The manner in which Yahoo recently fired their CEO Carol Bartz was totally inappropriate. I know things are changing in how businesses operate, but I don't think we're at the point where it's socially acceptable to fire people over the phone.
From what few details we have, Bartz's termination wasn't a heated argument that exploded into a "you're fired," but rather something the board knew they were going to do. Maybe in five or 10 years, after we've all become much more accustomed to the virtual workplace, it might become socially acceptable to fire someone over the phone, but not today.
Perhaps Yahoo's board was merely trying to be efficient. Well, I like what Stephen Covey says: We can be efficient with things, but we need to be effective with people.
If we're being effective as managers, terminating someone's employment should rarely be a surprise event. With the exception of deal breakers such as theft and violence, a termination meeting should occur as a logical conclusion to a series of efforts to correct unwanted or unproductive behaviors. In other words, the employee should know that his or her termination is imminent because he or she has not made timely progress on issues that have been previously discussed.
Granted, I'm not a lawyer, so bounce anything I say here off your corporate legal counsel and make sure whatever you do is in keeping with federal and state implement laws, but here's how I recommend an employee be terminated, if it must occur.
First, employees need to know what's expected of them. Reasons for termination should be outlined in a company's policy manual. The manual should also outline the procedure the company will take when people violate policies. A common process is a verbal warning, then a written warning, followed by termination.
Verbal Warning: When a serious problem is noted, have a meeting to give the employee an official verbal warning. Just saying something in passing can often be misconstrued or not taken seriously, so something needs to be different. The employee needs to understand that he or she is being given a serous official warning. You'll want to make sure the verbal warning is documented in the employee's personnel file.
One common mistake at this step is only telling the person that he or she needs to improve or change. A better approach is to be very specific about the errant behavior and what is expected instead. Also, instead of this being a one-way lecture, make it a two-way conversation so the employee is also providing ideas on how improvements can be made. Make sure the employee is aware that if improvements are not made you will proceed to the next step in the disciplinary process. I can't emphasize that last sentence enough.
Written Warning: Should the employee fail to improve, the next step is usually a written warning. In this document you should note that you have previously counseled the employee on the errant behavior and that because improvements have not been made you are issuing a formal written warning that continued errant behavior will lead to termination.
Again, a big mistake managers make is failing to explore ways to help the employee improve. Another error is failing to establish a follow-up date to evaluate progress. To truly be effective, managers should help with identifying and removing obstacles to progress and also set a date to meet with the employee so they can go over how the employee has (or has not) improved.
Written warnings should always be signed and placed in an employee's personnel file.
Follow Up: On the date stated in the written warning, meet with the employee. If satisfactory improvements have been made or progress toward a goal is evident, congratulate the employee and provide additional coaching or assistance to help the employee stay on track.
However, if the employee has not made satisfactory progress, chances are he or she knows it and termination will not come as a surprise.
If you know you'll be terminating the employee, make preparations ahead of time. In other words, have all the paperwork in order and do what's needed to make the termination occur as smoothly as possible. I also recommend someone else be in the room while termination occurs.
There's no need to be a jerk or hard-nosed. A person is losing his or her employment, and compassion is in order. That said, it's usually best to be direct that despite the efforts made, a termination must occur. Trying to soften the blow by dancing around issues only makes things more difficult, so keep this conversation brief and to the point. The decision has been made. At this point you're simply taking care of the HR paperwork and formalities.
Again, check with your lawyer, but this time-tested procedure is a whole lot better than abruptly terminating someone over the phone.