How to Fire Someone When it’s Time to Terminate

Avoid lawsuits and make the process less painful for all with these tips from an HR pro.
It's never easy, but firing an employee can go smoothly if you know what to do. (Photo: Gonzalo Aragon/Shutterstock)

Legend holds that the term “you’re fired” originated in the early 20th century, when one business owner placed the desks of unwanted employees on the front lawn of the business and set them ablaze.

Today, terminating an employee no longer involves arson, but it can be logistically sticky and legally tricky. To make the process as smooth as possible, follow these steps.

Know the signs, then address them

“We all have patterns,” noted Paul Billimoria, president of management consulting firm HRG, Inc. “We have our energy levels and work styles, and when a manager or owner sees a drastic change or drop-off in energy levels, that’s when they want to intervene.”

These changes might include poor performance with customers or clients, a low morale that affects other workers and dwindling productivity.

Whatever the issue is, it’s important to address problem behavior with the employee right away.“Once you have invested time to figure out the issue and offered support and it hasn’t worked, then it’s time to terminate that relationship,” Billimoria said. As he put it, “Resolve the issue or exit it from the books.”

While it’s fine to consider other employees’ insights on the staff member in question, Billimoria warned against acting on this third party evidence alone. “You should always do your own investigation and fact gathering. Unless the other employee is giving you evidence, you need to check out those claims.”

Vendors and customers are two other groups that carry weight in termination decisions. If you hear recurring complaints from either one about a particular employee, serious investigation is warranted.

Get your ducks in a row

If feedback or training doesn’t improve an employee’s performance, it might be time to fire the person.

“This is one of the areas where employers make the most mistakes and it can be very costly,” said Billimoria. To avoid workplace risks and legal retaliation, dot your i’s and cross your t’s.

Time it right. Talk to other staff members to make sure all loose ends are tied up with the employee’s work. “A lot of times there is someone in the organization waiting on something from the employee, so make sure to sync up with others,” advised Billimoria. This is also a good time to determine whether and how the problem employee’s duties can be distributed among existing staff.

Make sure you’re not liable for discrimination. Today’s employees can claim workplace discrimination in a number of areas, and employers need to make sure they aren’t open to lawsuits. “You want to make sure that you aren’t firing someone because of ethnicity, pregnancy, sexual orientation or disability. You need to verify that there are no claims the fired employee can bring,” said Billimoria. Another area to look at is worker’s compensation. “Make sure they don’t have a worker’s comp claim open; if you can wait until they get released from it, you will be less likely to face a lawsuit.”

Verify hours and wages. If a fired employee hasn’t been given his or her appropriate breaks or been paid for overtime, owners could face legal trouble.

Terminating the relationship

When it’s time to pull the trigger, follow these tips.

  • Be calm. “Wait until you’re not angry,” noted Billimoria. “It’s important to be in a calm and relaxed state.”
  • Have a witness. “To avoid wrongful termination claims, you want to have another person in the room.”
  • Let the employee express himself. “After you tell them they are going to be terminated, give employees the opportunity to express themselves. Keep it brief, and don’t let it devolve into an argument — you are telling them they are allowed to respond, but a decision has already been made,” said Billimoria. “If the person is extremely emotional, I encourage the boss to allow them to vent. This way, the person is less likely to file a lawsuit or, worse, retaliate violently.”
  • Follow the payment rules. Depending on the state, employers may be required to have the final paycheck of a terminated employee ready.
  • Escort her out. “If we don’t stay with the just-fired employee, a number of unexpected things can happen — they can destroy files, start talking to other people and complain, spread rumors. I always manage that whole process and walk them to their car and see them drive off the property,” noted Billimoria.

He added that firing a long-term employee could be handled differently. “That’s where it really takes some management savvy — who will operate better under planned circumstances, with two weeks’ notice, severance pay, other benefits?”

Many employees faced with termination will respond emotionally, but with preparation and calm, employers can ensure a smoother process for all involved.

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