Top 10 Don'ts When You Fire an Employee

Make the Experience Less Traumatic for All Parties

Firing an employee is stressful for all parties – not just for the employee losing a job. No matter how well you’ve communicated about performance problems with the employee, almost no one believes that they will actually get fired.

Employees convince themselves that they won’t get fired: they think that you like them; they think you know that they are a nice person, or you recognize that they’ve been “trying hard.” You may. But, none of your feelings matter when the employee is not performing his job.

In a client company, an employee attended her termination meeting. Despite the fact that her work had deteriorated beyond repair and she was missing part of every day she was scheduled to work, she said that she never, ever thought that her company would actually, really fire her. Many employees feel the same way.

Firing an employee may take you awhile - usually much longer than the circumstances merit. But, these are the top 10 don'ts when you do decide to fire an employee.

Don't Fire an Employee Unless You Are Meeting Face-to-Face

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Do not fire an employee using any electronic method – no emails, IMs, voicemails, or phone calls. Even a letter is inappropriate when you fire an employee. Paddy says, "I was fired via voicemail after 4 years with the company without any warning or reason given. And then, they told all the employees that I quit."

Paddy responded to a question about the best day to fire an employee by saying that it wasn't the day, but the way that mattered. Agreed.

When you fire an employee give them the courtesy you would extend to any human being. They deserve a face-to-face meeting when you fire an employee. Nothing else works.

The fired employee will remember and your other employees who remain have even longer memories. And, no, in this age of social media, don't believe for a minute that the circumstances of the firing will remain secret.

Don't Fire an Employee Without Warning

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Nothing makes an employee more angry than feeling blind sided when fired. Unless an immediate, egregious act occurs, the employee should experience coaching and performance feedback over time. Before you fire an employee, try to determine what is causing the employee to fail.

If you decide the employee is able to improve her performance, provide whatever assistance is needed to encourage and support the employee. Document each step.

If you are confident that the employee can improve, and the employee's role allows, a performance improvement plan (PIP) may show the employee specific, measurable improvement requirements. (A PIP is difficult, if not impossible, with a manager or HR staff, once you have lost confidence in their performance.)

The actual termination - while almost always somewhat of a surprise - should not come with no warning.

Don't Fire an Employee Without a Witness

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Especially in the US, anyone can sue anybody, at any time, for any reason. In employment termination cases, the employee must also find a lawyer who believes he can win the case and thus, collect his fee. The best practice is to include a second employee in the meeting when you fire an employee.

This gives you an individual who hears and participates in the employment termination in addition to the manager. This person can also help pick up the slack if the hiring manager runs out of words or is unsure of what to say or do next.

This witness is often the Human Resources staff person. The HR person has more experience than the average manager, in firing employees, so can also help keep the discussion on track and moving to completion.

The HR person can also ensure that employees are treated fairly, equally, and with professionalism across departments and individual managers.

Don't Supply Lengthy Rationale and Examples for Why You Are Firing the Employee

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If you have coached and documented an employee’s performance over time and provided frequent feedback, there is no point in rehashing your dissatisfaction when you fire the employee. It accomplishes nothing and is cruel.

Yet, every employee will ask you why. So, have an answer prepared that is honest and correctly summarizes the situation without detail or placing blame.

You want the employee to maintain her dignity during an employment termination. So, you might say, “We’ve already discussed your performance issues. We are terminating your employment because your performance does not meet the standards we expect from this position.

"We wish you well in your future endeavors and trust you will locate a position that is a better fit for you.”

Or you can simply remind the employee that you have discussed issues with him or her over time, and leave it at that.

Don't Let the Employee Believe That the Decision Is Not Final

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Because employees don’t believe that you will fire them in the first place, nor in many cases, that they deserve to be fired, don’t allow the employee to believe that there is any opportunity to affect your decision.

Hopefully, you thought long and hard before scheduling the termination meeting. You have your reasons, if you choose to provide them,  reasonably articulated, and a coworker on hand to support you.

