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Firing Employee

The Lowdown on Firing Employees
Of all confrontations with an employee, the response you get from firing someone is the most difficult to predict. One employee may thank you for giving him or her the opportunity to work with you, while another may attempt to engage an immediate supervisor in a fist fight.

You need to prepare carefully before firing someone. You need to be ready to become fully engaged in what may become a very demanding encounter.

How you handle a firing will have a tremendous impact on how the employee feels about himself, you, and your company. This will, in turn, effect your chance of being sued. In addition, a poorly handled firing will have a negative impact on morale throughout your entire organization.

The decision to wait on a firing

How much time should you give an employee to improve his or her performance? There really aren’t any specific guidelines. One thing to take into consideration, however, is the employee’s length of service with your company. Loyalty does count. Give an employee who has served you for several years a few months to work out his or her performance deficits.

Remember too, that when you fire a long-term employee the negative effect on the morale of other employees will be far greater than, say, if you were to fire a recent hire. And when you work together with long-term employees in an effort to help them improve their job output, and ideally keep them gainfully employed, you create goodwill throughout the company.

On the other hand, if an employee shows poor work habits, has unsatisfactory skill levels, or displays attitude problems during the provisional ninety-day employment period, don’t hesitate to fire him or her. (But beware of the legal risks—the courts do not recognize “provisional” employment periods.)

The decision to fire

While firing should definitely be a last-resort measure, many managers, especially newly minted ones, hesitate to terminate an employee until it is long overdue.

How to Fire an Employee
After you have taken all of the preliminary steps, considered all of the potential ramifications, legal and otherwise, and have made the difficult decision to let someone go, stick to it. Don’t torture yourself. Don’t prolong the firing. It is, after all, inevitable.

Only the worker’s direct supervisors, and any witnesses that will be present at the termination meeting, should be told about the termination decision in advance. An advance leak of a firing can only worsen the situation.

In the past, late Friday afternoon was considered the optimum time to let someone go. Today, earlier in the day or even the week is deemed appropriate. Some companies that take this approach offer the employee the option of either remaining for the rest of the day or week or leaving immediately with pay for the workday.

When you are ready to proceed with the termination, call the employee into the office. Approach him or her with “I have something to discuss with you.”

After the employee and any other managerial personnel or witnesses have gathered in your office, get to the point quickly. Briefly explain to the employee that he or she is being fired. Summarize the main reasons for the firing, recap the warnings that have been issued, and the opportunities extended to improve his or her performance record. Give the person a check for monies due. If you are offering severance pay, detail the severance offer and present the employee with the forfeiture document to be signed if the severance is to be paid. Explain any continued work options. Offer to let the employee clean out his or her office or desk now, or have you mail any personal belongings to him or her later. If the employee elects to have you mail his or her belongings, have two people oversee the cleaning process to be sure that all of the employee’s personal possessions are mailed.

Show appropriate sympathy for the employee, but not empathy. Do not waiver and change your mind. Do not overstate any aspect of the employee’s performance.

Answer any question the terminated employee may have, even if he or she interrupts you. A termination is extremely emotional. Don’t be surprised if the employee doesn’t hear the basic message or doesn’t understand the details of his or her firing. You may have to restate all or part of the termination.

As long as the employee doesn't lose control, extend him or her every reasonable courtesy. Certainly give the person an opportunity to say good bye to coworkers. He or she will only call these people up on the phone later anyway.

If the employee does lose control and becomes verbally abusive, ask him or her to vacate the building. Don’t get upset. Remember, no matter what you think of the employee, that person is being terminated. He or she is leaving, not you.

Even if you or someone else in the office can overpower a suddenly violent discharged employee, the risk of a lawsuit is huge. The one time I did call the police, the employee fled the building before they arrived. But the (Boston) police told me its policy was not to refuse cancellations on this type of call because all too often the discharged employee returned with a weapon. In this case, the employee did return with his dog—but the dog was about the size of a miniature poodle, with about the same level of ferociousness.

