If you could pick just one issue that stresses you the most, what would it be? If you’re like most small-business owners, it’s firing someone. Letting someone go can be one of the most unpleasant, traumatic decisions you’ll ever make. In fact, The Wall Street Journal has reported it as one of the top three issues that make company presidents stress the most.
Dismissing someone is never easy. In many cases, it can be prevented by asking yourself these questions first:
- Will the employee be a better fit elsewhere in your organization?
- Are they teachable and just haven’t received enough training?
- Do they have a personal problem that will eventually resolve itself and all they need is a bit of grace?
- Is the employee unaware their performance is not meeting expectations?
If you answer yes to any of the above, your team member may be fixable with a new position, some training or mentoring, or a job description that clearly defines what winning looks like in their role.
If the answer is no, read on. But first, watch this video. Executive Director of HR Armando Lopez warns against firing without first following these preliminary steps.
Legal Concerns About Firing
Once you’ve made the decision to release an employee, there are several precautions you need to take beforehand.
How can you protect yourself?
- If you’re in an employment-at-will state, you don’t need a reason to fire someone, but you should always have a valid reason anyway. The cost to release someone, in both dollars and cents plus team morale, is tremendous.
- You have to follow federal, state and local regulations, even in employment-at-will states. You need to document why you’re terminating someone, because if there’s any type of lawsuit, the ball is in your court legally to prove that it was justified.
- Discharging someone should never be an easy decision, and the decision should NEVER be made in anger. A team member should have already gone through the reprimand process and clearly understand why they are being fired. There needs to be lots of clear, even blunt, communication about what is required to change their behaviors.
- If a team member is still in the probationary period and not responding to your requests for behavioral change, let them go before they become a permanent team member.
- If there’s an integrity issue, like stealing or lying, then say goodbye that very day. That’s a fundamental moral breakdown that you’ll never be able to course-correct.
Before the Firing
Besides protecting yourself legally, there are also some tactical steps you need to take to make sure business continues as close to normal as possible.
How Do You Get Prepared?
- Before you actually meet with the person you’re letting go, have a plan in place to cut off their computer access, email, remote log-in, etc. You’re covered then, in case the person is angry enough to want to cause damage. While they’re in their termination meeting, have someone else on your team pull the cords.
- You’ll also need a plan to cover the terminated team member’s work after they leave. Do you have someone on your team who can help until they’re replaced? Is their job something a contractor can handle until you find someone new?
- Pick a day and time to let the person go. It should be as soon as possible once you’ve made your final decision and first thing in the morning. Most HR professionals also recommend avoiding Friday as a firing day, since the employee then has all weekend to stew about what happened. Someone let go during the work week can immediately begin applying for a new job
The Firing Conversation
So the day has arrived. Take a deep breath. It’s never easy to get rid of someone, even a person you don’t particularly like. However, there are ways to make the best of the situation for both you and the employee.
How should you handle the conversation?
- Keep it short. When it comes to the actual act of firing someone, the quicker the better. Don’t drag out the conversation by starting with pleasant chit-chat about yesterday’s game or any other subject that allows you to procrastinate. It sends the wrong signal that nothing is wrong.
- Meet with the person and at least one other leader somewhere in private and tell them immediately they are being fired and why. Be prepared that the employee may be surprised or even shocked, even though there have been multiple warnings or meetings.
- If you’re nervous about what you have to say, write it down. That will help keep you on track. Sometimes, though, especially in high-tension situations, it’s easy to stick your foot firmly in your mouth—no matter how kind you’re trying to be. Some phrases to avoid include:
You’ll be happy about this decision later.
Even though this may be the truest statement you’ve ever said, your employee doesn’t want to hear about that silver lining. They’re fired, they think you’re a jerk, and there’s nothing good about the day. They’re processing what’s happening at the moment, not thinking six months down the road.
It’s as hard on us as it is on you.
No. It’s not. They’re losing their job and their livelihood while being told they don’t measure up. You’ll still get your paychecks this month. At this moment, they truly don’t care how hard this is on you.
If there’s anything I can do, let me know.
You’ve just fired them, so why would you write a letter of reference or recommend this person to anyone else for a job? Platitudes or false hopes are the last thing they need at the moment.
- Stay on course and don’t get caught up responding to arguments with them when you’ve already made the decision. It’s best to have someone else, like a fellow leader, in the room as well. And someone needs to take notes.
- Answer any questions the employee may have and cover anything they may need to know, like severance pay or benefits. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, it’s your legal obligation to notify fired employees of their possible eligibility for unemployment insurance. Each state has its own set of rules as far as who is eligible to receive this benefit, so check with your state department of labor if you have any questions.
- End the meeting by wishing them the best.
After the Firing
Okay. You’ve done it. The person is now officially off your payroll. So no more worries, right? Actually, there are just a few more steps to take before the day is finished.
What should you do after an employee is terminated?
- Once a team member is let go, set up a time they can come back to retrieve their personal belongings when everyone is gone, so they’re not embarrassed. An HR person or other leader can stay with them when they return. If there’s something they need immediately, like car keys, their leader should retrieve it for them.
- The employee being fired won’t be the only one hurting. Your team will take it hard too. In many cases, they’re losing a friend and don’t understand what has happened. Tell them as much as you can without divulging any confidences or embarrassing the former employee. Give the team time to process what’s happened and a lot of grace.
Follow the Golden Rule
No matter how poorly the team member performed, always remember this will be one of the worst days of their life. Losing a job is traumatic, and they deserve to be treated with dignity, compassion and generosity.
The easiest way to accomplish this is by following the Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Put yourself in their shoes, and then act the way you’d want to be treated if you were being fired.
Firing someone is tough. It’s a difficult decision. But if it’s done correctly with a lot of forethought, you’ll earn the admiration and respect of your team.
- Download the Difficult Conversations Checklist
- Listen to podcast #256: Joseph Grenny—Hard Talks Made Easier
- Listen to podcast #117: Les Parrott—How Conflict Can Help You Win