The Best Way to Fire an Employee

Last Updated Oct 15, 2011 8:52 AM EDT

Recently I wrote about things you should never say when you fire an employee. Many of you emailed saying, in essence, "Great... but what should I say and do when I fire an employee?

Fair enough.

Here's how to make a bad situation better -- or at least as "better" as it can possibly be -- when you have to fire an employee for cause:
  1. Be sure. Obvious, right? Not always: The heat of the moment can cause you to make a snap decision that is neither correct nor fair. Even if you have a zero-tolerance policy for certain behaviors, take a few minutes to make sure the employee's action truly falls within the parameters of that policy. When you're mad (or really disappointed) it's easy to think, "That's it... he has to go," and unintentionally forget about guidelines and precedents. While you can bring an employee back on after you make a mistake, no one will ever forget what happened -- especially the employee.
  2. Check the trail. Except where zero-tolerance policy violations are concerned, firing an employee should always be the last step of a relatively formal process. Identify sub-par performance, provide additional training or resources, set targets and time lines for performance improvement, follow up when progress is lacking -- and document each step in writing. Documentation not only protects your company, it also helps ensure the employee was given every chance to succeed (which, to me, is more important). If you don't have a paper trail, don't be tempted to go back and re-create one. Start now and follow the process; it's not the employee's fault if you haven't done your job properly.
  3. Line everything up. How will the employee return company property and collect their personal property? What happens to their benefits? When will they receive their final paycheck? The time period between when you say, "You're fired," and when the employee actually leaves the building is incredibly awkward for everyone. Make it easier by knowing every detail in the process so it can go as smoothly as possible. And if you need to bring in other people (HR, for example, to talk about benefits) line them up so they will be available. Never make an employee you just fired sit and wait; that's inconsiderate on multiple levels.
  4. Get a witness. To be honest, I go back and forth on this one. Having someone else in the room eliminates the risk of the employee later claiming you said things you did not. At the same time, a witness makes an awkward situation even more awkward; the employee might feel the second person is in the room simply to provide protection or backup if he gets angry. That's a little insulting... but in the end your job is to protect your company, so bring in a witness. Safe in this case is better than sorry.
  5. Know what you will say. Not sure? Try this: "John, I'm sorry, but we have to let you go." That's it. If you've done your job correctly and followed your process there is no reason to explain why; John already knows why. Why keep it so simple? No matter how many people you have fired, you'll still feel uncomfortable so you'll be tempted to talk -- a lot. Don't. The less you say the more dignity the employee retains. Stick to the point and be professional. And don't feel bad for not mincing words -- at this point the employee has almost no interest in hearing you ramble on anyway.
  6. Don't argue. Reactions vary; most people are quiet, some get mad, and some argue (and then get mad). No matter what, don't let yourself get sucked into an argument. If you're sure of the decision and have documentation to back it up, there is no argument. Just say, "John, I'll be happy to talk about this as long as you wish, but you should understand that nothing we say will change the decision." Arguing or even "discussing" the fairness of your decision almost always makes the employee feel worse and could open you up to legal issues if you speak without thinking. By all means let the employee vent, but stay away from arguments or debates.
  7. Don't offer to help when you can't. If you are firing an employee for cause there are very few ways you can help them get another job. (If you are laying them off due to a lack of work, obviously there are a number of ways you might be able to help.) So don't toss out well-meaning platitudes like, "If there's anything I can do, just let me know..." There really isn't. Wrap things up by saying, "Even though this did not work out, I wish you the best." Shake hands and let them go. Then accept that you'll feel terrible -- no matter how much the employee deserved to be let go. Feeling terrible about playing a role in changing someone's life for the worse is something you will never get used to -- and shouldn't.
By the way: I have experience on both sides of the firing table. Here's the story of how I got fired. Caution: It's not pretty.

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    Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business from managing a 250-employee book manufacturing plant. Everything else he picked up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest CEOs and leaders in business. He has written more than 30 non-fiction books, including four Business and Investing titles that reached #1 on Amazon's bestseller list. Follow him on Twitter at @Jeff_Haden.

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