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Firing an Employee the Right Way

Date: February 17, 2010

Firing an employee, even one who has clearly transgressed, is seldom easy. The situation is fraught with emotion, worry and (potential) consequence. The problem is that people are unpredictable, which can make for some interesting, and sometimes frightening, reactions.

But there are ways to manage the process, making it less upsetting for the employee you're letting go, for your remaining staff and for you. How you approach it can also lessen the likelihood that a firing could turn physically, or legally, dangerous. The first step is to avoid taking on problem employees from the start by having appropriate hiring measures in place, such as conducting thorough background checks, drug testing and following up on references.

Next -- and this is essential when it comes to protecting your company from claims of unfair firing -- is to conduct regular performance evaluations on every employee for every position. To ensure objectivity, evaluations should contain measurable performance/behavior metrics. You should also have an employee handbook that outlines disciplinary procedures as well as infractions that could result in firing. Follow these guidelines and administer them uniformly. Otherwise, you could put yourself in the headlights of a discrimination lawsuit.  

If it becomes evident that an employee isn't meeting expectations the best process is to deliver a verbal warning, followed by a written warning and then, if necessary, termination. Take this approach:

  • Describe the transgression.
  • Describe what you've done ("I've told you on three occasions how important timeliness is.").
  • State your expectations/required improvements. Allow an appropriate amount of time for change (at least two weeks).
  • Outline the consequences of failing to improve. State that if improvement doesn't occur, the employee is subject up to and including termination.
  • Document everything, even when issuing a verbal warning, and have the employee sign off. And always, always, hang onto your documents and files. They are your primary protection against an unfair firing lawsuit.

There are exceptions to the above. For example, there are transgressions so egregious that an immediate firing is called for. As for the firing itself, make sure to:

  • Always have another person present, especially if firing someone of the opposite sex. This must be someone in charge, such as a manager or supervisor, not just a regular staff member.
  • Conduct the firing out of earshot of other employees.
  • If you are concerned the employee has the potential for violence, have security at the ready. Notifying your police department is another option.
  • Protect your intellectual property by immediately escorting the employee to his or her desk and controlling what is removed from the premises. Don't forget to collect keys and any wireless devices belonging to the company. Change passwords and codes. Developing a checklist prior to conducting the firing will reduce the chance you've overlooked anything.
  • Be prepared; have all documentation in front of you in case the employee challenges you.

And finally, don't let the employee see you sweat. Be firm. Appearing weak or on the fence will only make matters worse and draw the process out. 

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