Your Guide to Terminating Employees

It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it. Our expert tells you how to professionally--and legally--fire an employee.

By Dr. David G. Javitch

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Terminating an employee is often a painful process, both for the boss and the person being fired. Generally speaking, giving and receiving negative messages is an uncomfortable experience. People who have to deliver the message often hesitate to do so because they don't want to be the bearer of bad tidings--they fear the recipient will react badly to the messenger as well as the message.

In fact, dealing with any issue of an intense, emotional nature is rarely easy. And because most of us aren't skilled at delivering bad news, when we do finally speak our piece, we may try to sugar-coat the message, or we deliver a message that's so obscure it misses the point, or we just blurt it out, making a bad situation even worse. It seems no matter how you slice it, you've got a situation that's just ripe to go wrong.

To help you avoid some of the sand traps that are second nature to the firing process, here are some questions to ask yourself, some tips on how to better understand the process, and some thoughts on how to effectively deliver the message of termination.

The first thing you have to ask is, do you really have to fire the person? Is this a real problem or only a serious misperception? Have you identified the real issue at hand? Is it a question of knowledge, skills and abilities? Or is it about attitude? Or motivation? Or personality? Do you have concrete evidence--and not just hearsay--concerning the event(s) in question? If so, can anything be done to reduce the problem and/or to reduce the negative impact of the problem on other people and on productivity?

Second, have you completed the appropriate amount of coaching or counseling to attempt to get and keep the person on track? Have you contacted the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or other professionals for another objective view of the situation? Can the EAP people help you better understand the employee, and/or provide tips on how to relate better to that employee? In other words, have you gathered any information on how to coach the person back to improved performance? Have you checked out the situation with enough people and with sufficient detail to warrant termination?

Finally, have you followed all your own company guidelines for termination? Usually, that means several verbal warnings, followed by written warnings before the actual termination occurs. Continuing with the termination process without following established company guidelines can easily result in a negative finding or outcome should the case go to court.

Once you decide that firing the employee is necessary and the proper steps have been followed, you need to prepare for the termination interview. First, consider where to share the news; it should definitely not be done in a public area. "Public" is defined as anywhere others can see or hear you. It should definitely not be done in the employee's office or cubicle because once you have invaded their turf, there's no place left for the employee to go for solace. The best place to conduct the termination interview is either in your office or in a neutral place, such as a conference room.

When should you have this meeting? Most experts agree that it shouldn't be done first thing in the morning when people are revved up and ready to start their day or at the end of the work day when most people are tired or winding down their day. In addition, this process shouldn't be done on a Monday morning or a Friday afternoon.

Your next move is to conduct the actual termination interview. Often, a boss will decide to have an HR or EAP person join in the interview, usually as a silent partner to witness the process or to occasionally chime in with a third-party perspective. The following steps are very useful:

  • Review the correction process of verbal and written warnings and gain agreement that this process was followed.
  • Ask the employee for their viewpoint on whether or not progress has been sufficient. Then review the progress to date following the warnings. Clearly state your belief as to the degree of acceptable or unacceptable progress to date. Presumably, since this is a termination interview, insufficient progress was made, and you may even get the employee to agree that insufficient progress was made.
  • Refer to past attempts on your part or other people's parts to assist in the improvement of the behavior or attitude in question.
  • Make it clear that the employee is now being terminated. Use clear wording, short sentences and explanations--be succinct without being cold. And be rational, yet understanding of the employee's point of view.
  • Ask the employee if he/she understands the reasons for the termination.
  • Clearly explain the employee's benefits, COBRA (the law that allows terminated employees to pay to continue benefits) issues, vacation or sick leave time, closing or transferring of responsibilities to other employees, and time and date when the terminated employee must leave the building. Have these issues clearly but briefly written out, and give them a copy of the write-up. (Understandably, many employees are surprised and may even be in some form of shock when told they're actually being terminated. Therefore, their comprehension and recollection of the information may not be 100 percent accurate.)
  • State your business's policy for giving references. Typically, employers only verify the start and stop dates of employment. Reasons for separation--quitting or firing--position, salary and so on are rarely provided to perspective new employers.
  • If the employee isn't being asked to leave the building immediately, then schedule an exit interview to determine their views on their job performance and ways in which the organization can function more effectively.

Terminating an employee is never an easy thing to do, but following these guidelines and tips can help you through the process. Good luck!

Dr. David G. Javitch

Dr. David G. Javitch is an organizational psychologist, leadership specialist, and President of Javitch Associates in Newton, Mass. Author of How to Achieve Power in Your Life, Javitch is in demand as a consultant for his skills in assessment, coaching, training and facilitating groups and retreats.

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