Business Management

How to Fire Right

It’s common for employers to accept all kinds of excuses for poor performance, mistakes, and problems. Be careful about being sucked into an employee’s personal problems.

Tolerating unproductive or disruptive employee behavior can quickly poison the atmosphere of a business. Firing, termination, lay off — whatever you call it, it’s painful. Sooner or later, most business owners face the situation of an employee who isn’t working out. How you handle that person and situation is important. If you handle it poorly, you may be sued, or create a backlash from remaining employees.<p>Illustration: Chris Murphy</p>

It’s important to:

Stay alert to complaints. Pay attention to complaints about problems in the workplace. Employees don’t always bring these issues to the boss so you have to find ways to stay in touch with the day-to-day work environment.

Deal with problems. Don’t pretend that the problem will go away; it won’t.

Talk with the employee when you’re not angry. Try to communicate what is expected, offer training, and model desired behavior.

It’s common for employers to accept all kinds of excuses for poor performance, mistakes, and problems. Be careful about being sucked into an employee’s personal problems. You are not the employee’s counselor. Focus on job requirements and expectations. Encourage the employee to get help with her problems. The employee should not be in the workplace if unable to do her job.

When it’s clear that the employee isn’t working out, you need to terminate the person. In my experience, the longer you delay the termination, the worse it is for everyone.

Unless the employee has a contract, employment is considered “at will.” This means that an employee can be terminated for any reason or no reason at all, except for the prohibited reasons of race, gender, age, etc.

It’s important to be consistent in how you treat employees. You can get into trouble if you terminate one employee for behavior that you tolerated in another.

The goal in letting someone go is that the person leaves feeling fairly treated. “It didn’t work out” or “the job wasn’t the right fit” are good endnotes for the relationship.

Termination DOs:

  • Treat the person with respect.
  • Schedule a meeting for privacy.
  • Plan what you will say.
  • Explain why, what, and when.
  • Explain why the termination is occurring. If performance-related, this should be documented. (It is better to give no reason for the termination rather than give an untrue reason.)
  • Explain what action is being taken, how and when it will occur. “Your last day will be …”, “You’ll be paid through …”
  • Provide COBRA (if you provide health insurance) and unemployment notices.
  • Try to avoid embarrassing the employee; express understanding of the employee’s upset feelings but avoid sympathy.
  • Unless you’re worried about the employee damaging equipment or computers, or causing disruption in the workplace, allow the employee to say good-bye to fellow workers.

Termination DON’Ts:

  • Don’t use banter, humor, or small talk.
  • Don’t defend, argue, or justify.
  • Don’t discuss other employees.
  • Don’t minimize feelings or offer false hope.
  • Don’t make promises.
  • Don’t let the process drag on.

Jean D. Sifleet is a Clinton, Mass.-based attorney and CPA.  Her website,, contains information on a variety of business issues.

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