By Irving H. Buchen
“Lift him gently on the gallows.’’
“Let’s kick him while he is down.”
At a time when employment is chancy and occasional; when the nature of work is often belittling and unfulfilling; when going to work each day is, for many, fearful and anxious, we have hanging over us termination policies that are frequently dated, punitive, careless, and unexamined. And like all held too long documents that are still in force, we obediently implement them without question.
But how is such policy conceived and created? What are its essential components? What are the dynamics and who are the principal players?
Minimally three issues emerge. First, goals of the policy; second, what motivates and who participates in crafting that policy; and third, how typical and transferrable that policy and its process are to other companies.
More often than not, policy is conceived as an instrument of control–a protective and defensive barrier against incursions by those who bite the hand that feeds them. It is also designed to distance, protect, and render anonymous its crafters. It is blameless, guiltless, and faultless. That is why the language is so neutral and antiseptic and why the excessive legalese is so intimidating.
Then, too, like many carry-over doctrines, policies appear sacred and hallowed. They sum up the way “things have always been done around here”; and because both the policies and we have lasted so long, it is evidence of reinforcing mutuality. Thus, the key orientation to policy formulation is that it is conceived of as a strict and coercive code of rules and behaviors–a series of “thou shall nots,” punishments not warnings.
Policies come from two sources: purchased externally from various vendors of boilerplate forms or internally composed. The occasion for in-house formulation typically is the recognition either that a policy does not exist to cover a particular HR situation or that the current one is too full of loopholes and too many slips between the cracks that it needs to be revised, updated, and upgraded.
It is generally a team or group effort. Regulars among the standard cast of characters include attorneys, reps from HR, and a sampling of divisional heads. Occasionally a union rep is allowed to sit in with no voice or vote.
What follows is a description of a series of actual meetings that, as a consultant to HR, I was asked to attend and monitor. I do not know how representative that group and its outcomes are, but given the current climate the end result may be not only transferrable but also eagerly welcomed.
The HR rep chaired the meeting. After the customary call to go around the table for introductions, the chair spoke: “Our topic is termination policy and procedures. I tend to be failure and problem oriented. When things go wrong or are just not right, we need solutions–policies that are airtight, cover all the bases, spare us from any future legal pain, and last for a long time. So give me some sense of the issue, its range and impact. Let us start with the experiences of the divisional heads.”
The first person who spoke was in charge of IT. And what he initially described, all the others later echoed: “Obviously being fired is not an easy or pleasant experience for both parties. I know my blood pressure goes way up, and the employee begins to show signs of labored breathing. But in the 20-plus years I have been a manager, the session usually takes place without rancor–98% of the time.
“But every once in a while, things explode. The employee suddenly pushes back his chair, pulls himself up to his full height, stamps around the room, kicks a filing cabinet, and vents. Years of anger and resentment come pouring out. Real and imagined hurts and slights are mixed. Finally, lest this become violent, I try to restore order. Failing that I walk out of the room, promising to reschedule.
“Happily that kind of behavior seldom happens. When it does, the termination meeting is really an exit interview. But the one thing I have learned–document, document your case, chapter and verse. And be prepared to gin up your conflict resolution training and skills.”
All the other managers concurred with his statements, including the estimate of 98%. Then the attorneys who had been taking copious notes weighed in: “This situation is totally out of control. No wonder you need a new policy. Surprisingly, none of you was ever assaulted. There are three issues and principles involved here.” The attorney speaking paused to allow his colleague to go up to the board and write:
- No fault
- Zero tolerance
- Short, swift, and silent
“The first is obvious. The employee failed, we didn’t. The fault is his and our documentation confirms and exonerates us. Second, there needs to be zero tolerance of unacceptable behavior at final meetings. In fact, we are not convinced that such meetings should be held at all. We gain nothing. For our managers, it is a hollow ritual and potentially dangerous. Third and finally, the termination should be at the end of the day–swift, no more than 10 minutes to gather up stuff and be out of the door, and silent, no talking to anybody including co-workers. Out of sight, out of mind, almost invisible.”
Discussion followed. The managers quickly warmed to the idea of not having to hold final meetings at all. The objection of being unfeeling was countered by offering that final meeting as an option, handled by HR. No one objected.
The three points clearly had carried the day. HR then turned to the attorneys and asked them to draft a new termination policy for review by the group. A timetable was proposed and accepted.
After two weeks the draft was reviewed and accepted unanimously. The final version distributed company-wide appears below:
“HR Termination Policy (2013)
Effective immediately, the following procedure will be implemented and followed. Five steps are involved:
- By the end of the business day but no later than 4:00 PM, notice of termination shall be communicated by mail and e-mail to the employee.
- Shortly thereafter two security guards will appear with a checklist of all office items provided by the company, including all keys.
- The list shall be reviewed, missing items noted, and signed by the employee.
- Personal items are then to be collected.
- Security guards will then escort the employee out of the building.”
The policy was designed to be short, swift, and silent. It was all three. The impression was one of a tabula rasa–as if the employee had been erased or had never been there in the first place. (This article was written by a bleeding-heart professional troubled by what we occasionally have become and created in the name of “humane” resources.)
About the Author
Irving H. Buchen, PhD, secured his doctorate from Johns Hopkins; taught at Cal State, Wisconsin, and Penn State; served as a consultant and executive coach; and published over 150 articles and 10 books.