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How to Say Goodbye to an Employee

June 2nd, 2010 was the day I was fired from the only job I ever wanted. The day seemed like any other with no sign of trouble, but then I was called into a meeting with the senior partners, who broke the news, “John, it’s time we part ways.”

After clearing out my office and leaving the office for the last time, I did what any self-respecting lawyer would do: I called my clients and signed them to retainer agreements…for my new law firm. In one foul swoop, roughly half of my former firm’s best clients joined my new firm and my former firm eventually had to “part ways” (a/k/a, terminate employment) with its best trial lawyers, secretaries and paralegals over the next couple of years.

How to be Radically Transparent with Your Team Members

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Ending the employment of a secretary, paralegal or even a partner doesn’t have to cause chaos and disruption for your firm. There are kinder, more compassionate ways to “part ways” with an employee.

Begin Employment on Probation: Every new team member should begin their employment on a 90-day probation period. Explain that each side has the option to ending the relationship after 90 days if, for whatever reason, you’re not the right fit.

At the end of the 90-day “probation” period, sit down with your team member and let them know how they’re doing. Your team members will appreciate the feedback.

Quarterly Reviews: Team members should receive quarterly evaluations on the key tasks of their position. Document the evaluations on a written form for each of the important tasks of their position and grade their performance as: (a) Excellent, (b) Satisfactory or (c) Needs Improvement.

The metrics for a case manager consist of the following tasks over a 90-day period:

  • # of new lawsuits filed,
  • # of new trial dates, and
  • # of new intakes

Not only will your case manager have a better sense of how he’s doing, you’ll be forced to evaluate the performance of your team members every 90 days and review your firm’s key performance indicators.

Be Transparent: Meet with your team members on a daily and weekly basis to let them know what you expect. Begin by pointing out the team member’s positive qualities, e.g., reliable, hard-working, personable, etc., before you bring up his deficiencies, e.g., lack of technical skills.

5 Rules for a Compassionate Way to Terminate an Employee

Here are a few ideas for a kinder, more compassionate way to end the employment of a team member.

Rule #1:   No Debate: When breaking the news, there should be no room for debate. Be kind, but firm. You’ve made a decision to end the employee’s employment and it is final.

Rule #2:   End Employment Immediately: Cut the cord completely by asking the employee to leave the firm as soon as you break the news.

It never makes sense to give the employee an extra 2-3 weeks on the job. The employee will spend that time looking for other employment and the last thing on his mind will be doing work for your firm. Severance pay is not necessary, but if you are in a generous mood, you might give the former employee some severance pay as a parting gift.

Rule #3:   Be Positive and Nice: Be honest, but compassionate at the same time. Praise the employee for their accomplishments (if there are any) and tell them that you appreciate their work and effort. You don’t have to be cold and bitter.

Do not discuss the employee’s faults unless they ask for an honest evaluation. If your employee asks for an explanation, tell him the truth, e.g., “You don’t have the technical skills for this position” or “You weren’t making the progress we wanted to see.” You might even acknowledge that you share part of the fault (if true) for not training the employee. Hey, no one’s perfect.

Rule #4:   Give a Gift: Write a personal letter emphasizing the employee’s positive qualities (e.g., hardworking, smart, reliable, etc.) and acknowledging their achievements (e.g., work on a big case).

While this is not technically a letter of recommendation, it is something the employee might use when seeking a new job and it ends the relationship without bitterness. You want to end the relationship with positive feelings—remember, the employee knows the inner workings of your firm and might be tempted to share your firm’s secrets with other law firms.

Rule #5:   Offer Help with New Employment: Offer to be a resource in your employee’s job search. You might offer to speak with the employee about the quality of lawyers and law firms that they are seeking employment with.

What Have You Got to Lose?

Being kind and compassionate does not always work. Some former employees will be bitter no matter what, but at least a few will appreciate your kindness and compassion and they might even thank you for your honesty. Sometimes parting ways with an employee is the best thing you can do for them.

And what have you got to lose? If you keep doing things the old way, your former employees will be critical of your law firm, share your firm’s secrets and tell everyone in your town that you’re mean. Being kind and compassionate might be the best thing you can do.



photo credit: Josh Puetz Right inside the door via photopin (license)

Leave a comment below telling me what surprised, inspired or taught you the most (I personally respond to every comment). And if you disagree with my take on running a personal injury law firm, or have a specific, actionable tip, I’d love to hear from you.