How to Fire an Employee With Compassion and Class

Immediate Termination and After Building a Case to Fire an Employee

Woman firing an employee with a witness
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Managers cite firing employees as the job they most hate to do. Sometimes, however, terminating a staff person’s employment is the best step to take for your organization. Sometimes terminating a person’s employment is the kindest action you can take for the employee, too. Some employment relationships were never meant to work.

In some circumstances, firing an employee is an immediate necessity for the safety and well-being of the rest of your employees. Occasionally, the employee may have done such an egregious action that immediate termination of employment was warranted.

Because employment termination can take many forms, depending on the circumstances, let's take a look at immediate termination for cause and termination for non-performance due to a lack of productivity or a general mismatch of the employee, job, and company.

Immediate Employment Termination for Cause

Occasionally, situations arise for which you will want to terminate a person’s employment immediately. Make sure you have these instances listed in your employee handbook. These often include situations in which an employee:

  • threatens violence or commits a violent act,
  • brings a weapon to work,
  • views pornographic movies on work computers and on work time,
  • steals company property, and/or
  • commits similar offenses of a dire nature.

The best you can do, under such circumstance, is to follow this process to terminate an individual’s employment.

  • Ensure the employee is not a danger to himself or other employees. (If he appears to be, help other employees to safety and call law enforcement authorities and security personnel immediately.)
  • If the employee does not appear to be dangerous to himself or others, notify law enforcement authorities if an illegal act has taken place.
  • Utilize internal security personnel, if available.
  • Remain polite and respectful.
  • State the offense calmly and with a witness in the room.
  • Tell the employee his employment is terminated.
  • Obtain the return of all company property.
  • Allow the employee to pack personal items from his workstation if circumstances warrant.
  • Enable the employee to ask any questions about the end of employment.
  • Escort the former employee from the building with the understanding that if he returns he is trespassing.

Employment Termination for Non-Performance

Firing an employee does not have to be the worst experience of your year. You can use the occasion to examine what went wrong in the employment relationship. Assuming the termination is for a mismatch, you can help the employee build self-esteem despite their employment termination.

You can encourage the employee to look ahead and get started on a new job search. Even if the firing is for non-performance, you want to end the relationship on a positive note.

Firing an employee who is unable to meet reasonable company production standards is common. So, is firing an employee who, even with extensive training, proves unable to perform her job. Occasionally, you have an employee who is perennially late for a job that requires constant staffing such as an assembly line or a frontline customer service worker.

Sometimes, an employee is bored or unhappy with her current position, pay, or job title. You have no open positions for which she qualifies. Her pay and title are consistent with the position. Unfortunately, the employee's job performance is rapidly deteriorating.

In some instances, an employee is either consciously or unconsciously asking you to fire her for her performance. The individual knows, on some level, that her employment with you is the wrong placement. In a recent termination meeting, the employee stated, "What took you guys so long to fire me? I am bored out of my skull with this job."

In all of these instances, these are the steps to follow.

Steps in Employment Termination for Non-Performance

Before the Termination Meeting

  • Make sure the employee is clear about the job expectations, the production expectations and any other details that would enable the person to perform effectively. Job descriptions, posted production standards, and data about performance help the employee understand and perform their role. A performance management system ensures the employee’s clarity about the goals.
  • If the employee is violating policies and procedures, make sure these are written and that the employee has been trained in the policies and procedures. A signed form stating that the employee has read and understood the policy is good testimony that you can use to allay the potential for future litigation.
  • Provide help and guidance; give the employee regular feedback about her performance. Make sure you explain the potential consequences of underperformance. Coaching for improved performance provides a step-by-step coaching approach you can use to help an employee improve her work performance. This approach avoids discipline and produces results.
  • Determine that you are applying the performance standards fairly. For purposes of discrimination avoidance, you must address any employee who is doing the same things in the same way. You must address the employee with the most serious problems first. All employees who are failing to follow your policies must be disciplined in the same way; never focus on one person’s performance.
  • If you determine that a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) might help the employee succeed, use a PIP to positively encourage the employee. The detail required in a PIP sometimes helps a failing employee reach clarity about job expectations. You can fire an employee without using a PIP on occasion, too.
  • Most importantly, you need to document any performance discussions for the employee’s file with the time, date, and policy or performance problem clearly identified. Keep good records because you never know when you will need them. Minimally, good records will refresh your memory of the termination. Employees move on and good records ensure the employer will be able to address any issues about the termination in the future.
  • In progressive discipline, each write-up must escalate so that you have verbal warnings, verbal written warning and then suspensions on the record. This ensures that employment termination is never a surprise. When you schedule the termination meeting, the employee should not be surprised. In a recent termination meeting, the employee came to the meeting with all of his possessions already packed. No surprises is good.

Employment Termination for Non-Performance

During The Termination Meeting

These are the steps to use when you schedule and conduct an employment termination meeting.

  • Schedule a meeting that includes the employee, the employee’s supervisor, and either a Human Resources representative or in some cases, the supervisor’s manager. These meetings are often held mid-afternoon on a Tuesday or Wednesday so that the employee has the ability to start a job search immediately. Even in this connected world, you want to enable a terminated employee start to take action immediately.
  • Be straight-forward. Tell the employee her job is terminated. You can tell the employee the reason for the termination although most lawyers would advise against this. In many companies, where the employees have carefully and regularly communicated with the employee facing termination, they do not. The assumption is made that they have communicated effectively about the performance issues for months. No need to rehash everything at the termination meeting. Be civil, concise, and compassionate.
  • Respect the person's dignity. Allow her to speak if she wants to and ask any questions she may have. You may even engage in some discussion about what went wrong in the employment relationship. Example, perhaps the person was not a good fit for the position from the beginning. Perhaps the employee’s work style is too slow for the pace of the company. Perhaps the employee had become so bored, she wanted to be fired. At no point, however, allow the person to think you might be “talked out of" the decision to terminate her employment.
  • The employee may try to get even, to lash out and make you wrong. Don't become angry, argue with the employee, or try to settle the score. Recognize going into the meeting that you are likely very disappointed, too. You had an expensive investment in this employee’s success, both personally and financially. You will have to recruit and train the employee’s replacement. Make sure your emotions are under control so you can remain compassionate and respectful.
  • You can assess by the way the meeting has gone whether discussion or advice to the departing employee would be helpful. You will find that you can often help by discussing the kind of job the employee might succeed in, how to locate job searching resources, school attendance ideas, and the employee’s strengths. This brief discussion can help the employee clarify their direction and help them move on. You build the employee’s self-esteem and help them begin the process of job searching.
  • Collect all company property or determine its location and make arrangements to collect it. Work closely with your IT staff to cut off the employee's access to work systems and regain electronic devices the company owns.
  • Give the employee a choice about who among the meeting attendees will walk her out of the building. Give the employee a choice about whether she wants to remove personal belongings from her workstation now or after hours.
  • Complete all of the steps in your employment ending checklist.

Note: these are the top ten things you never want to do when you fire an employee.

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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.