I came across an interesting article today in the Harvard Business Review about employee terminations. The author, who is a digital media executive and Adjunct Professor of Management at Columbia University, argues that “transparent separation” is a more humane approach to employee termination that is “highly underused given [its] low risk and great benefits.”
So what is transparent separation? In a traditional termination, the author argues, the employee is typically called into a meeting, informed of his or her termination, allowed to ask a few questions or make a few comments, perhaps given a severance agreement to review and consider, and ultimately shown the door. In contrast, in a transparent separation, the employee is not “blindsided” with his termination in a surprise meeting. Instead, the employee is called into a meeting, counseled that he/she is going to be let go in the future, and told that he/she should start looking for a new job ASAP. There is no ambiguity; the decision is final. But, rather than being walked out the door, the employee is given a set timeframe — usually 6 weeks for a more junior employee and 2-3 months for a more senior executive — to find a new job and transition out.
The author claims that he has managed “thousands” of employees and “hundreds” of terminations — both traditional terminations and transparent separations. The author claims he gets a “radically different response” from the employee whenever he utilizes the transparent separation strategy. And what is that response? “Inevitably, I am thanked,” he writes. The employee benefits (because he/she is allowed to look for a job while still employed), the employer benefits (because of improved employee relations, increased trust, smoother transitions, and reduced legal risk), and the company culture benefits (because an employee does not suddenly “disappear,” managers aren’t fielding awkward questions, and employees in general are happier, more loyal, and more creative because they don’t fear sudden termination).
But transparent separations are not recommended in a few circumstances, according to the author: (1) when the employer is doing a reduction-in-force or mass layoff, or (2) when the employee is being terminated for active wrongful conduct rather than sub-0ptimal performance. In these situations, time is of the essence and the time required for a transparent separation does not exist, so other strategies should be used.
I can think of other situations, too, where a transparent situation is neither practical nor prudent. I also think that the transparent separation strategy assumes too much maturity and goodwill on the part of the soon-t0-be-departing employee. By allowing the employee to remain employed, and to come into the workplace every day for weeks or even months, the employer gives that employee access to computer networks, confidential and sensitive business information, customers/clients, and key employees. A lot of damage can be done by a disgruntled employee in a day, much less weeks or months. Plus, the employer is giving that employee another several weeks or months to interact with the company and its employees and look for instances of wrongdoing or impropriety. Why give an employee you know you are going to fire time potentially to manufacture causes of action against you? Sure, some employees would never do that. But, equally surely, others will.
While I agree that it’s best to deal with any employee termination as fairly and honestly and gently as possible, I disagree that the best way to achieve those goals is to allow the employee to remain in the workplace. There are existing strategies we employments lawyer have at our disposal that can accomplish all of the “good” of transparent separations without subjecting employers to all of the potential “bad” as well.
Plus, the justification for transparent separation seems to rest on a flawed premise — namely, that a company who terminates an employee is usually “blindsiding” that employee and, thus, subjecting both the employee and the company to a host of negative consequences. But that’s not true. In most competently managed companies, an under-performing employee would be aware of his/her performance issues and would be receiving both formal and informal feedback along the way. The HR function would have identified the performance issues and put in place a plan for correction long before any termination meeting occurs. Thus, to the extent that the supposed benefits of transparent separation flow from the employer avoiding the “blindsiding” of its employees, those supposed benefits may not, in fact, exist. At least not for companies that have HR competence.
You can read the full article in Harvard Business Review here.