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How to Fire Someone

I have 20 years of management experience and have run my own business for nearly 10 years.

How Should You Fire Someone?

For anyone who is in a position with direct responsibility for employees, the time may come when they are faced with the need to terminate an individual's employment. Certainly, a financial situation in which layoffs are necessary is one such scenario, but that's not the focus of this discussion. Instead, this article will target how to handle firing someone whose performance has been unsatisfactory.

The information here is based on approximately 20 years in supervisory and management positions with "at will" employees. I am not a human resources or legal professional but merely speak from experience. I aim to provide an overview of the steps that a conscientious manager should follow when deciding to terminate an employee.

What to Do Before You Fire Someone

Before getting down to a recommended step-by-step process on how to fire someone, let's discuss a few basic ideas here.

  • Know the Law. First, it's important to understand any federal and state-specific laws which influence how an employee is hired, evaluated, and terminated. For this reason, consulting with your human resources department can be critical before taking the final step of terminating employment.
  • Know Your Company's Policies. Aside from complying with any laws, it's also critical to know and follow your company's written employment/termination policies. Employers should be able to show that there is some type of standards that an employee must meet and that employees are aware of them. Some of these may be general, such as attendance requirements, and others may be specific to a given position.

    A company should also be able to show that the standards are applied consistently. For instance, if one employee has excessive absences and receives no disciplinary action but another is fired for the same behavior, a problem can follow as there is clear evidence of favoritism.
  • Look at the Record of Employee Evaluations. In addition, evaluation of employees on a regular basis is important. For instance, semi-annual or annual evaluations can be very useful to show that all employees are evaluated and receive feedback, giving them an opportunity to know where they stand. Of course, if there are evaluations, any performance problems should be noted. If employment is terminated and a review of evaluations and other documentation demonstrates no previous performance problems, the case for a lawsuit is stronger.
  • Understand Proper Documentation Practices. Another critical point is that the process leading up to termination should be documented in order to protect your company or business from potential lawsuits resulting from an employee's termination. Records should clearly show that the employee is aware of their expectations and any counseling or corrective actions implemented. Ideally, they would also know the probable outcome if they fail to meet these expectations.

Many of the actions that you take in regards to documenting the process will protect your company but are also good practice to assure fair treatment of employees.

Firing someone should not come as a surprise. Employees should know when their performance is unacceptable, how to improve it, and the potential consequences before termination occurs. They should have the opportunity to rescue the situation if possible.

Remember too that documentation on all employees is important. A review of company records should show that all employees have evaluations, improvement plans as needed, and so forth. This demonstrates that no one is being singled out.

The Steps of Firing an Employee

The steps you should follow in firing someone will be based on your state and your company policy. Many businesses will identify performance expectations that are critical to operation which, when not met, can result in immediate termination. For instance, carrying a handgun to work, fighting, and so forth might result in firing on the spot. In this case, many of the steps below don't really apply. However, for typical situations in which performance is unsatisfactory, the following general process should be effective.

1. Ensure the employee is aware of job expectations.

Ideally, there should be documentation that an employee knows his job expectations. For this reason, many companies ensure that employees receive a copy of their job description upon hire as well as copies of any performance reviews which they have signed.

When performance problems are first recognized, it is the duty of the supervisor to try to assist the employee in meeting the expectations. They should work to educate, to identify any barriers, and determine if action can be taken to assist the employee in achieving what is required. It is up to the employee however to perform to the level defined on any corrective action plan.

2. Make the employee aware of needed improvements.

If performance is unsatisfactory, the supervisor should meet with the employee to discuss this. Communication should include:

  • a description of the problem
  • the expectation for improvement (what you want them to do)
  • a goal with a timeline for achievement

And when the issue becomes more formal

  • an explanation of the consequences should the goal not be met.

As you'll see below, the format for talking to the employee progresses from:

  • oral conversation, to
  • written corrective action plans; sometimes several, sometimes only one, to
  • suspension, and finally
  • termination if previous steps have failed

Oral conversations should be documented in the supervisor's personal employee file at a minimum. All actions beyond this should be formally documented as a performance improvement plan then dated and signed by the supervisor and employee. The employee, supervisor, and Human Resources Department should all have copies.

