MANAGERS who have to notify employees about the loss of their jobs will tell you that it is a task they prefer to avoid. Understandably, they and their organisations are eager to get through these sessions as quickly as possible.

Keeping the separation notification meeting brief is a prudent tactic. But this should not be the only strategy managers bring to the meeting. It only takes a second to make the comment, promise, or even apology that may eventually tarnish the organisation’s image or lead to a wrongful termination lawsuit.

The most influential factor in the decision to seek legal or other redress against an ex-employer is usually traced back to the separation process. People who have been through it can often recall verbatim the words used to tell them they were being let go.

Be sensitive

The way the notification is made sets the tone for everything that follows. For both parties, there is much discomfort and nervousness during the meeting, which makes it easy for the manager to become defensive and for the meeting to descend into a shouting match.

Here are other common mistakes made by managers:

* Inappropriate comments, such as “Good to see you”, “Thanks for coming by”, or “Believe me, this hurts me just as much as it hurts you.”

* Apologising for or distancing themselves from the decision: “I don’t agree with this decision, but” and “I can’t believe they’re doing this to you, but”

* Holding out false hope: “We’ll be sure to let you know when a position opens up.”

* Inaccurate, legally risky statements: “You know how it is, the company needs to make room for young blood”

Employees can usually understand the business reasons behind the decision. They may not like it, but they can accept it. What they will not tolerate, however, is sloppy or insensitive handling of the separation.

Let them down easy

To ensure that the separation process and the notification meeting, in particular, go smoothly, many human resource executives are putting their organisation’s managers through specialised training.

While helping to minimise the organisation’s exposure to legal action is a good enough reason for conducting the training, most executives say that the primary beneficiaries are the two people involved in that short, difficult meeting.

In many cases, managers are breaking the news to people — their peers and friends — whom they have worked with for years. They want to deliver the news in a way that makes them feel a little more comfortable and help the employee move on to the next step a little faster and more smoothly.

For a notification meeting to be conducted successfully, there are three key events that should take place and must be managed carefully.

1. Delivering the message

The message should be delivered in a straightforward and professional manner, briefly outlining the business reasons behind the decision. Scripting exactly what is going to be said helps defuse a lot of the emotion that can get out of hand, when the manager gets off track or fumbles around for the right words.

2. Handling the employee’s reaction

No two people react to the loss of a job in the same manner. This is often where notification meetings go awry, since many managers are not prepared to deal with such reactions as disbelief, denial, shock or anger. Managers must be trained to recognise and respond appropriately to the wide variety of possible reactions and to stay focused on the business reasons behind the decision.

3. Structuring next steps

While the employee who has just been terminated should be given time to express any initial reactions, the manager should quickly focus the conversation on specific next steps. This may include confirming the separation date, outlining the procedures needed to complete the separation (such as returning keys or security cards), and describing any separation package being offered.

To help employees further absorb the news and begin the transition process, many organisations elect to bring in trained transition consultants to meet with employees immediately following the separation notification meeting.

A very important issue that is frequently ignored by many organisations is maintaining the dignity of both the employee being terminated and the manager.

When managers are trained to conduct the separation in a professional manner, dismissed employees, while not pleased about their situation, who feel that they were treated as well as possible under the circumstances spend less time and energy looking back and can focus more readily on the future.

Employees who remain in the organisation will realise that if they were to face a similar situation, they will be treated with the same level of respect. This is very important if the organisation is to move past the pain and onto the next level.