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Firing An Employee For Cause

Updated on March 11, 2011

Firing Someone Is Never Easy. Do It Right

So you have an employee who just isn’t working out. Breaking up, it turns out, really is hard to do.

Maybe this employee's performance is sub-par, or maybe she is alienating other workers and creating a toxic work environment. Whatever the reason, and it had better be a good one, you need to fire this person for cause, but you are nervous that doing so will lead to a lawsuit and bring even more damage to the company than this one unwanted employee brings each day. Plus, firing someone is emotionally difficult on the person doing the firing, so it’s easy and natural to want to postpone or avoid the firing altogether.

Letting it go, however, is seldom a good idea.

Hard as it may be, and firing someone is always hard, it is important that you do it. It is equally important that you do it right. Make a mistake in how you fire someone, and you are opening yourself to that lawsuit, and also making an already difficult task much harder. Also consider that by firing someone who is underperforming, you are avoiding future problems and future conflicts in the office.

If breaking up is hard, it also sometimes the right thing to do.

Bear in mind, however, that firing someone always has a negative impact on the morale of every other employee in the office. It needn’t be stressed enough that firing someone should always be a last resort.

Firing for Cause in 5 Steps

If you need to fire an employee, have a plan. Then stick to that plan to make sure you do it right.

Here are five essential tips to follow when you fire an employee for cause:

  1. Paper trail: Build a documented record of your problems with the troublesome employee. You don’t just wake up one morning and decide to fire someone; it is a decision that you have come to reluctantly over time, and for good reason. So as the problem mounts, and you compile reason after reason why you must terminate an employee, build a record of that decision. Send the employee a warning letter telling her why she is at risk of being fired (sub-standard performance, inappropriate behavior in the office, misuse of company resources) and suggest steps she can take to improve that performance, as well as a deadline by which you expect her to have cleaned up her act. Keep any emails in which you notify the employee of why their behavior or performance is not acceptable. Be sure also to keep any email responses from the employee. Be sure to communicate any complaints to the employee in writing. If he or she replies verbally to these notes, make a note of that response with the time and date when it was made. Send copies of all these written missives to the employee, to the human relations department and to your manager, if you have one.
  2. Follow Protocol. Every company should have a clear procedure spelled out in an employee handbook of how to fire someone. (And also of what offenses can get someone fired.) Should you find yourself in the unfortunate position of having to let go of an employee, follow the company procedure to the letter. There can be no ambiguity about what you do or how you do it; firing someone is no time to improvise. Following a tight script or protocol will also make the task emotionally easier to do.
  3. Get backup (witnesses): Ideally, you should have two witnesses in the room with you when you fire an employee. This will prevent any chance of a legal he said-she said battle since neutral people will have been present and who can attest that you followed company protocol and that you presented documented reasons for the firing. It is a good idea that one of these witnesses be a friend or close colleague of the person you are firing.
  4. Do the right thing, pay severance: If your company has a severance policy, follow it and pay up. Often severance consists of two weeks pay, as well as one additional week’s pay for each year worked. Being able to offer severance could somewhat soften the blow of the firing for both the employee and for you. Ideally, you will have the check with you at the firing and give it to the person on the spot.
  5. Be kind: Show compassion, as appropriate, when firing someone. You can suggest that the position was not a good fit for the person, but do not suggest that the company is in any way at fault. I have heard many employers say that they have had to fire workers, but that those employees went on to thrive in their next jobs. Share this sort of anecdote with the employee, and even be encouraging that you believe they can and will find a position to which they are better-suited. Beware of getting touchy-feely, though. For example, giving hugs is a bad idea.


Ways To Make It Easier on Yourself If You Have To Fire Someone

If you have to fire someone, do it fast. Firing someone, even when you are firing for cause, will involve a conversation that is uncomfortable for all parties, so do not draw it out. Also do not listen to excuses or explanations from the emplyee; it is done.

Be specific. Say exactly why you are firing the person, and present the paper trail.There's no arguing with fact.

Do not discuss why you fired someone with other employees. It is allowed to let those employees know that “Jim” has been fired, but you cannot give a single clue as to why “Jim” was fired. All human resources issues are private, and to share any details of them will open you to a lawsuit against the company.

If your company pays severance, have the check and all other monies owed to the employee ready at the firing.


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