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OWNER'S MANUAL

The Best Way to Fire an Employee

These tips won't make it any easier on the employee (or you) but they will make the process go as smoothly as it can.

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Recently I wrote about things you should never say when you fire an employee. A few people emailed to say, 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:

Be certain.

Seems 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... she 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.

Don’t be Hansel or Gretel.

Except where zero-tolerance policy violations are concerned, firing an employee should always be the last step in a relatively formal and structured 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 business, it also helps ensure the employee was given every chance to succeed. You—and the employee—deserve more than a trail of bread crumbs.

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. Remember, it's not the employee's fault if you haven't done your job.

Get every duck in every row ahead of time.

How will the employee return company property and collect personal items? What happens to his benefits? When will he receive his last paycheck?

If you don't know the answers, you need to. The time between when you say, "You're fired," and when the employee actually leaves the building is awkward for everyone. Make things easier by knowing every detail in the process so it goes as smoothly as possible.

And if you need to bring in other people, like an HR staffer to talk about benefits, line them up so they will be available immediately. Never make an employee you just fired sit and wait.

Get a witness.

While not absolutely essential, 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.

Know what you will say.

Unsure? Try this: "Mary, 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 won’t be a reason to explain why. Mary already knows why.

Why keep it so simple? No matter how many people you have fired before, 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 spout platitudes anyway.

Never argue.

Most people who get fired are fairly quiet. Some get mad. Some argue and then get mad.

No matter what the reaction, don't let yourself get sucked into an argument. If you're certain about your decision and have the documentation to back it up, there is no argument. Just say, "Mary, 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 about or discussing the fairness of your decision almost always makes the employee feel worse and it 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.

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 almost never is. And in those rare circumstances where you can help, be specific about what you can do or may be willing to do.

Otherwise, just wrap things up by saying, "Even though this did not work out, I wish you the best." Shake hands and let the person leave.

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.

Nor should you.

Last updated: Mar 19, 2012

JEFF HADEN learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.
@jeff_haden




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