Face it: No one likes to fire an employee. You've heard other executives say it's the hardest part of their job. The process itself is complex – but it need not seem daunting.

If you're new to management, consult your employee guidebook, HR department or legal counsel for guidance through company standards. Employment law varies from state to state, especially regarding at-will termination, and you'll want to make sure your process is within its bounds. Following your company's own standards is also necessary. (Note: while this guide is comprised of steps experts say it's safe to follow, it should not be construed as legal advice.)

How to Write a Termination Notice: The Framework for Firing

If your small company doesn't have a precedent for this personnel process, the first step should include setting a threshold for employee behavior that's intolerable. Make sure your standard can apply to every employee – not just one that's been singled out.

"If you're looking to terminate someone, you need to start documenting why you would be doing this. Basically, it has to be that they are not performing to the standard that their peers are upholding," says Mark Clark, an associate professor at American University's Kosgod School of Business.

When it's clear an employee isn't fulfilling their job description, you should begin documenting those failings, and review the shortcomings – and expectations to be filled – with the employee. Sit down with them and express your concerns. If no improvement is exhibited in subsequent weeks, be frank with the employee that they're on thin ice.

Dan Betts, author of the Employee Termination Guidebook, writes that even if you don't tell an employee directly that they're under review, they likely already know they're "on the bubble" and could be fired.

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How to Write a Termination Notice: Etiquette

It's important to be open and fair in this process, experts say, because co-workers and competitors alike are watching.

Clark says: "Everyone, sooner or later, is going to hear about how you've treated your employees," and suggests that if a work relationship is ended caringly, former employees can be great assets to a company.

At a time when a firm hand feels necessary, take a step back and consider a gentle touch.

"For better or for worse, I think many companies take a very legalistic view of termination to protect themselves liability-wise," says Adam M. Kleinbaum, an assistant professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. "They're not often the best at the personal side of it."

And remember: Part of this process is to actually help an employee achieve their job standards. It's best to open up the possibility of not having to write that termination letter at all and shed valuable human capital.

Still, sometimes the worst-case scenario is inevitable and you or your human resources manager has to craft a pink slip.

How to Write a Termination Notice: The Document

Armed with the reasons for termination and the process you set about to both inform the employee of weak spots and help them improve, you can draft the notice.

Begin as with any formal work correspondence, including date, name and header, and follow with the information about their unacceptable performance, including dates or meetings and written or verbal warnings. While this information needs to be tailored to the specific employee and situation, it does not need to delve into specific problem areas. Do mention work quality not being up to standards, at a minimum.

Explain that the company tried in every way to help the employee develop necessary skills to meet desired performance for the position they were hired to perform.

After stating that the continued sub-par performance leaves you with no choice but to terminate their employment, explain what's next, including what property must be returned – and to where – and any other seemingly small details.

Include benefits the employee will receive, or when current benefits expire. The date of their final paycheck should be included, and the amount of severance pay, if any, as well.

After sharing the document with any legal counsel you have, sign it – and include an area for the recipient's signature as well.

One last tip: When it's time to deliver the letter, make sure you have set aside time (or your HR department is prepared) to speak with the employee, and that you have all of the other documentation they'll need regarding benefits prepared for them.