10 Things You Should Never Do When Firing an Employee

You Can Make the Experience Less Traumatic for All Parties Involved

Do's and Don'ts of Firing Employees

Illustration by Catherine Song. © The Balance, 2018

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. This is often not without cause as the average employer waits too long to fire a non-performing employee much of the time.

So, employees convince themselves that they won’t get fired: they think that you like them; they think that you know that they are a nice person, or you recognize that they’ve been trying hard. In fact, you may believe and think all of these things. But, none of your feelings matter when the employee is not performing his job.

In a technology company, an employee attended her termination meeting. In the month prior to her termination, the employee had missed eleven days of work. Her work had deteriorated beyond repair and she was missing part of every day that she was scheduled to work so her production was half of what the employer needed.

Despite counseling, verbal warnings, and written warnings, she said that she never, ever thought that her company would fire her. Many employees feel the same way. And, in part, this belief is encouraged by the employer's actions, or rather, non-action.

Firing an employee may take you awhile—usually much longer than the circumstances merit. Because you are kind, caring, and tend to give employees another chance. But, these are the top 10 things you do not want to do when you do decide to fire an employee.

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

A confused employee speaks on the phone
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How you fire an employee is incredibly important. 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.

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

For morale's sake, it's important to remember that your other employees have long memories. Additionally, during this time of social media dominance, you should assume that any dismissal will not remain a private matter. 

You will have created a scenario in which your remaining employees are afraid to trust you. Or worse, they trust that you may harm them, too. 

Don't Act Without Warning

Two coworkers in an intense discussion at the office
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Nothing makes an employee angrier than feeling blindsided 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 in the improvement process so that the employee has a record of what is happening at each step. The employer is also protecting its own interests in the event of a lawsuit over the termination.

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.)

Do not, however, use a PIP unless you are confident that the employee can improve. The agonizing process of meeting weekly to chart no progress is horrible for the employee, the manager, and the HR rep, too.

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

Don't Start the Conversation Without a Witness

Three coworkers sitting down at a table
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Especially in the US, anyone can sue anybody, at any time, for any reason. In employment termination cases, the employee has to 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. This limits your liability when you fire an employee.

Don't Make the Conversation Longer Than It Needs To Be

Two coworkers in a lengthy conversation
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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. Have an answer prepared that is honest and correctly summarizes the situation without detail or placing blame on the employee.

You want the employee to maintain his or 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 that you will locate a position that is a better fit for you. You have many talents and we are confident that you will locate a position that can take advantage of them.”

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

It's important to remember that the more detailed you become, the less able you will be to use any of the information you discover following the employment termination in a subsequent lawsuit. And, as an employer, you will always find out additional information.

For example, think about a terminated HR staff person who had months of new employee paperwork in her drawer. The employees had not been enrolled in healthcare insurance.

Don't Let Them Think the Decision Is Not Final

Be direct in a difficult conversation
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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 an 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.

After an initial greeting, in fact, tell the employee that the purpose of the meeting is to inform her of your decision to terminate her employment, which is final. This is kinder than misleading the employee into believing she can affect the outcome.

Don't Let Them Leave With Company Property

An employee exits his office
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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, smartphone, 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 the employee promised to deliver it.

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

An employee exits the office with his belongings
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Many employees become visibly upset when they are fired. Sometimes, 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. You can also 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 worksite. And again, preserving the employee's dignity should be a top priority. So is making sure that the employee removes no company-owned documents or items that the next employee will need.

You are responsible for the employee's confidentiality even if the employee bad mouths you to the whole world—which they often do to save face. Their social media story rarely takes responsibility for their actions and failure to perform.

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 locations, 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, hey, 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

An upset employee at her desk
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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

An employee looks at some paperwork
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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.

It also serves as proof of the topics and exchanges that were shared with the employee during the termination meeting.

Making the Best of a Difficult Situation

Firing an employee is not your most sought-after experience. But, you can make the experience more palatable by using an effective, supportive approach to a hard conversation. 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 will tell any story that makes them look good—even if it makes you look bad.

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.

The information contained in this article is not legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law. For current legal advice, please consult with an accountant or an attorney.

Watch Now: 9 Tips for Handling a Problem Employee