The odds of you or another employee being endangered during a firing is slim, but you do need to be prepared for the unexpected.

As demonstrated throughout the section on problem employees, by carefully working with an employee many performance shortcomings can be resolved. An employee’s job achievement can be improved through care.

If these “gentle” tactics don’t work, however, you must move on to a firm verbal warning that makes mandatory a work quality or attitude improvement and cites specific suggestions for effecting such an improvement. If that fails, issue a written warning. Some people just require the jolt of a firm warning to shift their work performance into high gear.

Of course, during the period when you are working with an employee in an attempt to improve their performance, you run the risk of having them decide to seek employment elsewhere. This risk increases if a written warning is handed down. If the employee quits or submits his or her resignation, that’s OK. It is a lot easier to lose weak performers through their own proactive decisions.

Avoiding a Lawsuit
The first way to avoid getting sued is to be sure that you and all other supervisors understand discrimination law. Go one step further and be sure that all supervisors really believe in the importance of fighting discrimination—both on a practical and a subconscious level.

You need to remember that abiding by the law and being able to prove to a hostile jury that you have done so are two very different things. If you end up in court, you need to have a rock-solid case against any employee you fire. You should take whatever preventive steps you can to avoid the possibility of a suit altogether.

Create a paper trail long before termination is seriously considered. Write summaries regarding specific performance problems that were cited via direct verbal warnings to the employee and file a copy in his or her employment records. Be sure that you have issued the employee at least two written warnings.

If the employee knows and appreciates that you have tried to work with him or her towards improving such job performance, this can decrease the chance of a lawsuit.

How you handle a problem employee’s performance reviews are critical. The recent reviews should not be positive. This is often a problem because employers, supervisors, and managers hesitate to write and present to an employee a negative review, even if such a review is warranted. If, during the review process, you give into the human temptation to say something like “your work really isn’t all that bad” or “I know your work is improving,” you are planting the seeds of a discrimination suit.

Another potential problem you should be aware of is how you handle reference calls for a former, and fired, employee. If you give out any information on such an employee, other than dates of employment and a salary confirmation, you risk a lawsuit. There was even an instance where a company lost a suit brought by a terminated employee because a good reference was supplied but the employee felt, and the jury agreed, that the reference wasn’t good enough!

Hypothetical Firing Dialogue
The following dialogue provides an excerpt from a firing that involves an employee who had sincerely tried to do his job but just hadn’t been able to perform at a satisfactory level. Note how the manager shows patience and expresses sympathy but does not offer false praise or waiver in his decision. In this excerpt one manager is handling the termination procedure. It is good practice, however, to have another manager present. Ideally, the second manager should not be someone the employee reported to either directly or indirectly. If the firing does not go smoothly, the second manager can be called upon as a witness should any legal action ensue at some later point.

Manager- Tom, please have a seat.

Tom- Thank you.

- Tom, I know that you have tried hard to succeed at your job. Nonetheless, for some months now, your overall performance has not been satisfactory. There are too many instances of errors in the accounts payable reports and your attempts to carefully check over each report have slowed down the pace of your work considerably. We cannot retain you in this position and we must let you go.

Tom- You mean, I’m fired?

- Yes, that is correct. I am very sorry that this did not work out.

- I know I can do the job. Give me another chance. I really like working here.

Manager- Tom, we have given you at least two written warnings and several verbal warnings.

- But my supervisor says the quality of my work is improving.

- While the number of errors has decreased, the quality is still not satisfactory. And in working to decrease the amount of errors your work pace has become unsatisfactory. I know you have tried . . . but it’s still not working out.

Tom- What about another position? I’ve never really liked payables. How about the entry-level position in accounts receivable? I’ll really give it my all.

Manager- Tom, it’s time to move on. We all like you here. This is a difficult decision for all of us. But the decision has been made. We truly wish you the best.