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Putting the Human Back in HR: How to Create a Positive Offboarding Experience [ebook]

Job separations can be positive experiences with the right approach—even in sensitive situations.

May 24, 2022

Offboarding your employees the right way is just as important as the onboarding experience.

Many companies struggle with offboarding, though. Unlike onboarding, where candidates and HR share in the excitement of a new journey, offboarding doesn’t always happen in good spirits. Unexpected terminations can make emotions run high. However, every offboarding experience has the potential to leave a good impression—and it starts with humanizing the process.

It’s time to put the “human” back in “human resources”. Let’s explore how HR can create positive offboarding experiences, even when the situation feels anything but positive.

A Fresh Look at HR’s Role

The world of HR started as a safety function to keep workers safe from death or injury. Over a hundred years ago, when the personnel function was established, safety wasn’t the high priority it is today. Several decades ago, this role evolved into the personnel department, which was still a very transactional role. We focused on payroll and compliance and related topics, and there wasn’t much that “humanized” us as professionals.

Today, that’s no longer the case. Payroll and compliance still have an important purpose, but HR’s role has evolved far beyond its previous duties. We now embrace the human side of things. We’ve become strategic partners in our organizations.

Even now, we’re continuing to transition into more of a “people” department. Today’s HR professional is a coach, a mentor, and a guide. We help our people grow. We create individualized experiences for our people—from beginning to end.

It’s important to keep this in mind when talking about offboarding because our role as a mentor, coach, and guide doesn’t stop when we know someone is leaving the company. As HRs, our biggest objective is to keep our people in mind in everything we do, and that includes when they leave your organization.

Before You Refine Your Offboarding…

Improving your current offboarding processes can take a little soul searching and groundwork first. You want your offboarding experiences to align with your company culture and values, and you first need to know what those are and how they work in your company.

Think about the kind of organizational culture you currently have, then consider what kind of organizational culture you want to have. The space in between is what you need to fix and fill to get to where you want to be. If you’re not living your values, you may have some work to do before you create a positive offboarding experience.

Also, think about how you currently treat your people as a company. Do you lead with empathy, compassion, honesty, trust, and love? Those values matter just as much during offboarding as they do in the day-to-day leadership. And if those values aren’t part of your day-to-day operations, you may need to put in some work before you can use them to transform your offboarding.

Offboarding Is Part of the Total Employee Experience

In a typical employee journey, employees go through three distinct phases: Pre-Employment (search, application, interview, and job offer), Employment (onboarding, contribution, development, and growth), and Post-Employment (separation and re-employment).

In most cases, companies give the most weight to the first two phases and put very little focus (if any) on the exit. The reality, of course, is that offboarding is still part of the overall employee experience—just as much as health and wellness, growth opportunities, and trust in leadership. These things aren’t just nice to have. They’re essential in creating a strong employee experience. Companies shouldn’t send their employees off to their next adventure without bringing that positive employee experience full circle.

Types of Exits

Employees may leave your company in different ways under a variety of circumstances. Here’s a closer look at the most common ones

Terminations

Termination is defined as the act of bringing something to an end. This might be the termination or ending of a contract. Or, it could be a firing, which is a dismissal of an employee by decision of a manager. Think of termination as a broad term for all types of employee departures.

Resignations

Resignations are voluntary terminations, where an employee leaves the company of their own will. They might resign from their job to go to another company or end their employment to address a health problem or care for a loved one, for example.

Retirements

Employees that have long tenures at a company may retire at a certain point. Or, you might have age-related retirements where the employee decides to no longer work.

End of Contract

The end of a contract could be an opportunity for renewal. In some cases, though, you may end up parting ways with contracted employees.

Layoffs

A layoff is a discharge of an employee, either on a temporary or permanent basis. This often affects temporary employees, but it can also impact individuals or groups of employees for various business reasons. For example, companies going through downsizing might have to lay off several staff members.

Furloughs

Furloughs are mandatory, temporary unpaid leaves or reduced work schedules where employees are expected to be reinstated in the future. These are typically used as a cost-saving measure for companies and can last as long as the company requires.

How to Create a Positive Offboarding Experience

Regardless of how an employee leaves your company, your offboarding experience should remain positive and productive. Offboarding is often the last impression an employee will have of your organization. Employees leaving the company on good terms may choose to rejoin it in the future.

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Employees who are not leaving of their own will may feel inclined to speak negatively about your company to others. Filling their very last impression of your company with positivity and human understanding may help improve their sentiments, allowing you to maintain your employer’s reputation.

