It is never easy to tell an employee that you no longer want them to work for your firm. Behind every commercial decision, there’s a living, breathing human being, with bills to pay. Moreover, every employee has rights, meaning that you could be putting yourself at risk of liability if you get the termination process wrong.
In this post, we explain how to fire someone, what you should say, and give some examples of best (and worst) practices. By the end of the article, you’ll be in a much better position to proceed if you determine you have to fire somebody.
Many employers worry about letting employees go, and rightfully so. Terminating a contract puts the employee’s livelihood at risk, is interpersonally awkward, and can lead to legal backlash.
However, the reality is that firing people can sometimes be the only solution. Companies that hang onto poorly performing employees risk losing morale among staff who pull their weight.
Worse still, failing to carry out a poor performance termination early on can cause contagion. If one staff member can’t do their job properly, either out of lack of skill or motivation, disengagement might soon spread throughout the company.
Here’s the good news, though: Some employees who get fired report that the worst part of the process isn’t the firing itself, but the way it is done. This means that, if you get it right, you can minimize the pain. Of course, before firing someone, take every step to help them improve their performance, and have patience for the measures to take root. If that still doesn’t pan out, don’t drop the message like a bomb; instead, give them clear and timely notice, so they can prepare for their departure accordingly.
In this section, we look at how to fire someone nicely. Here’s what to do:
To legally fire someone, you need clearly defined grounds. Otherwise, the affected employee can rightfully accuse you of wrongful termination.
For this reason, run your rationale for ending their contract past a jury of trusted colleagues. Make sure that the case against the employee rests solely on their poor performance (or financial failings at the company) and can’t be construed as a personal grudge or discrimination. Get your jury to highlight anything the worker could use against you, and make sure you are basing your decision on purely professional reasons.
Before making anything official, approach your HR department to talk about your plans. Get them to check the employee handbook and confirm that your grounds for termination fall within established company policy.
From here, your HR team can start making preparations. For instance, they may warn the IT department that they will soon need to block the employee’s network access. They should also calculate any severance pay or final compensation owed to the employee and supply you with the documentation you might need to make the dismissal official.
If you have a legal team, approach them at this stage and ask for their advice. They may alert you to potential stumbling blocks in firing certain employees.
Before you alert the employee in question that their time at your firm is up, create a viable transition plan. Do your research on the type of person who would best fill their role when they are gone. Try finding a suitable internal candidate within the company. If that fails, drop hints to clients and customers that you’re expecting a role change in the future.
Also, be savvy about the time and day of the week you choose to let someone go. Don’t wait until Friday afternoon and ruin your soon-to-be former employee’s weekend, on top of terminating their contract. Instead, firing them on Monday early in the day gives the person the rest of the week off to rest, recuperate, and regroup.
Employees usually already know termination is on the cards, particularly if they broke company policy or have already had a series of conduct warnings. While you shouldn’t explicitly state the purpose of the meeting in a message, make sure they know what to expect, so you don’t leave them stewing.
To fire someone with dignity, take them to a private place in your office and do it face-to-face. Don’t terminate them in front of other employees – only a trusted witness from your HR department, if necessary. Never fire people over the phone, or through text.
During the termination meeting, always start with the bad news. Tell the employee that you’ve decided that it is best to let them go. Include the complete context for the termination in your statement, so the employee can have a clear picture of what has happened to them.
Here is a script to fire someone for poor performance that you can use during the meeting:
“Hello, Joe. Unfortunately, I have some bad news for you. Based on your performance, we have decided to terminate your contract, effective immediately. This means that you are no longer an employee of this company.”
Notice how the opening line of this statement warns the employee about what’s coming next: It is then followed by the bad news that the employee has lost their job. There is no ambiguity: The company rep is ending employment immediately.
When firing someone, avoid saying things like “I know how you feel,” or “This might hurt right now, but in the future, you’ll look back and say it was the best thing that ever happened to you.” You can (and should) express your regrets about the situation, but saying that you know how it feels while causing those feelings will seem tone-deaf at best. You also don’t know what consequences your decision will have on their life.
