How to Fire an Employee

Legal, Ethical Employment Termination Steps to Know and Implement

Woman with moving boxes in office, thinking
Tim Kitchen/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Do you need to fire an employee? If you have taken the necessary steps to help the employee improve their work performance—and the steps are not working—it may be time. Most employers wait way past the optimal time to fire an employee because they are concerned about legal issues and employee morale issues. These are the legal, ethical steps to take when you fire employees.

Ensure that the company's actions, as you prepare to let an employee go, are above reproach. How you fire an employee sends a powerful message to your remaining staff—either positive or negative. Employment termination is the last step in an extended employee coaching process. Use it as a last resort when performance coaching hasn't worked.

At the same time, do not jeopardize your company's success, a department's success, or your other employees' success, to retain an underperforming employee. Fire the employee to ensure the success of your other employees and your business.

Provide Feedback, So the Employee Knows They Are Failing

The steps that you take when you prepare to fire an employee matter. Unless the actions of the employee require immediate dismissal from the premises, progressively more intense feedback to the employee about his or her work performance is in order.

Make sure that you are communicating with the employee by obtaining feedback from the employee that you are communicating effectively. Keep in mind that the goal of the feedback is to help the employee succeed and improve.

The employee's actions communicate powerfully, too. The employee takes the feedback to heart, and changes—or not. Document the content of the feedback meetings, the date, times, and the names of the people who attended the counseling meeting.

PIPs have a terrible reputation among employees who see them as the final step prior to employment termination. This is because many employers use PIPs incorrectly or for creating a legal safeguard before termination. PIPs should only be used if you genuinely believe that the employee has the capability to improve. Anything else is torture for the employee and a time consumer for managers and HR staff.

In the case of managers and HR personnel, a PIP is almost never appropriate. If a manager is failing badly enough to require a PIP, rarely will he or she regain the necessary confidence of reporting employees or his or her own supervisor?

HR staff members have too much access to highly confidential, irreplaceable information. In addition, because of their position, the damage to your confidence in them and their credibility is almost impossible to surmount.

Act Legally to Have Impact

Here is information that will help you take these actions legally and with the impact you desire

  • How To Provide Feedback That Has an Impact
    Make your feedback have the impact it deserves by the manner and the approach you use to deliver feedback. Your feedback can make a difference to people if you can avoid a defensive response.
  • Performance Improvement Strategies
    Use these strategies to help the employee improve his or her performance. You will know that you did your level best to help the non-performing employee succeed.
  • Coaching for Improved PerformanceLooking for a step-by-step coaching approach you can use to help an employee improve his work performance? This approach avoids the need for discipline and produces great results.
  • How to Hold a Difficult Conversation
    Chances are good that one day you will need to hold a difficult conversation. These steps will help you hold difficult conversations when people need professional feedback.
  • Performance Development Planning Process
    If your normal process is not assisting the employee to succeed at work, and you believe there is hope that the employee can and will improve his performance, you will need to introduce a Performance Improvement Plan.
  • Performance Improvement Plan
    The Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) is designed to facilitate constructive discussion between a staff member and his or her supervisor and to clarify the work performance that needs improvement. The PIP is implemented, at the discretion of the manager, when it becomes necessary to help a staff member improve his or her performance. This format enables the manager to set goals, establish measures, conduct review sessions, and chart progress. No specific amount of time is required for an employee to follow a performance improvement plan. In fact, if no progress is made, you can terminate an individual's employment after several weeks. Thus, you never want to state the duration of the PIP once started.

Steps to Employment Termination

These are the steps to follow when you have decided that employment termination is best for all parties.

Commence Disciplinary Action

If you believe that the employee is unwilling or unable to improve their performance, you will want to start a progressive disciplinary action. Again, documentation is critical so you have a record of the steps you took in the process. Use this Progressive Discipline Warning Form to document each step.

As with the PIP, however, if you do not believe that the employee is capable of improving, why not terminate employment now? You'll spare everyone the agony and time dispensed in a long, drawn-out process. Certainly, at this point in your relationship with the employee, if the supervisor has done their job, you have sufficient performance counseling records and disciplinary action forms on file to fire the employee.

Following the steps in the progressive discipline should be consistent for each employee you fire, once you decide to start on this path (which you don't need to do) unless an event out-of-the-ordinary occurs. You may also provide the employee with any number of options, starting with the performance improvement plan step.​

Suggest Voluntary Termination

You can ask the employee if he or she wants to voluntarily quit rather than participate in a disciplinary action procedure. You can agree on a timeline by when the employee will have given notice. This may, however, interfere with the individual's ability to collect unemployment.

Agree That the Employees Cannot Do the Job Effectively

You can agree that, for whatever reason, the employee is incapable of doing the job, provide a couple of weeks of severance pay, and say good-bye. Conduct the meeting as professionals and remain factual and direct.

Consult Your Employment Law Attorney

Talk with an attorney to understand all of your options before you agree on termination or fire the employee. In cases where you provide any severance pay, as an example, you will want to ask the departing employee to sign a release of claims that is different for employees older than forty and under age forty.

Hold the Employment Termination Meeting

Eventually, you will want to schedule and hold the employment termination meeting. You do not want to give an employee more than a few minute's notice before the meeting. You will cause the employee unnecessary worry and upset. In most cases, however, this moment is expected by the employee if they are honest with themselves.

Some steps, you will want to have completed before the termination meeting such as involving your IT department. Consider the termination meeting to be the employee’s exit interview.

Most Important Lesson Learned in Firing an Employee

Most people wait too long to fire an employee. If an employee is misbehaving publicly, disciplinary action should start after one event. If an employee is consistently missing due dates, and you’ve determined the issue is not training or another identifiable factor, gather documentation, and fire the employee.

If you’ve introduced a company mission and vision for your workplace and managers fail to support their implementation, fire the managers. If you are developing a culture that empowers and enables employees and a manager is persistently autocratic, fire the manager. People don’t change all that much; although HR professionals have witnessed transformations, they usually witness months of heartbreak and wasted effort.

HR professionals also receive regular feedback that firing an employee was the best thing that ever happened to them because it caused the employee to move on to better pastures.

Behave legally, ethically, with kindness, civility, and compassion, but do fire employees who ought to be fired.

Disclaimer: Please note that the information provided, while authoritative, is not guaranteed for accuracy and legality. The site is read by a world-wide audience and ​employment laws and regulations vary from state to state and country to country. Please seek legal assistance, or assistance from State, Federal, or International governmental resources, to make certain your legal interpretation and decisions are correct for your location. This information is for guidance, ideas, and assistance.