Let’s look at several areas that can help you foster a positive offboarding experience.

Lead with Empathy

Treat every employee as well as you did when they first started. Terminations, regardless of how they come about, can be emotional for the employee. It’s important to treat terminations with compassion and empathy. People deserve to have a positive experience, even when they are being fired.

Know When to Terminate

Deciding whether to terminate an employee is a major challenge for many managers. In fact, it’s so challenging that many managers tell themselves lies to avoid the situation entirely. As Kim Scott shares in her book, Radical Candor, managers avoid firing employees by buying into the following ideas:

  • The person’s performance will get better. (If you’ve given chances and done everything you can, it won’t improve.)
  • Having someone in the role is better than having nobody while we look to fill it. (It’s not kind or efficient to keep someone who is not performing well.)
  • It’s smarter to transfer the person to another department than to fire them. (Why transfer a problem to another team or manager?)
  • Firing the person will be bad for morale. (It’s often the opposite.)

At some point, keeping a poor performer on board can do more harm than good. Managers need to be honest with themselves about whether there’s value in keeping an employee if they’re underperforming or whether their hesitation is to avoid a difficult situation.

Fire with Compassion

Firings can be tense, emotional situations for everyone involved. Even though you feel like you’ve got the company’s best interest in mind to terminate an employee, it’s still essential to show compassion throughout the process.

Joel Peterson, chairman of JetBlue and the Robert L. Joss Adjunct Professor of Management at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, shared some tips in a recent Harvard Business Review article on how to fire with compassion. Some highlights include:

    • Don’t wait for a “firing” offense. If you feel the candidate is no longer making an impact or is otherwise not in the company’s best interest to maintain, start the termination process.
      Do be willing to fire friends or family. Many companies have a strict policy against hiring friends or family of current employees. But if you do not have that policy, you need to be willing to terminate people close to you when warranted.
    • Don’t surprise people. It should never be a surprise when someone is being fired. At the point of firing, you should have given them every chance in the world to improve.
    • Do prepare and practice. Firing someone is not easy, especially for empathetic managers. Firing takes a lot of practice and preparation, particularly in knowing the reasons why the person is being fired and being able to separate your emotions from the facts.
    • Don’t hand off the dirty work. Managers who feel like they can’t fire someone often try to pass the responsibility onto someone else. But all managers with the power to fire someone should be able to handle their own situations. They’re the ones closest to the issue, they make the decision to terminate the employee, and they need to assume all responsibilities under their leadership title.
    • Do deliver the message clearly and immediately. Don’t tiptoe around the topic or make a long speech to get to the point. Be direct about your intentions, then have a conversation about the reasons behind it.
    • Don’t over-explain the situation. Some explanation is certainly warranted. But you don’t want to go into a back-and-forth conversation. Overexplaining can lead to a very lengthy firing and may still not provide the clarity or a satisfactory response the employee wants.
    • Do be human. You may need to listen to someone crying. You may need to be ready with a box of tissues. Your employees are human, and you need to be human, too. Be sensitive to their situation but resolute in your decision.
    • Don’t shift the blame. Take responsibility for your decision. Don’t shift the blame to HR or say things like “My hands are tied” if it’s not true.
    • Do be generous. If you can offer a severance, then do so. If you can pay them out for the week, then do it. Recognize that you’re dealing with a human being who is being separated from their income and may need to support their family or themselves.

Terminate on a Tuesday, Maybe

HR professionals agree that Tuesdays are the ideal days to terminate someone, according to an SHRM report. This way, if someone has questions about the termination process, COBRA coverage, or something else, someone will be in the office in the following days they can talk to.

The reasoning behind this is that Monday gives HR and the manager time to prepare any paperwork and practice their communication. A termination should never happen on a Friday at 5 o’clock. This doesn’t give the person much time to absorb it, nor does it allow them to go to the unemployment office in time before the weekend.

However, the actual day doesn’t matter as much as the process itself. Focus on making sure you have all of your paperwork in order and can clearly communicate the situation.

Consider Whether a Furlough Is a Better Option

Furloughs are often a much better alternative to layoffs for both companies and employees. They allow companies to keep the talent they’ve invested in when the company needs change. Workers can work a reduced schedule (or not at all), saving the company money. They can also keep their benefits, which may make them feel more confident about the situation.

However, before Covid-19, furloughs were infrequently used in the U.S. According to HBR, during the Great Recession, only 0.5% of the U.S. workforce participated in furloughs, while one in five workers experienced a layoff.

