If you were fired via email, do you think you could honestly say it was the best thing that ever happened to you? I can… but I seriously doubt your employees would feel the same way.

My Story

On a Monday morning – February 24, 2020, to be exact – I awoke unusually early. As was my habit, I reached for my phone and scanned the notifications with blurry eyes.

Amidst the excessive Monday morning social media alerts and application update notices was an email from my boss of nearly 8 years. The message itself was not visible due to encryption but the subject line was perfectly clear. Termination of Employment.

The rush of energy that comes from downing your first cup of morning coffee does not begin to compare to the speed at which one reaches coherency after absorbing the meaning of those three words.

The Terrible Termination Letter

I immediately sat up in bed and skimmed the brief lines of text in the body of the email. The content was very vague and indicated that I was to read the attached document.

“This letter is to notify you that your position with this firm will be terminated effective February 29, 2020. During the week of 2/23/2020 – 2/29/2020, you will be paid for 32 hours. You will receive your final paycheck via direct deposit for the 2/16/2020 – 2/29/2020 pay period on 3/5/2020 and will include any remaining items and amounts discussed below.

During this week you are not to be present at the firm physical office nor have any client contact or accessing firm property other than your payroll information. We will send you any identified remaining personal items at the office to your address.”

A few paragraphs detailed the least amount of severance I had ever seen provided to a terminated employee and an offer to continue my health insurance for one month. Another paragraph summarized the availability of my retirement savings account vesting.

“All firm property is to be delivered by courier or standard shipping company.”

That was a joke. I had boxes of brochures and marketing materials stored at home. It would have cost hundreds of dollars to ship them to the office, which was 20 minutes away.

The page-and-a-half letter concluded with, “Thank you again. We wish you the very best in your future endeavors.”

My Initial Reaction

A form letter. After nearly eight years with this firm, the best I could get was a few boiler-plate paragraphs sent at 4am via email that did not even list a reason for termination.

While not terribly surprising given the mundane, low-level work I had been assigned in the several weeks preceding this email and financial position the firm was in, there was not a single incident I could recall that would warrant a termination. And I would know – I was the internal HR Manager.

I had been unwillingly part of other terrible terminations at this firm. Letting go a new hire after less than one month simply because payroll was too expensive (something that could have been calculated prior to hiring). Terminating an employee on January 2nd after promising an end-of-year-bonus that was supposedly delayed until later that month, with no reason of cause. The only other employees that had been terminated via email were remote employees, which I was not. This was a new low.

Honestly, the first thought in my mind was, “Well, I suppose I have time to go to the gym now.”

That was all. Truly, I felt nothing but relief.

Looking Back

Despite the many opportunities I had been given and doors that opened to me over my employment term, at least twelve months before I received this email I knew it was not the place I needed to be. I needed to be part of a company I believed in. One that highly regarded its clients, returned emails and phone calls, and dedicated itself to serving to the best of its ability. The core values I felt were missing at this firm.

A few months before this morning I had taken a step I felt was the next phase in my career. I set up an LLC – supposedly with the full approval of my boss – and started working on building a company that delivered HR education to dental and medical practices. I had no desire to offer any services that would compete with the ones I provided to clients of the firm. This was simply to be an education platform to fill a much-needed gap. Life evidently had other plans.

I could have reacted a million ways. Some interesting ones were suggested by friends and family with whom I had shared news of the termination. As the consummate professional, I chose to rise above and simply replied to the email with a timeline for collecting items for a courier – which I instructed my former boss to engage. I also included details about how we should handle an upcoming mutual speaking engagement. I truthfully was not angry, sad, or surprised by the email that morning. Instead, I felt free.

Moving Forward

Rather than wallow in depression from losing a job I’d loved for most of eight years, despite its flaws, I jumped into action and pivoted. I already had my business set up to be an education firm, so I was thrilled to add what I knew best and loved – HR consulting services.

An interesting twist of fate occurred about two weeks later. Coronavirus hit the U.S. and suddenly there was a dire need for HR advisors to help small business owners navigate the constantly changing guidelines and legislation. In a highly entertaining bout of karmic irony, I received another email from my former boss – at my new professional email address, no less. Not one month after terminating me, he asked if I would schedule a webinar with the firms’ clients to discuss COVID-19 considerations and upcoming legislation. Would you have agreed to do it? I did. And I signed my first consulting client from that webinar.

What to Do When Terminating an Employee

There are at least three sides to every story. His, hers, and what actually happened. I can only speak for my side of the story. However, as a former employee myself, I can also speak for your employees.

Terminations are difficult for everyone. It would take a truly heartless person to enjoy them. The kindest thing you can do when you need to let an employee go is to be honest with them. Have the conversation face-to-face, if possible. In today’s pandemic environment, that may mean holding a Zoom meeting. A phone call is the next best thing if you cannot meet in person.

The very last option you want to utilize is email or text. If an employee has ghosted you, send a certified letter to their mailing address. However, whether the employee has been with you ten days or ten years, they deserve to hear the news in person and they deserve a reason for the separation. Remember, your remaining team members are watching. You can bet word will get back to them if you opt to remove an employee from your payroll in a less-than-acceptable manner.

While not relying on written communication for the sole communication of the termination, I am a proponent for drafting a letter detailing the reason for termination. Include a summary of the conversation you plan to have with an employee you are terminating. Either prepare the letter prior to meeting to help keep you on point and provide a copy to the employee at the conclusion, or send it as a follow-up. If your state’s final pay rules dictate you provide an employee with their final paycheck at the termination meeting, ensure you have it prepared.

Minimizing Liability

There are additional considerations that support a well-documented termination that provides a clear reason for the company initiating the separation. Vagueness and ambiguity with termination reasons leaves too much open to interpretation… and can lead to a claim of wrongful termination for discriminatory reasons.

You presumably would not terminate someone for being a member of a protected class. Nevertheless, if the employee you are dismissing happens to be one and you do not provide a clear termination reason, your company may be vulnerable to a complaint and subsequent investigation by a governing body.

While less of an issue but still a potential financial burden, an employee who has been terminated without a clearly defined reason is likely to be granted unemployment benefits by the state’s labor department, since it will typically be deemed a layoff and not a for-cause termination.

Need help with an employee termination? Contact us!

One Last Word

My terrible email termination turned out to be the best thing that has ever happened to me, professionally speaking. It gave me the push I needed to be a full-time entrepreneur and the chance to succeed on my own terms. As a bonus, I never again have to sit in a freezing cold office where the thermostat is perpetually set to “Penguin Habitat” five days per week. If I saw my former boss on the street or at an industry event, I would probably thank him. Nevertheless, I doubt any of your employees would share my views if they woke up to the “Termination of Employment” email.

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