How to Fire Someone with Dignity and Protect Your Company

Firing an employee is one of a manager’s unpleasant duties. And of course it’s a terrible experience for your employee.

Managers who don’t know how to terminate an employee correctly might not give appropriate opportunity for improvement, or fail to adequately document the process. Any of these missteps can lead to a disgruntled former employee suing your company as well as negative impact on employee morale or your company’s reputation in the community.

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Here’s a step-by-step guide for how to fire someone with respect while protecting your business.

What to do before you fire an employee

Get organized and have all your ducks in a row. When it comes to terminating an employee, preplanning is key.

  1. Understand the valid reasons for firing. Make sure that you have a legitimate, clear, and well-documented business reason for the termination, such as performance problems, misconduct, attendance issues, or role elimination. As noted below, be sure that your documentation supports and does not contradict this reason, if your decision were ever challenged.

In some situations, adequate “cause” is required (i.e., not just any reason will do), such as if you have a policy, contract, or even an unwritten understanding with your employee not to fire them without sufficient grounds. If the employee is in a union, you may also be required to go through a disciplinary or grievance process before firing the person.

Of course, firing someone on account of any protected characteristic (for example, age, race, national origin, sex, religion, disability, requesting or taking protected leave, etc.) is never allowed. Even if your reason is valid, be careful to avoid any appearance of an improper consideration, such as through comments that could be interpreted as discriminatory, or poorly timed terminations (e.g., firing an employee soon after she requests time off for a pregnancy or while an employee is out on leave for a medical issue). Special rules apply to large layoffs. Consult an attorney for guidance specific to your business.

  1. Check your past feedback and performance reviews. Are there consistent problems that you’ve communicated to the employee? If you’ve recently given them positive reviews, consider delaying the termination to allow time for feedback regarding the problematic performance or behavior and improvement — as well as documentation of that process.

  2. Help them improve. Give them the opportunity to fix the issue. Together, come up with an action plan in the hopes that they’ll get their act in gear and you won’t need to fire them. You should:
    • Tell them their job is at stake.
    • Let them know what they’re doing wrong. Give clear direction and communicate your expectations for improvement.
    • Be specific. Tell them what kind of behavior and performance issues are acceptable and what’s unacceptable at the company.
    • Set a time limit for improvement. A typical action plan is 30 days.
    • Set a date to revisit their performance.
  3. Document everything. This is an important part of how to communicate clear expectations along the way and also defend the employment decision if it is later challenged in litigation. Keep relevant email, track the employee’s behavioral or performance issues, write up summaries of meetings and conversations where you discuss their performance, record expectations, etc.

How to fire an employee

You’ve communicated the performance issues to your employee, given them the opportunity to improve, and unfortunately they haven’t shaped up. If an employee isn’t meeting expectations, it’s important to let them go. If you let them stay, the unacceptable behavior will continue, and it also sends a message to other employees that they can get away with bad behavior.

There are some logistics and best practices to consider before you fire someone.

  • Be thoughtful about the day you choose to fire an employee. Firing an employee on a Monday or Tuesday gives them time to tap their network and start their job hunt. Conversely, if you think the termination could get contentious, maybe consider doing it on a Friday to allow the employee the weekend to cool off (and reduce the threat of a workplace incident the following workday).

  • Help them save face. Let them go at lunchtime or at the end of the day after some employees have left. It’s kind to spare them the embarrassment of packing up their things in front of all their coworkers.

  • Think about access and logistics. In advance of termination, figure out what access you need to revoke once they’re fired. For example, office keys or badge, network access, security access, email, etc. Are there other things they have access to that they shouldn’t after they’re fired? Have a plan and communicate it to your IT and security departments as needed.

  • Talk with a professional. Consult a lawyer before you fire someone to make sure you’ve covered all your bases. They’ll be able to advise you on how to terminate an employee.

  • Have a witness. When you fire your employee, have someone from HR with you in the room in case the employee threatens you.

  • Consider seeking a release. In some cases, you might want to offer the employee a “severance” amount in exchange for a release of claims (i.e., an agreement not to sue you). Consult with an attorney for guidance on this option.

What to say during your termination meeting

In some states there are specific things you can and can’t say when you’re firing someone, so know in advance what you’re going to say. Don’t wing it. Here are some key points to keep in mind when planning how to terminate an employee.

  1. Have the meeting in a private room. The employee should have a clear path to the exit at all times if they want to use it.
  2. Get right to the point and be decisive — tell them they’re being fired.
  3. Tell them why they’re being fired, but don’t go into the nitty-gritty details. This is not a discussion.
  4. Cover important follow-up information, including:
    • Final paycheck
    • Severance package
    • Benefits
    • Unused vacation time
    • Outplacement (You might choose to offer professional help to find a new job.)
    • Explanations to coworkers
    • Ongoing projects (Explain who will take on projects that they’re part-way through.)
    • Reminding the employee of continuing obligations to the company after departure, such as those under any nondisclosure, confidentiality, nonsolicitation, and/or noncompete agreements, and their general obligation not to misappropriate any of the company’s proprietary information.
  5. Let them know what you’ll say if prospective employers reach out to you for a reference.
  6. Give them a termination letter (also known as a pink slip) that outlines the details of their severance package (if any), pay, etc. They need everything in writing and during the meeting likely won’t take in much beyond “you’re fired.”
  7. End it graciously. Being fired is scary. As their manager, be compassionate. Keeping the termination professional and brief is how to fire someone with empathy.

What to do after firing someone

Talk to your team. Let them know “so and so” “isn’t with us anymore” or “has left the company” and focus on how their workload will be handled while you look for a replacement. In most cases, it’s best to keep it simple, respect the privacy of the person you fired, and not get into details of whether the termination was voluntary or the reasons for it.

If you need to let someone go at your company, now you know how to terminate an employee the right way, thoughtfully and with compassion.

As with all our articles, this content contains general information and guidance only, and is not a substitute for legal or tax advice. For advice specific to your area or business, be sure to consult with a qualified professional.

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