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When Employee Departures Get Messy

In the beginning, both employees and their employers generally have one desire: to make the relationship work.

Few people enter the workplace hoping to be embroiled in conflict, fail at their jobs—whether in perception or reality—or to experience the humiliation of termination. The fact is that most people go to work with a deep need to bring their gifts and talents to the table.

Unfortunately, there are any number of things which can go wrong in the workplace leading to one’s termination. And, at times, employee terminations can become public, messy and nightmares to manage for leaders.

How do we get to those worst-case scenarios? Once there, how should they be navigated for the sake of the entire company?

An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

The best way to avoid a messy employee termination is to manage performance effectively—before things get to the breaking point.

Performance management of an employee, as those of us who work in HR know well, is both an art and a science. The science element is pretty straightforward: ensure that expectations, clear goals and metrics are established; coach the employee both informally and formally to aid performance; employ timely corrective measures to address issues; and measure outputs to reward performance commensurately. That’s the easy part.

The harder part is dealing with the complexities of people. The reasons why many performance management practices fall short are always tied to the competencies and leadership of those involved— either wholly or partially.

Leadership is hard work. It takes authenticity, risk-taking, sharp decision-making and balance, among many other traits. As a leader, you must be as focused on people management as you are on product or program management. Otherwise, performance management issues will fester and haunt you.

As a leader, I’ve learned this the hard way. I’ve paid dearly during those times when I failed to take swift action…when I failed to bite the bullet.

Biting the Bullet

One of my many experiences as a leader in business over 20+ years is a perfect illustration of the need to take timely action on performance management issues.

I had just hired who I believed was a skilled professional for a key role on my team. After a few short weeks (some of her colleagues would say, days) she proved to be a bit of an impostor. I don’t use the word ‘impostor’ lightly as I’m sensitive to the struggles which many of us have in fighting the oft-discussed Impostor Syndrome. I talk openly about my own struggles with this syndrome in my book, Tough As Nails: Finding Your Voice as a Woman in the Workplace. This individual was not suffering from that. Sadly, she neither possessed the technical abilities nor emotional maturity to do the job. I tried coaching her. I tried encouraging her. I relied, foolishly, on others across my team to pick up her slack. That bred resentment and more issues.

When I finally reached the point where I had to administer more serious corrective action, she played the victim card. Big time. I waited too long. A situation which should have been managed decisively, resulting in her removal months earlier, instead had now become a slow-motion train wreck for everyone involved.

I’ve learned through that experience and others, that giving tough feedback is unpleasant but absolutely necessary. As a leader, if you’re dealing with someone who has never had the mirror held up to them, you’re in for a heckuva ride. I won’t lie to you. Do it anyway. Lean into it. Rely on your HR partners to manage the performance issue with clarity and speed to avoid an ugly termination.

Transparency Matters, But It Has Its Limits

Once the termination has happened, particularly if it is more public in nature, it will be difficult to manage the rumor mill. Rumor mills in the workplace are always in full motion. They grind even when there’s no one turning the wheel. As a result, it is very challenging to manage the swirl around a messy departure.

While I’m a big proponent of transparency and candor during times of change, there are times when less really is more. Leaders can’t share everything. If a departure has been difficult, there are a few things that can and should be shared. These include the more innocuous facts: the individual is no longer with the company; words of well wishes for that person; how work will continue in their absence; and who is available to answer any work-related questions. Beyond that, sharing more information mostly serves to keep the drama alive, often raising more questions that would be inappropriate to answer.

Finally, be proactive and strategic in your communication strategy. There are ways to skillfully navigate these situations—from the final stages of the termination through the days following it:

  • Work with your HR partner to prepare an airtight ‘script’ of the termination meeting. Who will say what, when and how?

  • Write some talking points on what you will share with your inner circle, broader team, and the entire organization as well as when you plan to share it. HR should be a strong partner to you in this area as well. It requires great finesse in wording of what is shared—and what isn’t.

There are many other aspects to a strong communication strategy to get through these situations. For more information and support in this area, feel free to contact me at for a complimentary consultation.

Ultimately, the key theme at the end of a messy departure is to remain focused on supporting employees who remain and pointing them toward the future.

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