Terminating a Professional Relationship Three Principles to Consider Before Letting Someone Go
One of the most vexing tasks we face as leaders is ending professional relationships. In this article, I want to offer three principles to consider the next time you have to terminate an employee.
I have found that every termination is unique with its own set of emotional, logistical, and team impacts. Terminating a 50/50 partnership is vastly different than terminating a contract agreement with someone who has worked for you only a few hours a week. Even letting a contractor go is much different than releasing an employee. With the latter, the termination experience also varies with someone who just joined your team versus someone who has been with the organization for years. Still, within these varying degrees of professional relationships, I aim to follow three principles with everyone, every time.
1—End the relationship the same way you led the relationship.
Many times toward the end of a professional relationship, something has caused a rift. One or both parties is often frustrated or angry. Sometimes, the leader is filled with disappointment, regret, or sadness. The best leaders do well to remember they are susceptible to their emotions during these times, and they make an intentional effort to handle the last chapter of the relationship with the same respect they held in the previous ones. Ideally we lead people with honor, compassion, and courage. That’s exactly how we should end our relationship with them as well.
A little over a year ago, a staff member was stealing medications from the clinic. She was caught because the manager was doing an inventory and noticed the missing sedative. After doing further research and confronting the person, she admitted to it. How did we end that relationship?
- With honor – In your leadership, hour by hour, day by day, how do you treat people? How do you think of them? How do you talk to them? How do you talk about them? Whether they are working well or miserably failing at their jobs, whether they are highly effective or not at all, whether they convey their emotions or speech well or they don’t—may we always treat people with honor. Likewise, when we must end relationships, may we terminate them honorably as well, regardless the cause.
- With compassion – Some leaders abuse their authority and mistreat people. We must choose to lead with compassion, especially when undeserved. We all deserve to be treated with grace and kindness. None of us are perfect. That’s exactly how we should end relationships—with compassion. Keep in mind, the end of a professional relationship is usually deeply disruptive and hurtful for the other person. Have mercy and offer compassion. What does compassion look like in a termination? Offering kindness, smiling when appropriate, having a gracious attitude, listening, waiting, doing what you can to help them when appropriate.
- With courage – Do you lead with courage? Do you do what needs to be done? Do you say what needs to be said? Do you speak clearly and act resolutely? I hope our answers are yes. That’s also how we should end relationships when they must end. We must decide resolutely, then communicate directly and clearly. Don’t delay. Speak with confidence and compassion.
2—Don’t surprise people with a termination.
If a person doesn’t see their termination coming, something is wrong. From an HR standpoint, we are taught to talk to people several times and document everything in writing before a termination occurs. From a leadership standpoint, we must go beyond the legality and procedures. We must follow these policies, and then extend them by choosing to operate in fairness and respect for people. I try to treat every termination as an extended conversation, not an unexpected event.
Meet with a person, once, twice, or until the message sinks in, until you understand what’s causing the issue. Say, “John, I hope you know that I want everyone working on our team to be here for many years and grow with us. However John, what has been going on is not compatible with our values, and I cannot allow anyone to work here unless they meet those marks. Do you think you can meet these goals?”
I am not saying to drag out the termination. Rather I am recommending that in almost every situation, we give people a chance—almost every situation. For the person stealing sedatives, we could not give her a second chance.
3—Make sure they leave happy.
Early in my leadership journey I terminated a gentleman who worked for us. Although I was not rough during the final conversation, I responded to his aggressive accusations with equally defensive rhetoric. He left unhappy. For a year, he caused havoc for our teams. He made reports to a couple of oversight agencies that our organization had substandard practices. We did not, but we had to deal with several costly and stressful audits as a result. I want people to leave happy, not only because I don’t want to invite harm to our organization, but maybe more importantly, because I want to be the kind of leader who cares for others even in the hardest part of leadership.
The best terminations are the ones that end with a genuine hug or warm handshake. I hope we always grow in wisdom and grace to know how to accomplish that.
PS: I recently recorded 30 teaching videos that range from 2 minutes to 8 minutes each on the topic of terminating relationships as a leader. My team and I are in the process of launching the Healthy Leadership Academy where these and other videos will be available as a resource for you and your team. Stay tuned.
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