Clarify What You Mean When Axing an Employee

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How to choose the right terminology when terminating employees

Terminated, laid-off, let go, downsized, dismissed, discharged, sacked, axed, canned, released, ousted, furloughed, re-structured, fired.  A rose by any name  is still a rose, but the different faces of “termination”  are various. Different names for “termination” mean different things.

When an employer terminates an employee, generally it means the employment relationship has ended. For an employee, the words used to express this fact may add to or take away the sting out of the job loss, but word choice may also have tangible consequences. When you let someone go, it is very important you choose your terminology carefully.

‘Reason for Issuing’ an ROE (Record of Employment)

When ending the relationship with an employee,  an employer is  required to complete a ROE (Record of Employment). Block 16 on the ROE includes 15 letter codes as options for ‘the reason for issuing this ROE’. Understanding these options might help you decide what terminology to use.

Termination Options

There are many reasons why an employment relationship may end, but there are two primary ways of ‘terminating’ an employee: termination with cause, and termination without cause.

When You Say ‘Terminated with Cause’

Termination with cause is generally understood to mean the employee did something wrong, and, as a result, is being ‘Dismissed’ or ‘Fired’. In these situations, using the phrase ‘terminated with cause’ is a good and straightforward option, but ‘Fired’ also works. ‘Fired’ makes a statement if the employer wants to sound aggressive, angry, or frustrated.

However, termination with cause is generally difficult to prove. It is the responsibility of the employer to demonstrate that the employee engaged in conduct that was unacceptable and egregious enough to warrant ending the employment relationship with cause. For examples of what may be considered misconduct, visit Services Canada Employment Insurance (EI) . The advantages of ending an employment relationship with cause is that it limits any notification, severance, or other benefits an employee may be entitled to.

Saying ‘Terminated without Cause’

The term ‘terminated’ is appropriate when the employer initiates the ending. The primary options for an employer initiated ending without cause include:

  • Shortage of work (Code A on the ROE) which includes:
    • End of contract or season (for seasonal workers)
    • End of casual/part-time work
    • End of school year
    • Temporary shutdown of operations
    • Permanent shutdown of operations
    • Position eliminated or redundant
    • Company restructuring
    • Employer bankruptcy or receivership
    • Strike or Lockout (Code B on the ROE)

Using these technical terms is one way to communicate the reasons for a job loss to an employee or anyone else. Additional terminologies that may apply include ‘laid-off’, ‘downsized’, ‘let-go’ and ‘restructured’. Although these terms still result in job loss, using them will not have the same negative connotations as ‘fired’ or ‘dismissed’.

On the ROE, there is no specific code that says termination with or without cause. Code M – ‘Dismissal’ is the option when an employer initiates a job ending because ‘things just aren’t working out’. There is no option to select dismissed because ‘the person stole from us’ or ‘the person is incompetent’ or because ‘we do not like the person’ or ‘the person does not fit with our company culture’, or any other number of reasons people are often let go from their jobs. These reasons are all lumped in together under dismissed.

While there are technical options, ‘the codes’ for the Services Canada ROE you have a wider range of options about what you say when speaking to or about your former employee.

Termination Terminology Options

What is the difference between saying fired, let go, terminated, dismissed or a myriad of other terms? From a human point of view these differences can impact the way the person feels and the way others feel about the person. If you are letting someone go for the reason ‘shortage of work’ then reference the relevant and accurate descriptors of this fact  (i.e. restructuring) including to the person, on the ROE and in subsequent references.

However, when you are letting someone go without cause, and because the person is not working out, you should carefully consider your choice of words. ‘Terminated’ and even ‘fired’ may be technically correct but, saying  ‘letting you go’, ‘not a good fit’ or ’not working out’ sounds gentler.

Negotiated Terminations

It is not uncommon that before or during the termination process, things become unpleasant. An employer may have a case  for terminating an employee ‘with cause’ and proceed to tell the employee ‘you are fired’ when the ability to ‘prove’ misconduct is limited. Even where an employer chooses to let an employee go because the person is ‘not working out’ the phrase ‘termination without cause’ can have negative consequences. Termination will impact the employee’s ability to find work in the future and qualify for Employment Insurance. Sometimes this is the goal of the dismissal but sometimes it is just a consequence.

It is not uncommon for an employer and employee to negotiate terminology as part of the termination process. This is why it is advisable to carefully consider what you put in writing early on in the process. You may choose to use the term, ‘terminated’ or the more neutral, ‘letting you go’ as a starting point. Choose  carefully can minimize complications during and after the conversation.

It is not a pleasant task to dismiss an employee. Clarifying your thoughts and planning your words eases the process for both parties.