Letting an employee go is never a pleasant experience, but with the right approach it can be done with a clear conscience.
No one enjoys the task of firing employees. But far from being a necessary evil, terminating an ineffective worker can be a very good move for your company, especially if you can do it with a clear conscience.
Almost every business owner I know has a hard time firing employees. It's not the idea of eliminating dead weight that bothers them so much as the negative feelings that are associated with telling someone they are about to find themselves out of a job. On top of that, the boss often bears the burden of insulating the company from later litigation, while at the same time wrestling with his own lingering doubts about whether or not he somehow failed his employee.
Although you could look at firing someone as a funeral, it's probably more healthy to view it as a divorce -- a parting of the ways that can be either amiable or downright hostile. You don't have complete control over how the situation will play out, but you can minimize its impact on your company by working toward a separation process that removes the stress and anxiety normally associated with firing a troublesome worker. For starters, ask yourself a few important questions before letting an employee go:
Are you being fair? Before you do anything, you need to make sure you are firing the employee for the right reasons. Is it because the employee has consistently underperformed and is creating problems with other employees, or is it simply because you can't stand the employee's sense of humor? There's a big difference between performance and personality. Firing someone for purely personal reasons will be viewed as unfair not only by the employee, but by the remaining employees as well. A good litmus test is to ask yourself if the employee's performance would still merit separation if it was attached to someone else in the company.
Do you have all the information you need? Generally speaking, most states give employers the ability to fire employees at will. That means that unless you are practicing discrimination, retaliation, or are involved in an illegal activity, you can fire them for any reason. However, discrimination and retaliation cover a wide range of issues, and even a small misstep on your part can potentially open the door for a lawsuit. You'll get a lot more sleep at night if you consult legal counsel about borderline issues and carefully document the entire separation process.
Have you prepared? Without a doubt, the meeting is the most difficult aspect of the separation process. Deciding to fire someone is one thing -- actually looking them in the eye and firing them is something else entirely. In order to make the meeting go as smoothly as possible, you need to be prepared. Prepare a script of how you would like the meeting to progress. Even though you won't read from it, a script provides you with a general outline of the topics and issues that need to be covered. You should also go into the meeting armed with a list of specific reasons why the employee is being fired. It's not enough to tell the employee he is being fired for performance. You need to be prepared to cite specific, documented insistences in which the employee was informed about underperformance and failed to make the necessary changes.
Are you acting decisively? Even if the meeting goes well, a fired employee is not going to have warm fuzzies for you and your company. That's why it's important to be decisive and not allow the employee to stay on for a month, a week, or even a day. Once the employee has been notified about their termination, they need to be escorted out the door at once. It's not unusual for an employer to give a terminated worker several weeks' severance pay, but for the sake of closure it's far healthier for you and the employee if their active service ends immediately.
Is your dignity intact? The process of firing an employee isn't easy, but it can be dignified. If possible, give the employee the opportunity to leave with his dignity intact, even if it means allowing him to resign rather than be involuntarily separated from service. If the employee refuses to behave with dignity, don't take the bait. Instead, take the high ground and maintain your dignity throughout the process. You'll gain the respect of your staff, but more importantly you will be able to respect yourself when it's all said and done.
Last updated: Sep 10, 2007
MICHAEL ALTER is president of SurePayroll, America’s leading online payroll service. He received an MBA from the Harvard Business School and holds a bachelor's degree in economics from Northwestern University. @michaelalter