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How To Fire An Employee The Right Way

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Firing an employee is one of the most challenging aspects of business, regardless of the situation. As an employer, preparing to deliver the bad news can feel overwhelming, especially if you have developed a close relationship with the employee. However, there are plenty of ways to make the difficult conversation go more smoothly, as well as ways to preserve a mutual respect between the employer and employee. This guide on how to fire an employee will cover the basic reasons why to fire an employee, how to prepare for a termination meeting, and ways to tell someone they are being fired.

Firing An Employee – The Basics

While the individual being fired may be at fault for their termination, it is the employer’s responsibility to make sure the termination is handled properly. Firing someone almost always has a ripple effect on the company, so ensuring you know the right way to fire an employee is critical for the health of your organization.

If you are reading this article, it is likely because you and your team are contemplating firing someone. What is holding you back? Is it guilt or uncertainty? If you are unsure a termination is the right decision, consider some of the common reasons employers choose to follow through with firing a team member, below.

Reasons To Fire Someone

If you plan to fire an employee, your reasoning should be fair, ethical, and of course – legal. Common reasons to terminate an employee include:

  1. Layoffs – If your company is making labor cuts or downsizing, you may need to make layoffs. However, there is a right and a wrong way to handle terminating multiple employees. First, you will want to fire all the employees around the same time. Performing one round of layoffs in the summer, another in the fall, and a third in the winter will leave employees extremely uneasy. Rip off the bandaid in one round of layoffs and assure the rest of your employees that there are not plans for additional terminations.
  2. Performance – When an employee does not perform their job properly, you may consider their termination. Poor performance can show up in various ways, like consistently missing deadlines, turning in incomplete work, or failure to learn and execute the roles and responsibilities of the job. It is generally best to allow room for improvement when an employee is not performing their role, but if the performance does not improve, termination should be considered.
  3. Misconduct – One of the most serious reasons to fire an employee is for misconduct, which can take on many forms. Stealing, lying, violating a company policy, workplace harassment, or drug or alcohol abuse at work are all considered means for termination.
  4. Misuse of company property – When a company allows an employee to use their property, whether it is a laptop, vehicle, credit card, or software, the employee is expected to only use it for business purposes, unless specified otherwise. There are usually policies in place to outline appropriate use for company property, such as permission to drive the company vehicle during work hours for business-related errands. Or, if an employee is given a laptop to perform their job, the policy might state that the computer cannot be used for personal activities like social media.
  5. Social media posts – Sadly, nothing on the internet is private anymore. Many employers have their employees sign a contract upon being hired that states they will not post anything that could be damaging or inappropriate to the company on social media. In fact, 17% of employees have fired someone for something they have posted on social media, according to CareerBuilder.

Can You Fire Someone Without a Warning?

Employment and termination laws vary by state, but many jurisdictions practice something called at-will employment. This allows both employees and employers to terminate a contract at any time, for any reason. While that may sound intimidating, it does not necessarily increase the odds of an employee being terminated. Rather, it allows for employers and employees to move on from one another if it is not a good fit. If there is an At-Will clause in a contract, the employer is not required to provide a warning to the employee before terminating their contract, just as the employee is not required to give a notice before quitting.

However, even though it may be legal to fire someone without a warning, it is not a recommended practice by any means, especially if you care about your business’ reputation and company culture. Prior to firing an employee, it is a good idea to first share with them that they are not meeting expectations for their role. Be prepared, be professional, and be clear with your words. Then, the employer and employee can come up with a roadmap to improve performance, which is often called a Progress Improvement Plan (PIP).

Progress Improvement Plan and Employee Termination

A Progress Improvement Plan is a set of steps that should be taken following a conversation with an employee about their poor performance. The purpose of a PIP is to provide thorough, clear communication to the employee so they know exactly where they are falling short and how they can improve. This offers them a chance to work through any issues or roadblocks they may be experiencing before consequences become more severe.

It is best to start with a warning, typically a verbal one followed by a written one. The PIP should then outline the steps to improve performance, as well as weekly, monthly, or quarterly check-ins to touch base on progress.

Another preventative best practice is to have company policies in place regarding behavior and attendance. When an employee is first hired, have them read the handbook that outlines the policies and make them sign it to confirm they have read it, understand it, and intend to follow it. This way, if an employee breaks a written policy, you can refer back to it in the PIP or during termination. Some policies outlined in the handbook may include what happens if an employee racks up too many absences. Another may focus on behavioral problems like not completing work or showing up late.

