Shifting from Harm to Harmony

Handling Difficult Conversations

A friend in human resources recently shared with me that the toughest part of her new job is when she has to fire/let go of an employee. She can handle long-hours, neurotic personalities, and even an angry or belittling comment, but being the “bad guy” and bearer of bad-news feels jarringly wrong. Unfortunately, this is an integral part of her job, so she reluctantly does what needs to be done. But she doesn’t enjoy it and wishes there were someone else, or another way, to do it.

Human resource professionals primarily focus on the soft-side of business. They help train people to be the best they can be, offer competitive pay and benefits packages, and create an upbeat workplace spirit and culture. Their goals are to empower and encourage employees, focusing on the “human capital” of the business.

So what happens when the job also includes the hardest-side of business: informing employees that they are no longer needed or welcome?

A few tips and ways of re-framing the situation will help ease the blow and facilitate a better conversation.

1.    Set an appropriate time and place – Consider where you and s/he will be most comfortable. Is it better in your office? Theirs? A conference room? Different personalities may require different spaces. And no matter what, be sure to respect privacy. Don’t have the conversation on-the-fly or in any area where it may be overheard.

2.    Do your homework – Make sure you’ve reviewed all laws and considered all details of the termination, so that it should go smoothly and you are ready with all of the information on-the-spot.

3.    Keep it short – Dragging out bad news is never a good idea. The conversation should be brief, with minimal (if any) room for questions or comments, in the moment. Feedback and exit-surveys can usually wait until later. The initial letting-go conversation is best left as-is, without other dialogue, topics, or questions to distract from the main message.

True story: a friend was being terminated, but the conversation was so muddled, that she wasn’t sure if she was being asked to leave or being promoted! This made for a very awkward few hours afterwards, until she decided to ask for clarification. Make sure you are concise and deliver the message clearly!

4.    Be specific about the terms – Make sure you have at-the-ready all of the details you need to cover. Termination may include: severance, immediacy of termination (how soon are the expected to leave), benefits expiration timeline, and unused vacation time.

5.    Remember the “Why” – Presumably you know why this person has to leave, and you agree that this is the best strategic decision. If so, then you can relate to the conversation as an important part of the process of growing and improving the company. In other words, from the company perspective, this is a step forward. You obviously don’t mention this to the person you are firing, but the conversation will go a lot smoother if you have this in mind.

6.    Avoid long explanations – Assuming this is a one-way conversation and not a dialogue, there isn’t real need to belabor justifying your decision. Keep the reasons concise and to-the-point. You’re not looking for drawn-out discussion or promises of change – you just need to get your message heard. Too much explaining can give a false-impression that you’re unsure of this decision. If that were true, then a discussion should be had, prior to letting the person go.

7.    Do not apologize – Unless you truly are sorry for something specific about the terms of letting the person go (short notice, no prior indications, or similar), an apology followed by bad news is simply something we are saying to make ourselves feel better. But it is belittling and of no real comfort to the person receiving the message.

8.    Offer an exit-survey – One of the best ways of parting is to offer a respectful opportunity for someone to voice his/her feedback. Sometimes the feedback is very insightful. And other times, it will have created a dynamic where the person leaving feels s/he at least had his/her final say. This can be a small measure to reduce the likelihood of dragging out the termination with reactive lawsuits, for example.


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Melody Wang

Melody Wang is a Conflict Consultant with the Harmony Strategies Group and CEO of Wang Mediation, which she founded upon graduation from the University of Southern California, Gould School of Law with an MA in Alternative Dispute Resolution. Melody is a panel mediator for the New York City Family Court and serves on the Board of Directors at the Association for Conflict Resolution, Greater New York (ACR-GNY). Prior to moving to New York, Melody was an experienced civil and community mediator in Los Angeles, California, working closely with non-profits, small claim courts and the California federal court. She also led selected trainings and workshops on dispute resolution within the Asian-American community in California.  Melody has lived in the U.S., Taiwan, China and Singapore, is fluent in English, Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese, and especially enjoys engaging in international relations and cross-cultural conflict systems.

Dara Rossi

Dara Rossi, Ph.D. is a Conflict & Strategy Consultant with the Harmony Strategies Group. She has more than 20 years of experience in the field of education and has worked with students from kindergarten through the university graduate level. Additionally, she has facilitated professional development for educators and administrators across all points on the education continuum. After10 years of service in the Department of Teaching and Learning Southern Methodist University, she launched her coaching and consulting business while continuing to serve as an adjunct professor. She holds a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction, an MBA, an MA in Dispute Resolution, and an MAT in Education, and BS in Human Development.

Isar Mahanian

Isar Mahanian, M.Sc. is a Conflict & Strategy Consultant with the Harmony Strategies Group. She is an active mediator who coaches new mediators in the program in which she serves. Isar has worked at a fast-paced technology start-up as the Head of Human Resources, leading senior executives to mitigate and resolve workplace conflicts and creating system level improvements for employees within the company. She holds a Master’s of Science degree in Negotiation and Conflict Resolution from Columbia University. 

Kimberly Jackson Davidson

Kimberly Jackson Davidson is currently the University Ombudsperson at George Mason University and member of the Harmony Strategies Group. She spent two decades at Oberlin College in Ohio, holding positions in the Office of the Dean of Students and as Visiting Lecturer in African American Studies. During her final five and a half years there, she served all campus constituencies as Ombudsperson and Director of the Yeworkwha Belachew Center for Dialogue (YBCD). Davidson is active within the International Ombuds Association (IOA), the California Caucus of College and University Ombuds (CCCUO), and the Ombuds Section of the Association for Conflict Resolution (ACR). She earned a B.A. in English Literature from Spelman College in 1986 and an M.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in African Literature in 1991.

Hector Escalante

Hector Escalante is an experienced Ombuds and learning and development professional with over seven years of ombuds experience and over twenty years of experience developing and teaching course offerings which promote inclusion, healthy communication, and conflict resolution. He is the Director of the Ombuds Office at the University of California, Merced, having served many years as the organizational ombuds at the University of the Pacific. He is an ombuds partner with Harmony Strategies Group, and a consulting ombuds for Earthjustice and Union of Concerned Scientists.  Hector holds two master’s degrees and a doctorate in education. He is a United States Marine Corps veteran, a husband and father to four children. Hector’s passions include treating all with fairness, equity, dignity, and compassion and good food. 

Stuart Baker

Stuart Baker is a heart-centered strategic consultant with the Harmony Strategies Group. He makes use of all his experience in the construction industry, mediation and presenting, combined with years of spiritual pursuit, to offer a unique and broad sensitivity in his consulting work. He loves helping people deepen their harmony and connection with others, and with themselves. We are honored to have Mr. Stuart Baker on our team, pioneer of “Conscious Cooperation” – his book can be ordered here

Kira Nurieli

Kira Nurieli is the CEO of the Harmony Strategies Group and is an expert mediator, conflict coach, trainer/facilitator, consultant, and restorative practices facilitator. She has spent upwards of twenty years helping clients handle conflict and improve communication strategies and has presented at numerous conferences and symposia as a subject matter expert. She holds a Master’s degree in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University and a Bachelor’s degree in Comparative Performance from Barnard College. She especially enjoys helping individuals, teams, and lay-leaders become more impactful and empowered in their work and is honored to work alongside her esteemed colleagues with the Harmony Strategies Group.

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