Also, don’t say things like “I might be willing to change my mind if you improve,” unless you mean that. Otherwise, these statements indicate that there are grounds for negotiation when there aren’t. Unless that’s a genuine option, don’t allow an employee to take a pay reduction for continued employment at the firm, either.
Also, never discuss personality traits or characteristics of the employee when firing them. Outside of hostile or discriminatory conduct towards other employees, these things can hardly be part of the reason for the firing.
Once you terminate the employee, you’ll then want to allude to the reasons, highlighting the many warnings you provided along the way - and make sure the warnings were really there.
Show them evidence of their poor performance and follow-ups that you made at each step. If necessary, bring copies of various worker monitoring metrics, emails, and feedback reports from clients.
Since you should have provided the employee with coaching sessions, bring evidence of these to the termination meeting. If HR put the person on a 30, 60, or 90-day performance plan, use this to demonstrate that, as a company, you did everything you could to prevent the person from being fired.
Once you’ve delivered your message, you’ll then want to simply go through the essentials about what happens next. Discuss things like:
At this juncture, the goal is to give the employee a roadmap for out of employment. Mention all practical details that concern them and let them know that you will be taking care of those.
Termination meetings themselves shouldn’t last long - half an hour is the maximum.
To fire an employee in the correct way, state all the necessary information according to your company handbook, and thoroughly explain the reasons behind your decision. Once you deliver the information, and allow the employee time to react, wrap up the meeting quickly, focusing on the worker’s dignity at all times.
The legal implications of firing someone badly can be quite severe, so always be professional. After delivering the bad news, allow employees to connect with their friends and family for emotional support.
Ideally, you’ll schedule an exit interview for the employee you’ve fired after a short while (e.g., a few weeks or a month after their termination). This will give them a chance to work through their experience and give you the feedback necessary to prevent similar situations in the future.
Also, at the time of firing, you’ll want to give the employee a letter containing all the critical details of their termination before they leave the office. This outlines the legal reasons for the employee being let go.
Termination letters should include:
Here is a termination letter example:
“Dear [Full Name],
This letter is to inform you that your employment with the company is terminated, effective immediately [date].
You are being fired for failing to meet company performance standards (or repeated misconduct).
Please return your badges, keys, and equipment to the reception desk by [date].
You will be paid for the hours worked this month and will receive your final pay packet on [date]. Your health insurance will also be terminated from [date].
I am sorry about this decision to terminate your employment.
Point out that your employee may be able to continue on their healthcare plan for a short time after they leave, thanks to the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1986. Your HR department should be able to provide them with any necessary paperwork.
The last step is to simply thank the person for their services. Offer your best wishes for their future.
Unfortunately, even the best way to fire someone will likely cause pain to the employee being fired. However, by following the right protocols, you can reduce risks dramatically and make the process easier for everyone.
Learning how to fire someone isn’t technically challenging, but it can be emotionally difficult, which is only natural. Always keep in mind that behind poor performance scores sits a person, and make sure the already difficult situation doesn’t further impinge on their dignity.
When you need to fire someone, get straight to the point. Indicate that you have bad news and then deliver the message that you are firing them immediately. Then provide reasons, such as poor performance, breaking company policy, or criminal behavior.
To officially fire someone, you need to ensure you have grounds to do so, preferably listed in the company handbook. Termination for misconduct, poor performance, or downsizing due to financial issues are usually the only legitimate reasons for firing someone.
Do not say things like “I know how you feel,” or “Think of this as an opportunity!” You don’t usually know how an employee feels and shouldn’t pretend you are on equal footing in that situation. Just get to the point, explain your reasons, allow them to state their opinions and feelings on the matter, and wrap the meeting up.
Generally speaking, you should always fire an employee face-to-face in the presence of a witness (often a neutral observer from HR). While some companies fire over a phone call, this is rare and considered disrespectful; firing someone over text is even more so.
Julia A. is a writer at SmallBizGenius.net. With experience in both finance and marketing industries, she enjoys staying up to date with the current economic affairs and writing opinion pieces on the state of small businesses in America. As an avid reader, she spends most of her time poring over history books, fantasy novels, and old classics. Tech, finance, and marketing are her passions, and she’s a frequent contributor at various small business blogs.
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