Keep in mind, if the company is certain an employee will not improve in their role, a PIP is not necessary. This may be the case from time to time if a business hires someone without the proper experience and qualifications and they do not have the bandwidth to help the employee improve. Under-performing employees are often hired when there is a desperate need for help, which causes companies to rush the hiring process and overlook certain red flags. Firing an employee who should have never had the job to begin with is difficult, and the employer should take some responsibility for misplacing them.

Breaking a Contract When Terminating an Employee

Employment contracts can feel like a blessing and a curse. If there is not an at-will clause in a contract, there is typically a section that details the terms of employment, like the time frame the worker must stay in their role, whether it is six months or two years. This section will also discuss when and how a worker can be terminated, which is extremely important for employers to abide by. Many contracts state that if a team member breaks certain policies, they can be terminated prior to the contract’s end date. If a worker does not break the terms laid out in their contract, however, they cannot be let go before they have worked for the amount of time stated in the agreement. Doing so can lead to a wrongful termination lawsuit, which can be more costly and stressful than waiting for the contract to expire.

Prepping for a Termination Meeting

If your team has decided to let go of an employee, you will need to prepare for and schedule a termination meeting. This meeting should take place in a private room where you work. If you work remotely, a closed-off room in a co-working space will do, and if there is no way of meeting in person, a video call should be the last resort. Regardless, the meeting needs to be face-to-face for the best possible outcome.

Send a meeting invite in the same format you would typically do so, whether that is through an email or Google Calendar invite. Keep the meeting title simple, like “John and Mark Meet-Up.” It is a good idea to send the invite close to the time of the meeting so the worker does not get overly anxious about it first.

So, who should be the person to deliver the news? Experts say a direct manager or supervisor – someone who has worked closely with the individual and knows them on a personal level – should be the one to notify them about the termination. Along with the manager, it is recommended to have a human resources representative, another trustworthy employee, or your business’ lawyer in the meeting with you and the employee. This person will act as a buffer, providing support and answering questions. And from a legal standpoint, they will serve as a witness in a lawsuit if the termination escalates after-the-fact. No one expects a former employee to file suit against them, but it can happen, so you need to protect yourself and your company, and having a witness is one of the best ways to do so.

How Do You Tell an Employee They are Terminated?

Once you have notified the employee that you want to have a meeting with them in your office or conference room, they will likely have an idea something is going on.

There is no exact science to what you should say when terminating employees. In some cases, employers will want to encourage the employee by telling them what their strengths are. In others, you may simply explain to them the reason for the termination and end the conversation there. It all comes down to what your working relationship was like. Regardless, just be direct, professional, and honest. Tell them exactly what you want to discuss, whether it is their performance, a broken policy, or a behavior problem. Explain what the team member did, whether it has been over time or a one-time occurrence, and that the team has decided to let them go. When you tell them, give the employee a moment of time to absorb the news.

The bottom line is, you should make sure you are prepared for anything when you go to fire an employee. The employee may take the news well and thank you for all the company has done for them if there is a mutual respect. However, not all employees will take kindly to the news. It is common for an employee to get emotional, whether that is sad, shocked, anxious, or angry. While the employee’s behaviors are their responsibility, it is important for employers to show a level of empathy and compassion toward the terminated employee.

What Happens After An Employee is Fired?

After the termination meeting, you will need to notify other employees about the termination, so they know how this change will impact them. Inevitably, some workers may feel a sense of loss or disappointment over the termination. Some employees will wonder am I next? or how will this impact my workload? Both are fair questions and should be addressed head on before any rumors get started. Be direct with your team about the expectations you have for them on how they handle their team mate leaving. Maybe you encourage them not to speak poorly of the person or spend working hours discussing it. Or maybe it is best for your culture to have an open-ended conversation about it. Whatever the case may be, it is always best to be open and honest about how you’d like it to be handled.

Also note that if you are not planning to fire anyone else, tell your employees. If you need team members to temporarily takeover the responsibilities of the terminated employee, clearly communicate your expectations. Answer questions openly and honestly to prevent unnecessary drama and ease their minds. It can be difficult to navigate work life immediately following a firing, but things will go back to business as usual fairly quickly.

To learn more about employment and labor law, check out our guide to How To Sue For Wrongful Termination.


This article contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. The Law Dictionary is not a law firm, and this page does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

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