How to terminate an employee during the coronavirus crisis

Whether due to budget cuts or performance, letting staff go is sometimes a necessity, even during a pandemic. Here's how to best handle the sensitive situation.

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The coronavirus pandemic has sent shock waves through the enterprise forcing companies to make tough employment decisions with their staff. While the virus has directly resulted in layoffs and furloughs, some companies may have needed to terminate employee contracts before the disease's outbreak, putting them in a particularly difficult position given the current economic climate. 

SEE: Checklist: Employee Termination  (TechRepublic Premium)

Those who have been laid off or furloughed are flocking to apply for unemployment benefits: More than 26 million unemployment claims have been made since the start of the coronavirus-related shutdowns, so supervisors that are considering letting an employee go need to think long and hard about the timing, experts say. 

"[Companies and HR professionals] should consider whether the reason is one for which they would have terminated the employee had we not been in this COVID-19 environment," said  Kelly Charles-Collins, unconscious bias expert at HR Legally Speaking.

"Tensions are high and patience is low. Perhaps things that an employee would not have been terminated for if we were in our regular workplaces may trigger a different reaction in this remote working environment," Charles-Collins said. 

However, companies also shouldn't feel guilty if they ultimately decide to let someone go, said Neal Taparia, co-founder of SOTA Partners. 

"It's very easy to feel bad about it, but at the end of the day, you're running a business, and other people are dependent on you," Taparia said. "It's a situation where you have to think about the greater good and be financially disciplined about it."

Terminating an employee during the coronavirus pandemic is undoubtedly delicate, as the disease has impacted people mentally and economically. HR managers and supervisors may also have difficulty letting remote employees go, as remote work could be a new way of work for the company. 

SEE: Top 100+ tips for telecommuters and managers (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

How to terminate an employee during COVID-19 

The following steps and considerations can help HR managers appropriately navigate employment termination during the unprecedented time of COVID-19.

  • Maintain transparency 

If you think your company might need to make layoffs, Taparia said to be open about that from the start. 

"We've been trying to be as transparent and communicative as possible about what's going on." Taparia said. "This also means trying to be more transparent on how we're trying to plan our company out financially. 

"We've explained to them that there's certain milestones that we need to hit, and within different periods of time we'll continually evaluate the business," Taparia said. "Not being transparent is even worse because they're left into this world of uncertainty." 

  • Consider making the termination discussion impromptu 

Notifying the company layoffs or terminations may be coming is important, but the actual conversation shouldn't necessarily be expected, according to Taparia.

Taparia has run a few businesses. During an employment termination at one of his businesses, Taparia said there was an incident with the employee having known the difficult conversation was coming. 

"In one instance, this employee became suspicious [of termination] because our HR lead was going to be in the meeting with myself," Taparia said. "After we had that hard conversation, terminated the employee, and cut off access to email, when we looked through the email, the employee had sent himself a bunch of proprietary files from our company.

Upon suspecting the meeting was coming, the employee sent themself private business information. Ever since that incident, Taparia said they have kept termination meetings as impromptu as possible, for the sake of security. 

"It's a 'Hey, I need to talk to you,' situation," Taparia said. "Try not to mention that an HR professional will be in the meeting. That tends to be a surprise. But to me, that surprise is well worth it to prevent any type of IP loss."

  • Have the conversation face-to-face

These conversations are ideally done in person, but a remote work environment doesn't allow for that capability. HR managers should do the next best thing and have the conversation face-to-face over video, Charles-Collins said. 

"We have access to technology that makes these types of face-to-face" meetings possible. Make sure that the meeting is not broadcast to anyone that should not have access," Charles-Collins said. "If they are using technology like Zoom, they can require a password. 

"Conduct the meeting just as if they would if they were in the office," Charles-Collins said. "If they would not regularly record the meeting, I would recommend not doing so or allowing the employee to do so. This will require disabling the recording feature. Make the meeting short and respectful." 

  • Take care of the employee

Employment termination is a devastating blow in any scenario, but can be especially harmful during a worldwide crisis. 

"Terminating an employee is never easy, but it should be humane," Charles-Collins said. "Someone is losing their livelihood and people are not their best behavior. So, while their misconduct may be against company policy or even in violation of the law, our humanity should not be discounted or disregarded." 

To help during this time, Taparia said he offers to act as a reference for the terminated employee, whether it be via phone or recommendation letter. He said he has also pointed terminated workers toward platforms such as Upwork or Textbroker for easy contract jobs. 

"We do give some small severance," Taparia said. "We want to do what we can so they land on their feet. I even told them that I would try to think of contracting jobs, too, to help them in the meantime." 

"You have to go above and beyond to think about how you can take care of your employees. It's not a 'cut the cord and forget it' situation, which some companies normally do during general business times," Taparia said. "In my experience, you want to look after people."

  • Postpone exit interviews 

Exit interviews are a critical step for companies in the employment termination process, however, Taparia recommended letting the employee settle down first. He said that is what his company recently did with a former employee. 

"The reason we decided not to [immediately have the interview] was it just felt awkward doing it, given all the circumstances, and we didn't want this person to continue to feel anxiety around everything going on," Taparia said. 

"We plan on, in the next month or two, touching base with this employee every single week to see how it's going. When things have cooled down, I'd like to send them a survey on what they think we could do better," Taparia said. "[This would] give us some authentic feedback, as opposed to feedback that's very emotionally driven, because everything happened so sudden." 

For more, check out Top 70 companies hiring remote workers during COVID-19 on TechRepublic.  

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