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Fire Thee Well

When it comes time to fire an employee, there are plenty of resources out there to help you do it right.

Firing an employee is a drag--every boss hates doing it--but the tough pill to swallow is that the day will come when you'll have to play Terminator. Why? Sometimes a new company direction means it's time to part with some current staff. Other times an employee just gets into a slump and needs a new direction. But the terrible news is that all this is more unpleasant-even painful-in a start-up because chances are, you'll be firing a friend.

Ouch! For starters, though, know this: Oftentimes, the best thing an employer can do is release an employee from a situation that's not working for either of them, and that will be even more true when the firing is done in a way that lets the employee save face. But fire an employee badly, and you'll be leaving yourself open to a possible lawsuit for wrongful termination or defamation. Do it really badly, and he could go postal on the 5 o'clock news. The good news is, there are plentiful resources out there to help you do the deed right.

Is firing the only option? Find out with a quick quiz put up by the Small Business Administration (www.sba.gov/gopher/Business-Development/Success-Series/Vol2/Find/find19.txt). Many times, an employee's work may be lackluster because the job description is too vague, or the job's too challenging or not challenging enough. If a worker is having personal problems, it's to your benefit to give the employee a few months to refocus his or her priorities on the job.

Do it right. OK, so when should you do it? Late Friday used to be the preferred time to drop the bomb, but now experts recommend doing it early in the week. Get more tips at www.businesstown.com/people/firing-howto.asp.

It's the law. Worried about the legal ramifications? You should be. Wrongful termination suits can kill a small business, so research what you need to do (and not do) by dropping into these Web sites:

Employment lawyers charge big bucks for their advice, but on the Web, you can often get it for free (www.mpows.com/index3html?/publications/firing.html~body). Case in point: "Terminating Employees: Survival Techniques," an eight-step guide to sidestepping lawsuits written by Wichita, Kansas, employment lawyers Martin, Pringle, Oliver, Wallace & Swartz LLP. Much of the advice is basic (document your actions, follow your company's policy manual and so forth), but many companies find themselves in big trouble because they didn't do the obvious. And some of the advice here might surprise you. For instance: Don't dump ex-employees' personnel files; they might take years to sue you.

State laws are a crazy quilt, with each state offering employees specific sets of protections. There are plenty of ways to run afoul of state laws. From genetic tests to unionizing to safety complaints, each state individually defines reasons for letting someone go. Find out the important ones by surfing csi.toolkit.cch.com/text/P05_8120.asp.

Guess what? You can be sued for not firing a worker who's a probable threat to co-workers. Courts have ruled that if you know an employee is a maniac, you can be found negligent for not protecting your people. Get the scoop at http://toolkit.netscape.com/text/P05_8190.btq.

Going postal. It happens: Sometimes a terminated worker goes nuts. But the bigger, more common risk is that this ex-employee will proceed to bad-mouth you all over town-unless you take steps to part on the best possible terms. How? Learn this art by absorbing "Taking Away Their Job? Leave Them With Pride," a well-documented article on how to take away a person's job but not their dignity. You'll find it at www.amcity.com/dayton/stories/1998/10/12/focus2.html

Brain Food

Before calling in that employee for a final chat, settle down with a good book, such as Alan S. Horowitz's The Unofficial Guide to Hiring and Firing People (IDG Books Worldwide, $15.95, 800-434-2086). This easy-to-understand guide explains the legal issues involved with firing and how to do it without incurring lawsuits or bad press.


Robert McGarvey and Babs S. Harrison avoid being fired by being self-employed in the San Franciso Bay area.

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