A Boss' Toughest Task: Firing Someone


Being your own boss and calling the shots is the fuel that drives every entrepreneur. And if all goes according to your business plan, you'll be someone else's boss too. That means making tough leadership decisions like having to fire someone. Here are 12 steps to take if cutting an employee loose will improve the bottom line:

Did you express yourself?

Before you fire someone, ask if you were clear about what you wanted. If you can't articulate what is needed to do a job, then you're setting up the employee to fail. "The key is the manager has to give them clear expectations of what success looks like," says Dave Jennings, a leadership coach and author of Catapulted: How Great Leaders Succeed Beyond their Experience (Morgan James Publishing). "I had a VP call me and say he wanted to fire his secretary. I said, 'Tell me, what expectations did you set up for your secretary?' He said, 'She should just know.' "

Did you do all that you could?

Once expectations have been defined, you need to see if your employee has the resources necessary to meet them. Does he have the right equipment? Who does he need to be in touch with? Can he see the results of his performance? If he does a good job, are you punishing him by loading him up with more work? Does he have the right abilities? What will motivate him?

Follow the paper trail

If the path to success has been well lit and the employee continues to backslide or be unmotivated, verbal warnings need to be followed up with written ones that spotlight how she is not meeting expectations. Raise the specter of termination only when you're ready to pull the plug.

All this paperwork not only helps you point to specifics when you hold that conversation, it can also deter the employee from speed-dialing an attorney.

Put it in writing

Make the termination policy part of the hiring package. Spell out what actions would cause immediate dismissal, like stealing or threatening another staff member. For gray areas, like repeated sick outs and chronic lateness, tell how many warnings he'll receive before he's fired. That way, there is no confusion if you're pushed that far.

Break it gently

If you've done your due diligence, then the conversation to terminate should not come as a surprise. Still, be respectful, says Joan Schramm, founder of Momentum Coaching. "Do take a few minutes to let the employee ask any questions or make any statements, but maintain control of the conversation and don't let it get out of hand."

Be firm

Although it's wise to deliver the blow as humanely as possible, don't allow for any waffling on your part. If you must, says HR for Small Business (Sourcebooks Inc.) author Charles Fleischer, have a second person in the room so the employee knows this is for real. It may also prevent any uncomfortable situations from developing. No matter how many second chances and warnings you gave, no one is going to be happy when he's let go.

Experts say typically, people will cry and express outrage. Some may even walk out before you finish. Be prepared: Have a box of tissues handy and keep control.

Speak nothing but the truth

Be honest about why you're letting her go. This is where documentation comes in handy. Fleischer says you can get into hot water when you use euphemisms like "this is not working out" or "this is a not a good fit." If a person is a minority or disabled, this could be grounds for a discrimination suit.

Stick to the facts

Try to be as dry and factual about the employee's performance as you can. "Make no judgment about the person's character or ability," warns Jennings, "or you can get yourself into trouble."

Schedule it later

Fleischer -- who also specializes in employment law for management and is a principle at Oppenheimer, Fleischer & Quiggle -- recommends doing the deed at the end of the day or shift. That way, he says, the employee is not embarrassed in front of his colleagues.

Limit access

After the firing has been done, give the employee time to pack up. However, that doesn't mean leaving her alone with her computer for an hour. She could, out of anger, crash your system or delete important documents. Perhaps during the meeting, have her access and remote control access to any company information and accounts terminated.

It's a trauma

For both you and the employee, that is. So don't be surprised if you're not feeling up to celebrating afterwards. Cut yourself some slack for a few days, recommends Schramm, who also wrote the e-book Loving Your Job, Living Your Life. "Even people who deserve to be fired -- it's stressful. It's not fun for anyone."

Reasons for suing

Terminated employees can sue for a variety of reasons. They believe they are being discriminated against. They believe the firing was retaliation for a complaint. An increasingly popular one, says Fleischer, is the issue of overtime. Even if it has nothing to do with why someone is being let go, he can sue if he believes he should have been paid for overtime and you treated him as an exception. Too often, he says, small businesses get into trouble when they label someone an independent contractor when he is not.

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