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How to Fire Someone (Professionally)

How to do what has to be done

Stephanie Olsen
Contributor

It’s a task no one wants to do, but every boss or hiring manager has to deal with at some point. If it’s the first time you’ve had to fire an employee, how will you deliver the news? What kind of information is required and should you have someone else in the room? And is there anything you should never do when having this conversation?

Let’s take a look.

First of all, don’t break the law

Most companies don’t need a reason to fire employees. There are certainly exceptions: It’s illegal to terminate someone on the basis of sex, race, religion, disability, or age—and it’s wrong. Also, if there’s an employment contract in place that specifically lists fireable offenses, stick to it. Similarly, a collective bargaining agreement will specify the procedure in which to settle disputes or grievances, and “just cause” must be the reason for the termination.

Check your state laws too. If you’re not sure that you can fire an employee without risking a wrongful termination lawsuit, but you don’t have a human resources department to turn to, consider bringing an HR consultant on board to guide you through the process.

This is vitally important because of the at-will employment exceptions and variations throughout the country. Generally, employees work at will: They can quit at any time for any reason and their employer can fire them at any time for any reason, as long as it’s not illegal. However, this is not the case in Montana (it is completely not at-will) and other states have their own versions of at-will employment laws.

Don’t fire someone out of the blue

Feedback and performance reviews should make it very clear when an employee’s performance or productivity is not acceptable and that a change in behavior is required in order to avoid termination. 

Warning is considered given in certain circumstances if the consequences of the action were covered during onboarding. So, if you made it clear during orientation that stealing is a fireable offense, you’ve given warning.

Besides covering yourself from potential lawsuits, giving an employee warnings to improve is good business and good management. It may be that a frank discussion is all that’s needed to bring an otherwise valuable employee back to acceptable performance. 

It’s quite possible that their personal life has negatively impacted their productivity and there’s a way to avoid the expense and time of finding and training a new employee. Even if the termination must go forward, firing someone completely out of the blue is a practice most ethical and empathetic employers avoid.

Read more: How to Delegate Like a Boss

Hold the meeting privately, plus one

Don’t fire someone over the phone or by email or by text.

The termination meeting should be held in person, in private, with the employee’s direct manager and someone else in the room, preferably from human resources. That second person serves as witness to the proceedings and can help with questions. These might range from reasons for the termination to questions about severance pay, unused leave, salary owed, and the date of expiration of health care benefits.

Be very clear. State the effective date of termination, which is usually immediate. Do have your documentation at hand. This includes everything from the employment contract and performance reviews to emails warning of write-ups and the actual termination letter itself. Recognize that the time for any negotiation is over.

As Dan Ryan, president and CEO of Ryan Search and Consulting puts it: "There is no room or need to get into a protracted discussion. It is what it is, there is no productive discussion that can take place after."

During the meeting, you’ll need to collect any company property such as keys and swipe cards as well as phones and company laptops. It’s also the time when you should review the terms of any confidentiality agreements the employee might have signed when hired.

Consider the time of day you fire someone

Even the time that you schedule the meeting matters.

HR experts recommend earlier in the week, rather on a Friday, to allow the employee to immediately start networking and sending out job applications (and to not completely ruin someone’s weekend).

As for the actual time of day, one argument is to hold the meeting either very early or very late in the day, so the employee can clear out their desk without meeting their colleagues. Another is meeting earlier is preferable, but to schedule an after-hours time for the employee to return to the workplace to pick up personal items.

Being dismissed (at whatever time of day) is upsetting, of course, even if you know it’s coming. It’s also embarrassing.

Be supportive, but not apologetic

Not apologizing doesn’t mean you can’t be supportive.

People react differently, so you can expect anything from anger to stoicism to tears. You can help just by maintaining a professional demeanor. While you should not apologize for the employee’s termination, you can certainly offer your best wishes for their future success.

How to announce it to staff

You should make a formal announcement to the rest of the staff about their coworker’s termination. Much of how you’ll approach this depends on the size of your company. If your team is small, you can announce in person. If you have a large team, you can let managers know and ask them to tell their teams.

The rule of thumb here is don’t overshare: Just say that the person no longer works at the company. You should not say that person was fired or give a reason why they left. 

Do let the staff know what your transition plan looks like. This could be that you’re hiring someone new or wish to promote internally. Also make sure they know who to speak to if they have any questions.

Read more: What Does It Mean to Manage Up? Well, I Got Really Good at It?

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