When an employee underperforms or makes serious errors or omissions, it's quite tempting to want to terminate that person and look for a replacement. However, much more is involved than simply considering an employee an "interchangeable part" on an assembly line.

Before considering the legal, emotional and productivity ramifications of termination, you should try to find ways to improve that employee's performance. Maybe the employee and you simply have a different understanding about the job's requirements. To improve an employee's performance and hopefully avoid the potential complications of termination, try these six simple techniques:

1. Clear up any misunderstandings. Discuss the specifics of the job description to gain agreement on performance expectations and responsibilities.

2. Set up a goal or series of goals for the improvement process and for the job itself. Ensure that these goals are both very specific and measurable. If you use ambiguous or general suggestions such as "do a better job," evaluating the results will be difficult if not impossible. For example, how do you define "a better job?" Does that mean arrive on time, complete all assignments on time, confer with colleagues and so on? To minimize the vagueness of the question and the answer, be specific so you can then measure the outcome: "You must arrive and be ready to work at 8:30 a.m. daily, complete all tasks by Friday afternoon at 2:00 p.m." and so on.

3. Discuss the crucial aspects of the task. How and where will the task be accomplished? What resources (such as time, money, people and equipment) will be required? What assists and/or obstacles are anticipated? What aspects of completing the job responsibility are unclear, ambiguous, complicated or seemingly unattainable? What plans are in place or can be established to overcome obstacles and achieve task success?

4. Identify milestones and deadlines. Waiting until the completion date to evaluate the end product can be problematic, especially if an optimal result is not achieved. To avoid this common problem, especially with a questionable employee, establish mutually agreed-upon mini-deadlines or milestones. In that way, progress can be evaluated and, if necessary, modified or changed before the final deadline.

5. Respond to this major question: "How long can I wait for turnaround performance in the problematic employee?" The answer is multifaceted and depends on these factors: the employee's commitment and willingness to try to improve performance; the level of importance of the position and the impact sub-optimal performance has on the outcome, productivity, other individuals and processes; and patience, willingness and cost of resources necessary to improve both performance and outcome.

6. Consider your corporate culture. Do your business's corporate culture and human resources policies demonstrate patience and advocate for the possible expenditure of funds to retrain or upgrade the skills of the employee? Is the culture forgiving of errors as long as they are corrected? Since time is money, is there a sufficient amount of both to warrant or not warrant taking the time to improve an individual's performance?

These six factors must be balanced against the time necessary to advertise, screen, find, interview and train a replacement. When the balance is determined, the best answer to when you should fire that employee becomes clear.