Furloughs can be a better option compared to layoffs in some circumstances, but they do come with some requirements. One stipulation is that furloughed employees can’t do work “on the side.” You’ll also need to openly and consistently communicate with employees on their furloughed status.

Before you consider furlough, come up with a plan. Be honest and transparent about how the furlough works. Explain what will happen with the employee’s benefits (they may need to make separate payments for their health insurance if they won’t have a paycheck for you to take out their share, for example). Talk about any expectations as far as not working for other companies during the furlough. And make sure you have an easy way to stay in touch with them and provide emotional support throughout the process.

Establish a Termination Protocol

Having a termination protocol allows companies to better identify when terminations may be warranted. There are three types of involuntary terminations:

Performance. You’ll have some employees who simply aren’t cut out to do the job. They might make serious mistakes, for example, or maybe they don’t put in as much effort as the job requires. Perhaps their outcomes don’t align with what the company needs. Poor performance can lower morale, reduce effectiveness, and stifle company growth.

Policy. A clear policy violation may or may not be grounds for immediate termination, depending on what policy has been violated. Some offenses may be more serious than others. For instance, a violation of a company’s sexual harassment policy may require immediate suspension or termination, while working off the clock might be remedied with a conversation.

Values. Employees usually put their best foot forward in the beginning. You’re getting to know them, and they’re getting to know you. But over time, it will become more apparent if an employee doesn’t align with your company values. If someone isn’t living up to your values, it can affect others within the organization. Companies need to live their values throughout the hiring process, employment, and terminations!

Document your employment termination protocol to ensure no detail falls through the cracks. For example, a standard termination protocol includes:

    • Documenting the offense
    • Clearly communicating expectations with the employee
    • Coaching them toward a resolution
    • Providing a written performance improvement plan
    • Offering written counseling—you don’t want to terminate someone without giving them every chance to improve!

You may also want to create an offboarding checklist for when it’s time to terminate an employee. GoCo’s offboarding checklist offers an excellent example, ensuring that you communicate the termination with the employee, transition their work, conduct an exit interview, and manage the logistics of collecting company equipment, changing passwords, etc. Lucid Chart also offers compelling visual resources to help you in this process.

Adjust Your Approach for Remote Offboarding

Offboarding a remote employee requires a bit of a different approach. You don’t have the in-person element, so you don’t have control over the environment in which you issue the termination. You can still follow your normal termination protocol, but with a few adjustments.

First and foremost, if meeting in person is not an option, use video conferencing to tell the person face to face. Avoid terminating someone over text or email, as well as in a group setting if it’s a mass layoff. Better CEO came under fire for firing 900 employees in a group Zoom session, and the fallout from this became very public and damaged the company’s reputation. What’s more, HRs and managers were able to see the reactions from employees to the practice and its powerful impact on them. Use this lesson to improve your own remote offboarding techniques.

Also, make sure the directive comes from the employee’s manager. HR can (and probably should) be present to handle any questions, but the employee’s direct supervisor should hand down the order.

Once you’ve done the following, you can follow your normal protocol. Make sure you’re still conducting exit interviews with remote employees, transitioning their workload, and handling the end of employment logistics.

Have a Conversation

Employees can feel blindsided and undervalued when they’re hit with a termination without a conversation. Turn your terminations into conversations to gain a mutual understanding of the situation. This is your chance to be transparent about your reasons if you’re bringing about the termination. It’s also a good learning opportunity for managers if their employees are resigning. You can use this time to get to the heart of their motivations and see whether your organization can improve on anything in the future.

Know the Impact of a Strong Offboarding Experience

Research shows that about 46% of employees will fail within the first 18 months of being hired. This matters when crafting your offboarding experience because it shows just how many people you may potentially impact on their way out. You’ll have the chance to impact their lives as they exit your company and go forward to the next phase.

Being compassionate and putting the human back into human resources helps the employee make the transition out of your company. Employees that leave with a positive impression can become a good referral source and may even want to be rehired by the company in the future. By treating exiting employees as respectfully as incoming employees, you’re creating an alumni network that may benefit your company in the future.

Perhaps most important to remember is that creating a positive offboarding experience is just the right thing to do. It makes the departure (forced or voluntary) easier on the employee as well as those that remain.

Getting Ahead of Terminations

The best thing HRs and managers can do to improve the offboarding experience is to get ahead of terminations. If you don’t love the idea of terminating employees, either through firing or via resignations, prevent them organically through employee engagement initiatives, employee appreciation, and a strong company culture. Coach your managers so they can coach their teams in the right direction. When you get ahead of terminations and help your people be the best they can be, offboarding may become a less frequent event!

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