the Employee Benefits Guy
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