Business Management

How to Fire Employees—The Practicalities and Legalities

When you have no choice but to let an employee go, follow these important steps to protect yourself from angry ex-employees and from the labor board.

During her years as owner of HairPort in Palmyra, Ill., f Shirley Thomas has had to fire only one employee: the preacher’s wife. “She had her fingers in the till,” Thomas explains. “She was taking home product and retail items.” Thomas began to notice that product had to be reordered frequently but wasn’t able to find fault in a particular employee. However, only the preacher’s wife had access to the salon’s money because she was responsible for doing inventory. “When the cash box came up short, that was it,” says Thomas. “After she was fired I found out she had been bringing in members of the congregation on Sundays and servicing them for free.”

You may never face a pilfering preachers wife, but eventually you may have to fire an employee for one reason or another. Dismissing an employee must be handled delicately so that the employee retains some self-esteem and doesn’t file wrongful termination charges against you or the salon.


A trick to avoiding having to fire someone is to be extra careful when you hire employees (for tips on hiring, see “Surefire Hiring Techniques,” NAILS, March 1992). Maintain the upper hand on your employees by implementing safeguard systems in your salon with work contracts, handbooks, regularly scheduled performance reviews, and immediate and long-term goal-setting.


Unless confronted with a major situation, such as an employee stealing, you probably won’t have to fire people on the spot. Rather, you’ll usually need to give an employee several warnings before letting the ax fall. For most errant employees, a warning will solve the problem. However, regardless of whether you think the incident in question is an isolated one, you must document in writing that the employee has been warned about a particular behavior. Keep these employee files for several years, even after the employee departs. If she is vindic­tive and files a lawsuit, you’ll have a record of the events that led to your decision.

“I don’t really fire people—they fire themselves,” says Jeff South, owner of Intrigue Salon in Marietta, Ga. “The state requires three written warnings for most firings. I give them one or two but by then they usually leave.” Because each state has different labor laws, contact your State Labor Board for the specifics of your state.

According to Barbara McKinnon, owner of Champagne Images in Phoenix, Ariz., even informal warnings should be documented. “Although my first warning to an employee tends to be verbal, I will still note it in a record,” she says. “After a couple of weeks I will tell her if her behaviour has or hasn’t improved. She’ll get one or two such warnings, depending on the severity of the problem. Then she’ll get a written warning stating that if the outlined behaviour doesn’t change, there will be a termination of employment. You should include exactly what is expected of your employee and the amount of time she has to improve in the written account.”

Jackie Randolph, owner of Nail Expressions in Washington, D.C., will observe an employee after she catches them making a mistake or if she spots an area of concern. If she sees the behavior repeated several times, she will issue a verbal warning, such as, “This is not acceptable. Things have to change,” and document it. For Randolph, the toughest thing for her to handle is an employee who doesn’t apply herself and falls short of her potential. “If an individual has the capacity to perform her job right but is inconsistent in the quality of her work, she obviously just doesn’t care enough,” she says.

Have the employee sign the warning document so that you’re both in agreement about die offense and what is needed to rectify it.

Says Christine Derr, owner of Nail Craft in Gilbertsville, Pa., “Usually its three strikes, then you’re out.” Even if the employee doesn’t agree with your assess­ment or concern, by signing the document she is noting that the warning has been given and that continued employment may be contigent upon improvement in that area.


Salon owners will often work with problem employees who are good technicians. Susan Strickland, owner of Nails, Etc. in Way-cross, Ga., gives two warnings for tardiness and terminates an employee on the third infraction.

However, she tries to help good technicians find workable solutions to their problems. For example, one technician was habitually five minutes late. Strickland made an agreement with the technician that she would be at the salon 30 minutes before her first daily appointment. That way, even if the technician was five minutes behind her agreed-upon arrival time, she’d still be ready for her clients.

South won’t fire employees over weak technical skills. “Weak technique is not necessarily their problem, but a salon problem,” he says. “That’s not a viable reason to fire someone. If they by to work and improve their skills, they’ll be here forever.”

McKinnon points out that it’s to a salon owner’s advantage to solve the problem when possible rather than having the employee leave. She says, “I try to work with technicians as much as I can while still maintaining the control I need.”

Being flexible is one thing, but don’t let employees walk all over you. As Randolph says, “There’s only so much flexibility I can give if the other person doesn’t reciprocate.”


You’ve done everything you can to avoid firing your employee, you’ve given her ample warnings and time to correct her faults, your reasons for terminating the employee are within legal boundaries, and now the time has come to let her go. Some companies give their employees the option to quit rather than be fired. A document is signed to that effect, and in exchange for being laid off instead of fired, the employee promises not to file any kind of suit against the former employer. However, if a lawsuit is filed, any agreement ini­tiated by the employer will be viewed in court as a firing.

