If you're a manager of some sort, eventually you will have to let an employee go. If you are a general manager, eventually you'll have to let an HR manager (or a company attorney) go. This is the most dangerous person you can release from employment, because of everything they have access to (your personal thoughts and strategies, the companies polices and practices, not to mention any scandals). And if they're an unscrupulous type, you're in for a rough ride.
First, a few comments about letting people go (firing, releasing, laying off, or whatever you want to call it). It's hard. Over the years, I've had to do this many times, for many reasons. In a few rare instances, I felt morally justified -- when the employee was caught stealing, or when I discovered the person had lied about something (like their degree, for example). In most cases releasing an employee felt like crap. Sometimes the situation arose because the employee just wasn't the right fit for the organization, sometimes because they couldn't get the job done despite a hard effort, but mostly it was because the business cycle was running the wrong way and we needed to shed costs.
I ususally wanted to make the departure as honorable and as painless as possible. I tried to always participate in the termination meeting, both to support the direct supervisor, and to let the employee know that in most cases it wasn't their fault. We typically paid a reasonable severance (at least when the person departing wasn't stealing), and provided assistance to locate a new job. Wherever I could, I tried to act as a personal reference for the person.
Once in a great while, extending a hand allowed the person leaving to bite me. People sometimes hear what they want to hear, and a meeting where compassion was supposed to be shown could sometimes turn into a source of ammunition when the employee later decided to sue the company. Most of these suits were formulated as EEOC complaints -- not because the termination was unfairly or improperly brought against a person because of their membership in a protected class, but because it was so easy for the employees to go after the company in this fashion. Honestly, I can't remember a single instance where the EEOC found the employee had cause, although a couple of them still ended up with nusiance settlements basically to prevent the expense and wasted time involved in a trial.
On two occassions, I did have a senior HR manager go after the company. Both situations were unusual, and one was downright bizzare.
In the first instance, I determined the HR manager wasn't capable of handling her job, but rather than terminating her, I offered a lesser position in the department (with no impact on pay). I'm sure it was a blow to her ego, but I thought it was the "right" thing to do. Her response? Gather as much information on a scandal that was brewing in another part of the company, and then demand (through her lawyer) an enormous settlement. The threat of the scandal becoming public through a trial eventually caused the company to settle at a level I thought was obscene.
In the second incident, my senior HR manager was caught approving her own raise less than thirty days after her hire. She claimed no knowledge of the situation, and the next day we started to receive a series of similarly forged increase forms for other members of my senior staff. I'd had a handwriting expert check the signatures on the original fake document, and there was no doubt it was her -- the other forms were a "red herring". When confronted, she produced a letter -- proportedly from a group of disgruntled employees who "confessed" they were just demonstrating they could "mess with" our HR system. Of course after she was fired, the letters stopped and there were no further issues.
I learned an important lesson from these two incidents: HR personel (and company lawyers) have unusual access to sensitive -- potentially embarrassing -- information. You'd be well advised to be cautious about what you allow them to become directly involved in, and if you must terminate one, you'd better be doubly cautious. Act decisively, don't give the person a chance to collect documentation to blackmail you with later, and definitely don't skimp when it comes to separation compensation.
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