Approach the employee with kindness, concern, and respect, but your words should be straightforward. Wishy-washy gains you nothing but grief, if the employee believes he has one last chance to affect your decision.

In fact, tell the employee that the purpose of the meeting is to inform her of your decision, which is final. This is kinder than misleading the employee.

Don't Allow the Employee to Leave With Company Property in His Possession

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Most states and jurisdictions have rules about when final paychecks must be paid, what must be paid, and how an employer can dock an employee's pay. Why go there if company-owned items are not returned?

Ask the employee to hand over his key, door pass, badge, smart phone, laptop, tablet and any other company-owned equipment or supplies during the termination meeting.

Either go to the employee's work area or accompany the employee, during lunch or a break, if possible, to his work area to collect the rest of the company-owned items before you escort the employee to his car.

If, as an example, the laptop is at the employee’s home (unlikely), make solid arrangements as to when you expect it back. Follow up immediately if you don't receive the equipment when promised.

Don't Allow the Former Employee to Access His Work Area or Coworkers

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Many employees become visibly upset when they are fired. Okay, they cry. For their dignity and to not upset your other employees, make arrangements with the employee to come in after work or on a weekend to pick up their personal possessions. Alternatively, you can offer to send the contents of the office to the employee's home.

This allows you to extract company documents and material, such as customer files, and so forth, and allows the employee privacy when they pick up their possessions. If the employee insists on picking up all possessions immediately, wait until lunch or a break, if possible, and always accompany the employee to her work area.

You want to minimize the contact the employee has with your other employees at the work site. And again, preserving the employee's dignity is kind and a best practice. You are responsible for the employee's confidentiality even if the employee bad mouths you to the whole world.

Don't Allow the Employee to Access Information Systems

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Terminate the employee’s access to your electronic systems such as email, the company wiki, intranet, customer contact forums, and so forth, during the employment termination meeting, or slightly before. You will need to partner with your IT staff to make certain that loss of access occurs.

Employers are aware of many funny, but also sad stories, about employees sending good-bye notes that started with, “I’m outta here, you suckers…” And, they also are aware of instances in which an employee sabotaged computer systems in a moment of anguish following termination.

Work with IT staff to see what company information may have been taken during the weeks preceding a quit or termination. If the employee wants to send a goodbye note, you can post her appropriate note for her to all staff.

Don't End the Meeting on a Low Note

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When you fire an employee, the purpose of the meeting is not to demean him nor to hurt his self-esteem. In fact, everyone’s best interests are served when the employee is able to move forward with his life as quickly as possible.

So, you want to end the meeting on a positive note. If you allow fired employees to collect unemployment, tell them. (Honestly, unless the employee’s behavior was egregious, why not give them a boost into the next chapter of their lives?)

Talk about job searching and how to get started. Tell him that his  contributions were valued. Suggest the type of job that might fit her skills. Use words of encouragement like, we are confident that you will find a job that is a better fit for you.

You don’t want to create a counseling or sympathy session, but do send the employee out the door with words of encouragement. (They’ll usually cry anyway, no matter how kind you are - so be prepared.)

Don't Fire an Employee Without a Checklist in Hand

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An employment termination checklist can keep you organized and on track when you need to fire an employee. The employment termination checklist ensures that you cover all appropriate topics during what can be a stressful meeting for all participants.

The employment termination checklist provides guidance about informing the employee of what she can expect legally and from your company upon her employment termination.

Final Thoughts About How to Fire an Employee

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Firing an employee is not your most sought after experience. But, you can make the experience more palatable by using an effective, supportive approach. The actions you take really do matter to the employee who is being fired and to the coworkers who will learn – quickly – that the employee is gone.

In this era of social media and electronic communication, your entire workforce may know within a half hour – or sooner. And, because you keep employee matters confidential, the employee tells any story that makes him look good.

You will likely be unfriended at social sites, so if you wonder how the former employee positions the termination, check quickly. Expect a period of time during which successful employees look to you for reassurance about their own jobs.

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