Make sure you emphasize that the decision to fire stems from a specific problem, not the person. Let the employee walk away with as much self-esteem as possible. If the person has some strengths, be sure to mention them. Be ready to answer questions about your salon’s policies on items, where applicable, such as severance pay, unused vacation time, job placement help, and insurance. Offer any assistance to them that you would feel comfortable giving. Finally, always fire someone in private, and don’t tell anyone else until the employee is gone, if at all.

“Since they’re probably the only person to see it coming,” says Derr, “we never tell the others about it. They don’t know until they realize the person is missing — usually a day or two later.”

Emily Koltnow, co-author of Congratulations! You’ve Been Fired!, suggests you spend as little time as possible when firing someone. If the point isn’t rubbed in, the person may preserve more self- esteem, making it easier for them to start their job search. Koltnow says that the firing should “be like taking off a Band-Aid — fast and with as little pain as possible.”

Quick is one thing, but don’t be surprised if your employee reacts to the news by acting angry, hurt, and defensive. If she’s angry, remind her that she received warnings and was given a chance to improve, or that she violated a basic ethical rule, such as servicing the salon’s clients at home. If she’s hurt, listen to her and offer to help if you can. Don’t let defensiveness soften you, however. Often, people will say, “At my last salon, so-and-so didn’t care if I did this.” Resist the urge to retaliate. Keep your cool.

McKinnon prefers to fire someone at the end of the day, preferably at the end of a pay cycle unless the situation requires immediate action. “I try not to have hard feelings because they’ve known there was a problem,” she says. “I say something like, ‘Perhaps it’s time to go our separate ways. I wish you luck and if I can do anything to help you, please let me know.’

“I really try not to fire someone in anger. Anger never solves anything; it only makes things worse. I hate firing people. I hate giving up on somebody, giving up on their potential.”

If you anticipate legal difficulty with an individual, ask a co-owner, manager, or fellow employee to witness the proceedings. Tell this additional person beforehand that you don’t want her involvement —just her presence. Should you need a witness later, you’ll have one. Tell any employee you are dismissing of the legal implications of taking salon property such as client records.

Finally, discuss and write down the exact details you expect to give when you are called for a reference. Realize that you can’t reveal information that defames someone’s character. Though many former employers are only confirming dates of employment and position held because they fear a lawsuit, bad references hurt good ex-employees as well as fired ones Stick to agreements made in the meeting; you can be sued if you say anything negative during a reference that is not listed in you agreement.

McKinnon also conducts exit interviews for employees leaving he salon. “The biggest problem with the interviews is that people aren’t real truthful because they don’t want to hurt your feelings, ‘but you don’t find out what made them unhappy, you can’t correct it.”

Unless the firing had to be done immediately — from an employee stealing, for example — South may give an employee time to wrap up her work, look for a job, and otherwise tie up loose ends. After telling an employee that she only has two weeks left at Intrigue, he’ll say, “If you can avoid being like a weed and spreading ill-will around and can handle this professionally, you can work until that date.”

Such a tactic is obviously difficult, but will often be viewed by both the employee being fired and the rest of the staff as a thoughtful gesture. As South explains, “You have to treat them as humans, too.” Giving an employee this option may soothe hurt feelings and reduce the possibility of future problems.


It’s never easy when a parting comes on difficult terms, but it’s sometimes better than when there’s no terms at all. McKinnon had a hairstylist who simply packed up and left without giving notice. That was hard enough on her, but she started hearing from clients that he had been calling Champagne Image clients and bad-mouthing the salon. An owner in this position may decide to file a slander suit, but you’ll want to think hard about whether it’s worth your time and money. You’ll need verification and testimony from your clients, who may not want to be involved.

When a technician is fired from Micro-Manicure (Las Vegas), all her clients are sent a card, redeemable for half-price services for the following six months.

“We do take a loss,” says manager Deanna Witty, “but we feel it’s worth it in the long run because we’ll keep more clients.”

Salons may not be subjected to as many sue-happy ex-employees as in other industries, but it never hurts to treat an employee as humanely as possible.

James G. Frierson, writing for the September 1990 issue of Personnel magazine, suggests offering a fired employee severance pay or an extension of medical coverage (if applicable). If nothing else, the employee will be more apt to feel like she has been treated fairly. And if it prevents a lawsuit, so much the better.

“There are 25,000 wrongful discharge cases currently pending in the U.S., compared with just 200 a decade ago,” writes Frierson. “The average jury award to employees wrongfully discharged is $602,000. And the average defense attorney’s fee in a wrongful discharge lawsuit exceeds $125,000 — win or lose.”

Obviously, the little extra you may pay out to soothe the hard feelings is peanuts compared with any legal action. If you’re cautious in your hiring practices and you put elementary preventive measures in place, you’ll be standing on firm ground if you ever face the distasteful task of firing one of your team.


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