how do we handle firing an employee in an open plan office?

A reader writes:

I’m an HR administrator at a company with about 150 people across a few offices. I’m the only on-site HR person at my location, which has about 25 employees. Our office is entirely open plan, with the exception of a few fish-bowl style, glass-walled conference rooms. There aren’t even dividers between desks, just one big room, so everyone can see everything that’s happening.

Unfortunately, we have had to terminate a few people over the course of my time here, typically for not meeting performance goals (as opposed to gross misconduct or misbehavior). Typically, the terminated employee gets the news in a conference room and is escorted out by their manager, which has had varying levels of success. There was one mishap where the manager allowed the terminated employee to return to his desk to collect some things, which ended in an awkward conversation with some of the folks at the desks surrounding his.

Obviously, people may immediately need to collect items at their desks (coats, wallets, etc.), but that can be mitigated by someone else taking those items. My question is then, what is the best way to handle employee termination in an open office, where it can become obvious what’s happening?

Honestly, you need at least one private space, preferably more than one.

Not just for firings, but for all sorts of things — for example, nursing mothers who need to pump, or sensitive or upsetting conversations where people don’t want be in a highly visible fishbowl, or someone who just got devastating personal news and needs a private place to fall apart.

People need the ability to get privacy, even at work. At a minimum, you should have blinds installed that can be pulled down when necessary.

If that’s just not an option, then yeah, your terminations are going to be extra crappy! That means that it’s extra important to ensure that people aren’t ever blindsided by being fired — ensure that they’re given clear warnings, chances to improve, and clear statements about the timeline they have for doing so. (Really clear — like, “We’ll meet at the end of the month to review your progress against these goals. If you’ve made the changes we’ve discussed, we’ll just move forward. If you haven’t improved, though, we would have to let you go.”) You should always do this! But it’s especially important here so that at least when people are being fired in full view of their coworkers, it’s the final step in a conversation that has already been ongoing — not a complete surprise that leaves them having to process their shock in front of an audience.

You can also try being thoughtful about the time of day you do these meetings. If everyone in your office usually goes to lunch at a certain time, that can be a compassionate time to do it, since the person will be able to collect their things and leave without having to run a gauntlet of curious coworkers along the way. Doing it at the end of the day can sometimes work similarly.

Or, for the same purpose, sometimes there’s a way to call everyone else into a different meeting so that they’re not at their desks and the fired person has some privacy.

One other thing to consider — however you decide to handle firings, try to avoid establishing a pattern of signals that make it really obvious to everyone what’s happening. Like if you only ever pull down the blinds in those glass-walled conference rooms when someone is about to be fired, that’s going to suck for everyone — your employee who sees they’re walking into the Blinds of Doom, their coworkers who have to sit there uncomfortably, and the poor person who gets called in there for something else one time where the blinds are actually down for a different reason and assumes they’re getting fired when you just wanted to ask about their sick dog.

But really, create a truly private space. There are so many moments in work life that shouldn’t be in a fishbowl.

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