When parting is not sweet sorrow: A critical look at the messaging around terminations of employment
Chris Oliver, Director
As our lovers exchange their goodnights in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet says to Romeo “Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow, That I shall say good night till it be morrow”. For Juliet, the sorrow of parting ways is sweetened by the wondrous anticipation that they will soon be reunited.
Perhaps self-evidently, rarely can the same be said of dismissals. In truth, the reverse is possibly more accurate with any joy being tied to the goodbye, and the sorrow being tied to any possibility of a future greeting.
Undeniably, terminations are possibly one of the more emotionally challenging aspects of the employment relationship. While you can certainly apply an Einstein relativity analysis to terminations, it is almost always a relatively unpleasant one. It is the ultimate sanction for an employer to apply, and it is a decision that can have long lasting impacts, not only for the dismissed employee but for every participant in the process and its many spectators.
What are we really saying when we dismiss someone (and also when we decided not to)?
While some employer-initiated terminations are proactively planned, in most instances they’re reactive. Consequently, how often do we genuinely consider the messages that will be created by not only the reasons for the dismissal, but all of the surrounding circumstances? Equally, how often do we consider the messages that are created by our decisions not to dismiss? For example:
- Performance-based dismissals have a punitive element for the individual involved, but what do they say (and what do our decisions not to dismiss say) for the inevitably large group of internal and external spectators who are not involved, have limited visibility, but are certainly reaching their own conclusions about the messages;
- Conduct-based terminations tend to also be punitive, but coupled with our decisions not to dismiss can send powerful messages as to the conduct that we will or will not accept;
- Terminations for operational reasons tend not to be viewed punitively, but carry the potential to create a broad range of messages regarding the health of the business, the operational direction the business is taking, (in)security of employment and the importance the business places on its people and its compliance with its own processes.
As we make our decisions to terminate (or not to terminate as the case may be), it’s important to question and be aware of the messages the organisation is inevitably sending with our decision.
The standard we walk past is the standard we accept
Almost all organisations promote their values and culture across many and varied contexts – in recruitment, at organisational off-sites, during strategy sessions, team building exercises, our inductions, our policies and procedures and in our external marketing material. Those values are also regularly cited when the same organisations make their decisions to undertake investigations, disciplinary processes and dismissals.
But what is the real and practical purpose of values and culture within your operational decisions? As an organisation, can you honestly say they permeate everything your organisation does? Or is the organisation prepared to trade off culture and values against the expediency of short-term decision making?
On 12 June 2013, the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison posted a YouTube video in response to various and apparently systemic instances of plainly unacceptable behaviour finding public light. Morrison’s powerful message included the following:
“Every one of us is responsible for the culture and reputation of our army and the environment in which we work.”
“I will be ruthless in ridding the army of people who cannot live up to its values. And I need every one of you to support me in achieving this. The standard you walk past, is the standard you accept. That goes for all of us, but especially those, who by their rank, have a leadership role.”
While Morrison’s speech may have taken its place as a seminal moment in the army’s own recent journey, his words should continue to resonate more broadly as a clear articulation of the fundamental role decision-making has in the creation and maintenance of organisational culture.
The reinstatement dilemma
What could be worse than spending time, money, emotion and sleepless nights on a termination of employment and then the employee is reinstated?
Many organisations over-discount the risk of reinstatement. They tell themselves “we will show the relationship has broken down, or we have hired someone else – so we cannot have the employee back”. In practice, it’s unlikely to be that easy. Organisations need to remember that under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) reinstatement is the primary remedy and the Fair Work Commission cannot make an order for the payment of compensation unless it is satisfied that reinstatement is not appropriate.
Statistically, reinstatement is not as uncommon as most employers think. While it’s true that, on average, around 92% of unfair dismissal claims result in a settlement prior to a decision being made, that still leaves around 8% that are determined by a decision. Of those decisions where a finding of ‘unfairness’ is made, around 18% result in a remedy of reinstatement or reemployment.
While an order for reinstatement will create an obvious challenge for any organisation, every organisation should also consider the broader challenges that the resulting message will create. While the organisation is unlikely to be able to effectively or positively message the reinstatement of an employee, it is guaranteed that many questions will be asked and answered around the watercooler. For example,
- What does the reinstatement say about our employer?
- Did it try to enforce an inappropriate policy?
- Did it fail to follow a fair process, and did it breach its own processes?
- Did it “jump the gun” in its decision making?
- Was there a “sloppy” investigation?
- Was the termination just a ‘stitch up’?
Part of the problem is that everyone is watching. The challenges of reinstatement don’t just include the internal messaging and cultural challenges, but it also includes the brand damage. There can be brand damage amongst both customers and potential new employees. Even in a world of short news cycles, these matters do get traction, develop their own notoriety and can become topics of ongoing discussion for the years ahead.
Creating a settlement culture
It’s not uncommon for organisations to approach a dismissal with a mindset of “cutting a deal” on the way out, or at conciliation. While statistically the prospects of settling at some point between dismissal and hearing are good, organisations need to consider carefully the messages they are sending, and the culture they are creating, by routinely adopting this approach.
Where an organisation routinely ‘cuts a deal’ with employees on the way out, or settles all claims filed against it, it’s common for a counter-culture to develop where employees:
- lose part of the incentive for maintaining performance;
- delay making their own decision to move on;
- adopt obstructionist strategies in disciplinary processes;
- file claims in the expectation that a settlement will follow.
Regrettably, this counter-culture is often easier to create and harder to undo, than the high-performance culture, and the culture of accountability to which most organisations aspire.
- Terminations are not just about individual performance or behaviour, but are intrinsically tied to your organisation’s values and culture.
- If you are prepared to “run it”, either terminate well or be prepared for the possibility of reinstatement and the basket of cultural consequences that follow.
- How you dismiss and how you “clean up” play an unavoidable role in the creation and maintenance of your organisation’s culture.