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How to Fire an Employee Safely

Updated on August 15, 2011

This is not the right way

There is a Right Way to do it


When it comes to firing employees, there are two extremes of supervisory behavior. One is the fast Draws, who will fire employees at the slightest provocation, almost without thinking. These cost the organization a fortune because of high turnover. At the other extreme are the ostriches, who hide their heads in the sand so they will not see the need to fire anyone. In between these two extremes is everyone else, who are frequently reluctant and downright afraid to fire an employee, even when it is clearly necessary.

The reason for the fear and reluctance is easy to understand. As an experiencedinvestigator of employee complaints and grievances in a number of organizations, I know that the average employee who is fired for whatever reason will file a complaint, grievance or law suit, even when the employee is fully aware that the firing was fully justified, simply because he or she has nothing to lose. I also know that a substantial number of these complaints, grievances and law suits are won by the employee against the boss and the organization. Why? It was not because the employee was fired, but the way he or she was fired that enabled the employee to get reinstated in his or her job with full back pay.

The simple fact is that most supervisors do not know how to safely fire an employee. The fast draws are the worst offenders because they always act too fast. But even many other supervisors who are more reluctant to act do so in ways that make the fired employee easily victorious in any adverse reaction to the firing. Here is a basic primer on the safe way to terminate an employee.

The two areas where the supervisor is relatively safe in firing an employee are (1) where the employee is still in probationary status and (2) where the employee is found guilty of something that the HR regulations mandate immediate firing.

Probation, which lasts from three months to twelve months in most organizations, is really a “try and see” period for the employee to show the supervisor and the organization that he or she is worthy in behavior and performance to be made a permanent employee. Every new employee is made to understand that during the probationary period at any time, either during or at the end of the period, the organization may decide to terminate the employee if it is determined that he or she is not suitable to be retained-and this will happen without any recourse on the part of the employee. This makes the supervisor and the organization immune to any adverse action from the employee during the probationary period.

The second relatively safe area for dismissing an employee is in, what might be called, “mandatory discipline”, in which the HR policies or regulations specify that employees must be dismissed for certain behaviors, such as use of illegal drugs on the job, being violent in the work place, stealing, being convicted of a felony or lying on an application form or resume. Here the supervisor has no choice but to dismiss the employee if found guilty of the specified infractions or behaviors. The key here is convincing proof that the employee is guilty of the offense. These employees can and probably will claim wrongful dismissal and deny the accusation, so the supervisor and the organization must have convincing evidence to justify the dismissal.

But it is in the area of discretionary firing, where the supervisor is not forced to fire the employee because of HR requirements but decides that, because of the employee’s repeated bad behavior or poor job performance, the employee should be fired that presents the supervisor and the organization with the most vulnerability for complaints, grievances and law suits from the affected employee. It is in this area where the key issue is not so much whether the employee should have been fired, but whether the employee was fired properly.

Both federal government and sound principles of managing people provide the following essential steps to be followed in dismissing an employee:

1. After a behavioral or performance problem has been observed, the supervisor should attempt to analyze the cause of the problem and the best solutions to solve the problem. This can be done alone or by talking it over with the employee.

2. Call the employee in and privately bring the problem to the employee’s attention and try to help the employee solve or correct the problem.

3. After a reasonable period of time, the supervisor should assess the employee’s behavior or performance to see if the problem has been corrected. If it has not been corrected, make another attempt to help the employee correct the problem.

4. After a second assessment of the employee, if the supervisor finds that the problem persists, then he initiates the first stage of discipline-the verbal reprimand. Here, the supervisor crosses over into discipline with a warning that if the problem is not corrected by the end of a certain period of time, a stronger discipline will have to be initiated. At this point nothing is sent to the HR department to be placed into the employee’s file, but the supervisor should write up in memo form a description of the problem, detail all of the attempts to help the employee correct the problem and how the persistence of the problem necessitated a verbal warning given to the employee. This memo should be presented to the employee to sign, acknowledging that everything in the memo is factual. If the employee refuses to sign the memo, the supervisor should make a notation on the memo that the employee refused to sign. This memo should be retained in the supervisor’s files.

5. If the problem persists after a reasonable period of time, the supervisor has to follow through with the promised next stage of discipline-the written reprimand or warning. This is more serious for the employee because something negative is placed in the employee’s permanent file. The written document should reference as an attachment the documentation the supervisor wrote up with the verbal reprimand. If no such documentation was written, then it has to be written to form the written reprimand. The employee has to be presented with all documents to sign to acknowledge that everything has been brought to his attention and that he has been clearly warned that if the problem persists after a specific time period, then the employee will be in danger of being fired immediately.

6. If the problem has not been corrected by the end of the specified time period, the supervisor has to initiate dismissal of the employee. This should be done in strict accord with the HR regulations of the organization.

Some supervisors, especially the quick draws, will think that all this is too much unnecessary work. While it may be more work than many supervisors are used to, it is by no means unnecessary if supervisors want to prevent a fired employee being reinstated in the job with full back pay.


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