Imagine you've recruited an employee who, for all intents and purposes, seemed competent enough.

At least, that's what you thought when you hired him.

But over the last few months, you've noticed that he is just not performing up to the standard you were expecting. Maybe he's missing deadlines, turning in incomplete reports, or just isn't "getting it," despite multiple attempts to help him succeed.

You need to do something. You don't have time to babysit, and constant errors are affecting your team's credibility. You see nothing else to do but let him go.

But terminating an employee on a whim can be a risky move for your business. You need a practical and fair process help reduce your liability. Moreover, it's best to give employees plenty of time to improve, and give them the tools needed to get there. After all, recruiting, hiring, onboarding and training a new employee can be very costly.

But when all else fails, termination may be necessary. To conduct performance-based terminations the right way, it's best to follow a progressive discipline process, which generally includes a series of increasingly severe penalties for repeated offenses. Here are a few tips to protect your business.

  1. Write down everything

Documentation is key. If you don't write something down, it can be argued that it didn't happen. Even informal conversations written in a notebook can be helpful and considered documentation. While it may seem time-consuming to write down exchanges, times, dates, and other details, doing so can be important should you have to defend your decision.

  1. Be clear about expectations

For every job, you should have a job description. Even if you don't have anything formalized, you should have documentation that relays a solid overview of the functions and responsibilities of each role on your team. You should also know what it takes for employees to be successful in each role, and it's essential that your employees know this, too.

Don't assume that people understand what you need. People come with their own perspectives that don't always match their boss's. Each role should be clearly defined. This makes it easier to pinpoint and correct problems.

Additionally, your progressive discipline policy should be established and transparent, outlining how corrective action and termination should take place should you need to go there. This helps ensure every issue is handled consistently and fairly.

  1. Be a good coach

Both new and existing employees should be coached. This is informal feedback and consists of what's right as well as what's wrong. Think of a football coach. He gives praise for a good pass or a solid tackle, but also points out the missed catches and holes in the defense.

Your employees need this feedback to understand how they are doing well before you get to the point of considering disciplinary action or termination.

  1. Initiate a performance improvement plan (PIP)

So, let's say you've provided ongoing coaching, but you're seeing some major concerns with performance that the coaching hasn't affected. This would be a good time to develop a performance improvement plan (PIP).

The PIP should explain specifically what the problem areas are and establish detailed goals for corrective action. In some cases, one-on-one counseling might better help the employee, while other cases might need a written plan.

This method can be helpful in addressing issues like attendance, communication and other behavioral issues. For example, if someone is routinely missing work, you might have a conversation about exactly when the employee is expected to arrive at and leave work, as well as the fact that you expect to see immediate improvement. Explain that continued punctuality issues could result in termination.

If you have more skills-based issues, a PIP might be more appropriate. For example, you might explain:

Sally Brown has been submitting reports with numerous grammatical, spelling and technical errors. Within the next 30 days, Sally needs to complete Business Writing 101, as well as use grammar and spell checking tools prior to submitting reports. Technical data should be reviewed by the Engineering group. We will meet again on next Tuesday to review progress.

In any case, the timeline given to improve should be reasonable. Some deficiencies are quicker to fix than others. Keep this in mind.

Document the conversation and plan. Have your employees sign an acknowledgement form to confirm that they understand. If you do a verbal counseling, send a follow-up email to your employees.

Hold regular follow-up meetings. Make sure you capture the details of these conversations in writing and have employees sign documentation confirming that they attended the meeting. Give them specific feedback on how they're doing. If results are mixed, share with them what they're doing right as well as what they're doing wrong.

Now--this part is important--if you don't see improvement, employees are still making similar errors, address them immediately. Don't wait until your next follow-up meeting. And keep notes on what you've addressed and when.

  1. Conduct a written counseling

If things are getting really egregious, you may need to move to a written counseling. A written counseling is somewhat similar to the PIP. It should outline areas that employees need to correct. Again, in writing, detail specifically what needs to improve and how this should be accomplished.

The counseling form should also express that improvement needs to be immediate, marked (noticeable) and sustained.

Employees should sign this form after you've discussed it with them. This doesn't mean they have to agree with what you've documented. Their signature simply indicates that they have received the counseling.

  1. When all else fails, terminate employment

Despite all of your efforts, you still may not see the type or quality of improvement needed, and the only option left is to sever the relationship. However, by now, you should have clearly documented what you did to help the under-performing employee improve.

Performance-based terminations should never come as a surprise to your employees. Prior to terminating your employee, be sure to review all associated documentation. Also, contact your legal counsel or HR representative to ensure your case is supported, justified and sound. Confirm that you're following all state-specific wage and hour regulations. And if you use employment contracts or non-compete/non-solicitation agreements, you should ask your legal counsel to provide you with validity and enforcement guidance.

In releasing employees, honesty is the best policy. While your goal is not to make anyone feel bad, you should also not disguise a performance-based termination as a "layoff" or request the person to resign. For example, you can say, "John, as you know, we've talked a few times about your attendance, and we haven't seen this improve as we would have liked. That said, we have made the decision to terminate your employment effective immediately."

So, when is the best day or time to have this kind of conversation?

Honestly, there really is no "good" time. It's never an easy conversation. However, there are some times that are less desirable than others. For example, Friday afternoons are typically not ideal because the released employees have the weekend to dwell on their new reality. Opinions on when to terminate can vary widely, but ultimately, earlier in the week is preferable, as well as earlier in the day.


The only thing worse for you than a bad employee is bad documentation. Make sure you're not making other common HR errors. Download our free e-book, 7 Most Frequent HR Mistakes and How to Avoid Them.