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A reader writes:
I am a partner in a small business. I need to terminate one of our admins for performance problems. Do you think I should give her "notice" before I fire her?
I am a bit concerned because we've let her slide without formally saying anything--no verbal or written warnings for things that I would have terminated her on the spot for, but we were in the middle of an unusually busy and stressful season that we are still trying to recover from.
I want to know if I should tell her that she will be losing her job this week due to poor performance (there's a laundry list of things!). Also, my partner wants to give her two weeks severance as well. But I'm concerned about saying, "We are firing you because you've been an awful employee who has taken advantage of your situation, but we're going to pay you, too."
Well, you're not legally required to warn her in advance that she's in danger of losing her job--unless you have an employee manual that spells out specific steps that must be taken before someone is fired, in which case you need to follow your policies.
However, it's still generally a good idea to warn someone before actually firing them, for the following reasons:
1. The employee may actually make the improvements you need, if you spell them out for her. People often don't realize what they're doing wrong, and they frequently have no idea that the problems are severe enough to jeopardize their job, unless you tell them explicitly. People can and do improve when you set out clear expectations -- not always, of course, but you can't always predict who will and who won't.
2. It's simply the kinder thing to do. You're talking about a decision that will impact someone's livelihood; she deserves to have a chance to fix the issues first. If your boss was unhappy with your performance, wouldn't you want to know and have a chance to improve before you were fired?
3. It eliminates a lot of drama. If you have clearly told the employee about the problems you're seeing and what needs to change, and have explicitly told her that her job is in jeopardy if specific changes don't occur, then when the termination conversation happens, it's more a matter of following through on that agreement than a conversation that might blindside her. I've seen numerous situations in which a manager gives lots of negative feedback to a struggling employee but never explicitly says that the person's job is in jeopardy, thinking the person will just "get it"--but the employee ends up stunned when he or she is ultimately fired. That's not good for either of you; in those situations, employees are more likely to be bitter and badmouth you to others.
4. One of your main audiences for firings is the rest of your staff. If you don't warn people when their job is in jeopardy, it can create significant anxiety among other employees, who may begin to fear they're on the verge of being fired every time they receive negative feedback. You want your staff to know that they won't be fired without first knowing that their job is in jeopardy and having a chance to improve.
Now, obviously there are some offenses so egregious that they warrant firing on the spot, like, say, embezzlement or punching someone, but those situations are pretty rare. Most of the time, you can afford to give the person a warning.
(That said, after a warning conversation, you should expect to either see improvement quickly or know pretty quickly that it's not going to work out. Don't let it drag on for weeks and weeks at that point. The employee doesn't need to become great overnight, but you'll want to see a fast and steep climb in that direction.)
As for severance, offering a reasonable amount of pay isn't rewarding her for being a bad employee. It's simply recognizing that this is a tough thing for anyone to have happen and trying to help ease the transition. And again, your other employees are your audience here; they'll watch how you handle this and draw conclusions about how you'd act if they ever struggle in their own jobs.
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