Telling an employee that they no longer have a job is one of the most difficult things employers have to do.
However, firing an employee is usually necessary at some point, for every employer.
When you do have to let someone go, you’ll need to make sure your company is protected legally; that your team’s morale isn’t affected negatively, and that the process is as easy as possible for your former employee.
1. Keep Your Cool
Any Human Resources professional will confirm that terminating an employee should be the last step of a thorough process that’s been objective as possible, and never done in the heat of the moment.
Even if an employee has insulted you personally or done something that’s clearly against the rules, you’ll only open yourself up to legal problems if you fire them (or threaten to fire them) on the spot. It never hurts to take some time and think through why an employee did what they did, to confirm that they’re truly at fault.
2. Documentation is Key
The process of terminating someone’s job properly should start long before the official firing conversation.
Each of your employees should have signed an employee handbook (that was reviewed by the employees) and a specific job description. You’ll need both of those documents on file.
The employee handbook should outline very specific grounds and procedures for termination. Every violation the employee made should be documented clearly, filed securely, and kept permanently in the case of a lawsuit later on.
3. Give the Employee an Objective Chance to Improve
When you start feeling like an employee isn’t working out, it’s time to have a meeting with them to discuss what you see as the problems. Truly listen to the employee and give them a chance to explain their side.
Then, come up with a solution to address the problem at hand and be as specific as possible. Next, schedule a time to follow up.
Depending on the problem, this could be something like hitting certain sales goals, or just stopping a certain behavior by a certain date (this Entrepreneur article suggests 30 days from the initial meeting date).
Include numbers, if possible, but always be very specific about what you expect. That way, they won’t be surprised at their termination if they don’t achieve their goals.
4. Prepare for the Meeting
If the agreed date passes and no progress has been made, you may have decided that a termination is inevitable.
Once you have the documentation to back up your decision, it’s time to start gathering the details and planning the termination meeting.
First, make sure you have access to all the employee’s files – computer, email, voicemail, and any other programs that they can access.
Instruct another employee to change all of those credentials during that final meeting so that there’s no risk of the fired employee doing any retaliatory damage.
Consult with your human resources department and your lawyer as you prepare for the meeting and really think through the steps of everything you’ll need. Gather details about their last paycheck, benefits termination, collecting personal items, and any severance pay.
The time between when you say, “You’re fired,” and when the employee actually leaves the building is awkward for everyone. Make things easier by knowing every detail in the process so it goes as smoothly as possible.
And if you need to bring in other people, like an HR staffer to talk about benefits, line them up so they will be available immediately. Never make an employee you just fired, sit and wait.
Consider if you want the employee to sign an attorney-drafted release that they were not discriminated against. This may be more important if the employee is a minority, female or over age 40.
Since you’ll need to make sure that your company is legally protected, you should have a witness in the meeting in case the employee makes any claims later about what you may have said.
5. Plan Your Words
Again, you’ll probably want to consult with a lawyer as you plan specifically what you’ll say to your employee. Remember to be empathetic, but direct. Avoid getting drawn into arguments or discussions that might cause you to say things that can be used against you later. Stick to the documented issues. For more tips, check out this Inc. article on The 10 Worst Things to Say When Firing an Employee.
6. Learn from the Experience
Of course, the firing experience will be difficult for everyone and will likely weigh heavily on your mind. As you think about what happened, troubleshoot where this could have been prevented and take action on what you’ve learned. That might mean making changes to the hiring process, employee handbook, or other company policies.
Keep in mind that this article is no substitute for professional legal advice. You may want to use these points as a checklist to go over with a qualified, licensed professional in your area.