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3. Inform the employee of their progress or continued problems.

Obviously, it's important to monitor progress and to provide feedback to the employee regarding their performance related to the plan set forth. At a minimum, the supervisor should sit down with the employee to review their performance improvement goals when the deadline is reached.

If the initial goals aren't met, follow up is determined based on the severity and potential consequences of the problem. Additional written plans/corrective action may be warranted or more serious action such as a suspension may be appropriate. Only following this, is termination usually deemed necessary. Again the seriousness of the problem dictates how quickly one moves through these steps, or whether or not every step is appropriate. Of course, company policy also directs this.

When improvement plans fail to achieve the desired level of job performance, termination may then be the appropriate course of action.

  • The supervisor should consult human resources to look at the case prior to any final action. Then, a brief meeting with the employee should be scheduled to review the fact that performance goals have not been met and that employment is being terminated effective immediately.
  • When meeting with the employee, working from a type of mental script is good to avoid saying anything inflammatory or that could present problems later on. This meeting is driven by the supervisor, the tone should be compassionate, but firm. You can wish them well but you shouldn't apologize for anything. You can review the problem areas, the action plans, insufficient results, and state that, for this reason, employment is being terminated. Some companies choose to have witnesses in the room when this conversation occurs.
  • Any other pertinent termination information should be provided verbally and in writing. For instance, any details about severance pay, COBRA coverage, and so forth. Any company belongings should be returned, such as keys or cell phones at this point. You don't want an agitated employee lingering in the workplace. You should get them out the door after allowing them to collect their things.
  • In many businesses, someone escorts the employee back to their work area or office to remove their personal items before being escorted out. The employee can be allowed to vent during your meeting but you should not argue with them.This should not be a prolonged discussion. The meeting is not a place to rehash everything that has occurred prior to this point, but to move forward.
  • Any security issues should also be addressed before or immediately after this meeting. For instance, any passwords should be deactivated and steps should be taken to assure the discharged employee doesn't leave the building with any sensitive or company information. As stated before, keys and so forth should be collected immediately.

Hopefully, by handling performance issues proactively, termination can be avoided. In all cases, employees deserve clear communication, consistency, fairness, and the opportunity to rise to the level of performance expected. Supervisors and Managers need to be aware of laws, observe policies, and maintain appropriate documentation to assure that their company or business is protected and termination decisions are justified and carried out with minimal hardship and ill will.

A Few Helpful Resources

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2009 Christine Mulberry


Nuella on February 19, 2018:

It stated that one right of an employer is to hire and fire, in as much as firing is an entitlement it doesn't Rob off the challenges that firing posits,...regardless employers can only fire when the worker has proven it's ineptitude in making the required changes

Janice S on January 28, 2011:

Great information! Even when an employee is performing horribly, I find that it is difficult to fire them when you know how devastating it will be to their family. That said, it must be done after feedback and multiple chances to improve are given.

wdywft from Charlotte, NC on November 08, 2010:

Good stuff.

IdeaMorphist from Chicagoland on February 05, 2010:

Wish my last manager had read this before he terminated me!

Mark Meredith on September 19, 2009:

Having to fire someone is one of the most difficult things to do as a manager. Yet, it's part of the job and as long as you've given the employee the chance to make up their deficit, it's in the best interest of the company and the remain employees to get rid of unproductive or toxic workers.

kiwi91 from USA on August 11, 2009:

I hated firing people at my old job. It's not easy, especially because employees tend to take sides (sometimes not yours, which makes it even harder...). Thanks for the tips!

sophwall97 on August 10, 2009:

I wanted to check this one out just incase Alan Sugar was doing it wrong. LOL :)

Sandy Mertens from Wisconsin, USA on August 09, 2009:

Thanks for the information.

Brian Stephens from Laroque des Alberes, France on August 04, 2009:

A very tough thing to do, but sometimes necessary. I have had to do it but thankfully very infrequently.

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