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Firing an employee is never easy, but sometimes it's in the best interest of all parties.

What to Do When You Have to Fire an Employee

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These tips will help you make the process smoother for you and your team.
By Peggy Carouthers March 2017 Blog

No one likes to fire employees, but when your team acts inappropriately or doesn’t meet brand standards, it can be a necessity. As a former human resources manager for a national retail chain and manager of the licensed coffee shop in our store, I had to let many people go, and it was never easy. Sometimes they were seasonal hires who knew we couldn’t keep them on past the Christmas shopping rush or people who were always late or absent and putting the team in a bind. Sometimes they stole from the company or acted inappropriately toward other employees or customers, and other times, it was employees who were kind, thoughtful people who just couldn’t keep up with the demands of the job.

No matter how many times I had to terminate an employee, the process was always a challenge. Beyond the emotional strain of letting an employee go, the fear of legal action can make firing a team member scary for the employer, especially if there are no corporate guidelines in place to ensure you’ve followed the law. While I am not a lawyer and cannot speak to the legal side of the process, I did learn some valuable lessons over time that can make firing employees smoother for managers.

1. Be Professional

The key to keeping a termination conversation calm is maintaining a professional attitude. No matter what the cause of the termination is or your feelings for that employee, you cannot appear to be emotional when you fire him or her. There have been cases where I was angry over an employee’s conduct or felt sick over letting wonderful people go, but you have to be sensitive to the fact that this process is more difficult for the employee.

Similarly, it is important that you maintain your authority in the situation, so don’t apologize. By apologizing, you sound less firm in your decision, and that may lead employees to question the decision. If this happens, remain firm in your decision.While it can be tempting to back off when someone says they can do better, you have to stick to your plan or you risk losing authority. Politely say, “The decision is final,” and remind that person of the reasons why.

One way to ensure you stay calm during the process is to take a few deep breaths before talking to the employee to calm your own nerves. It also helps to plan what you will say before you get in the room so you can succinctly explain why that person does not meet expectations. Not only will you feel more prepared, but it will also make the conversation progress more smoothly. You shouldn’t plan to list every single mistake the employee made, but be prepared to give a short summary.

2. Have Your Documentation

A co-worker once told me that when you fire someone, you should prepare as if you will have to present the case to court every time, even if you don’t think you’ll need the documentation. Having a case for why you should fire someone is important and can help you legally, especially if you are asked to remember exact details months later when you won’t remember.

This documentation should include specific actions that lead to your decision to terminate an employee as well as dates as to when those actions happened and dates for feedback conversations you had along the way to inform the employee that he or she was not meeting expectations. If the employee is being fired for an attendance issue, make sure to pull time reports from your timekeeping system. Email communications, performance reviews, and in the case of theft or violence, video might be helpful to consider. Feedback from other managers may also be helpful to show that the decision was not due to personality conflicts.

Another reason documentation is important is that when you talk to the employee, it’s not enough to say, “You’re fired.” Employees deserve to know why you are firing them. Preparing documentation can give you specific talking points and can prepare you in the event that that person asks questions about your decision or asks for proof that these actions took place.

3. Consider Time and Place

Terminations can be stressful for everyone involved, so consider the time and place before acting. Never let someone go on the phone, and never fire an employee in front other employees. Though someone is being fired, you should never humiliate or disrespect that person, as it can cause a lack of respect from other employees. Even if the event that led to termination occurred publically and must be immediately addressed, pull that employee away from the group before beginning your conversation. Also plan for the employee to leave quietly without drawing attention if possible for that person’s sake and for the sake of your current employees.

You should also pick the right time during the shift, whether that is at the beginning or end, depending on laws governing your region. Some states may require you to pay employees a certain amount regardless of hours worked, and you may need to factor that into your decision. You should also consider whether you will need to bring someone else in to fill that person’s shift on the day of the termination and account for any overlaps in payroll hours before the termination is complete.

Some companies may require another manager present as a witness in case of legal action, but this can be a good idea regardless of policy to protect yourself, your company, and even the employee in case of legal action. Do not use a peer of the employee as a witness. In these situations, it is also important that one person does most or all of the talking to send a unified message. Though both managers may have witnessed the behavior or performance that led to the termination, it is important that the employee does not become confused or feel outnumbered.

4. Don’t Surprise the Employee

A termination should never come as a surprise. In performance-related terminations, there should be a clear history of feedback conversations demonstrating that the employee’s job performance was inadequate and that he or she was given chances to improve. While it’s important to act quickly to protect the business, it’s also important to give people a fair chance to improve, so make sure to find the right balance.

In the case of gross misconduct, such as violence or theft, you won’t have time to address the issue ahead of time; however, if you have clear policies around harassment, stealing, violence, and other serious offenses, it should come as no surprise when you let employees go.

5. Know What is Required

Make sure you understand what is legally required of employers before you let an employee go. Some states may require paperwork or final pay the day of termination, so always double check what you owe the terminated employee before the process begins to ensure a smooth termination. Make sure the person being terminated clocks out or fills out a timesheet so that there is an accurate representation of when he or she left for your payment calculations. You should also gather any company-owned equipment before the employee leaves, such as name badges, aprons, or hats. Determine what is required from you in terms of filing paperwork with your company or government and removing system access for former employees.

6. Get Back to Business

Though firing someone can be emotional, you still have to lead your business after that person leaves, so take a moment to calm yourself before getting back to your team if you feel anxious or sad. After the termination, have a plan in place to cover any shifts that person may have had on the schedule. Consider any training gaps that may be left in your staff if the employee had a specialized job or was cross-trained for multiple departments, and make a plan to train others to cover that role. If you will need to hire outside help, make a plan for finding a replacement.

Though firing employees is difficult for both parties, by handling terminations appropriately, managers can reduce stress and discomfort. If you don’t already have a procedure in place, it may be wise to make a plan for how you will handle a termination before you need one. You should also make sure that policies regarding attendance and job performance are clear to you and your employees, and consider consulting legal or human resources help before finalizing your processes to ensure you’ve considered all local, state, and federal rules.