The Right Way to Fire Someone

Woman with moving boxes in office, thinking

Be Clear With The Employee

My business partner and I were in a pinch and needed some clerical help, so we called a nearby high school to send someone over. We did not have a formal job description. We didn’t check references. And most embarrassingly of all, we didn’t even interview the young lady! But, we hired her anyway. This was reckless.

We gave her easy tasks to start with, but she struggled. Then, we tried giving her easier tasks, but she failed with those too. We knew her work was going to cost us precious time and resources, so we had no choice but to fire her.

I had never fired anyone before, so my methods were poor. I tried beating around the bush and being very gentle, but the employee didn’t understand. I tried getting firmer in my words, but the employee just smiled at me because she still didn’t understand. Finally, to get her attention, I blurted out the words… “you’re fired.” Well, she understood that, and she started crying. She cried a lot.

It was a horrible experience. Really horrible! And, it was 100% my fault. It was my fault for hiring an unqualified worker. It was my fault for giving her tasks she couldn’t perform. And, it was my fault for mishandling how she was let go. This is not the kind of experience you want. You need to be clear with the employee on two fronts—when you first hire them and if you have to fire them.

Be Clear When You Hire

When you hire an employee, do your research. Make sure you articulate exactly what the job entails. You don’t want to onboard someone only to find that they don’t know how to do the job. Be clear about the skill set the employee should have.

Be Clear When You Fire

If you must fire an employee, do so gracefully. When you meet with an employee to tell them they are being fired, you need to tell them as soon as the meeting starts. If you were getting fired, you wouldn’t want to talk about the weather or last night’s football game before hearing the news. Answer any questions relating to the employee’s last paycheck, collecting unemployment benefits, and health insurance.

Don’t Humiliate The Employee

Employment termination isn’t just bad for that individual— it’s also bad for the other employees. Other employees don’t know if or when they’re going to be on the chopping block. And, your employees could have relationships with the fired employee. If you fire an employee in front of everyone, you risk draining the morale out of the other employees.

Consider firing the employee after your other employees leave. That way, the terminated employee does not need to leave your office (or wherever you fire them) in front of their co-workers.

Do Have A Witness

When you need to fire an employee, you and someone from Human Resources should be the only two people in the room with them. If you don’t have an HR department or representative, grab a witness, like a trusted employee or even your business’s lawyer if applicable.

In very rare cases, you might consider having a police escort during an employee termination. If there is a chance the employee might become aggressive or violent, it’s best to have backup.

I once had to fire an employee with a police escort. She threatened to beat up another employee. On the weekends, she participated in cage-match fighting. The officer came, I fired the employee, and she left without incident. Having a police escort as a witness and protector might be a good idea.

The Right Way to Fire Someone

Firing an employee–looking someone straight in the eye and telling them they no longer have a source of income–is one of the toughest things you’ll ever have to do as a business owner. It’s often as hard on the person giving the bad news as it is on the person receiving it. And yet it still needs to be done, especially if you have someone who’s “poisoning the well” and bringing the entire business down with them.

Assuming this person is an “at will” employee–someone who doesn’t have an employment contract that guarantees employment for a specified time period–here are ten tips to help you remove the bad apple cancer from your business with a “zero to low” risk of being sued for wrongful termination.

1. Check your past feedback. If you’ve been giving this employee glowing performance reviews and a raise each year, they’ll understandably be shocked when you call them into your office and give them the boot. Look back at your relationship with this employee, and if you’ve been sending them overly positive signals, don’t fire the employee immediately! Instead, start changing the signals and let them know in no uncertain terms that they’re not “living in Kansas anymore.”

2. Give them a warning. Sit the employee down in your office, explain that you’re unhappy with their performance, and give them a limited period of time (I would suggest 30 days) to turn things around. Make it very clear that if they continue to “fill in the blank with their bad behavior,” you’ll have no choice but to terminate them immediately. Prepare a “memo to the file” detailing what you told the employee.

3. Focus on specific behavior goals. Give the employee a list of behaviors you find unacceptable, and tell them exactly what they needs to do to get back into your good graces. Do not allow the employee to drag you into a discussion that focuses on anything other that what you’ve just covered.

4. Fire early in the week and never on a Friday. Assuming the employee doesn’t turn things around for the better, fire them early in the work week. Never fire someone on a Friday, because then they can “stew about it” over the weekend and come into work the following Monday ready for a fight, or even worse.

5. Make it short, sweet and to the point. Do not get caught up in the employee’s emotions–have a box of Kleenex handy on your desk. Have a witness present during the meeting in case the employee threatens retaliation. Then proceed with the following steps:

  • Tell the employee that they’re being terminated and when they’ll be expected to leave the office.
  • Explain that the firing is “for cause,” but avoid going into detail about the grounds for termination. You don’t want to start an argument. Just point out that the employee did not attain the goals you wanted them to reach in their latest “performance review.” If the employee objects or becomes defensive, say simply “I’m sorry, but my mind is made up.”
  • Explain how much severance pay (if any) you’ll be providing and what other benefits they’ll be entitled to after they leave your employment.
  • Explain to them what you’ll say should anyone call and ask you for a job reference. Be sure you’ve spoken with an employment law attorney first and have agreed on the exact wording.

6. Do not let the employee linger. Unless there’s an urgent reason to keep the employee around for a few days, tell them that they’re to leave the business premises immediately, after a short stop at their desk to pick up any personal items. Escort the employee to the door, so the employee doesn’t have the chance to steal any company files, trash any computer data or change any computer passwords without your knowledge. Better yet, have another employee change these while the other employee is in your office, so they can’t go back to their desk and wreak havoc with your computer system. Collect any office keys and company credit cards this employee might have.

7. Ask for a release, and give the employee an incentive to sign it. If the employee is a minority, a female or is over the age of 40, I would recommend asking them to sign a release of liability. Do not draft this yourself–there is very specific language a release form must contain in order to hold up in court, especially if the employee is likely to claim “age discrimination.” Have your employment law attorney draft the necessary release before the “exit interview”–it should take only about an hour of the attorney’s time.

Offer the employee something in exchange for signing the release, along the following lines: “You’ll be entitled to one week’s severance pay, Mary, but if you sign this release form, I’ll be happy to extend that to three weeks. Talk it over with your attorney if you like, and let me know what you decide to do.” You cannot force an employee to sign a release, but you can give them a strong incentive to do so. Also, giving the employee the chance to talk to their attorney demonstrates that you’re not worried about being sued.


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