How to Fire an Employee the Right Way

The process of terminating an employee is just as important as hiring an employee, and it’s a task every HR professional should be prepared for. Because of the delicate nature of terminating an employee, knowing how to fire an employee the correct way (yes, there is a right and wrong way!) is more than simply a good idea – it’s an essential skill.

There are some actions an organization must perform when letting an employee go—things they’re legally required to do. However, there are as many things you should do during an involuntary offboarding in order to protect yourself, protect the organization, and preserve as much goodwill as possible between the separating parties.

That’s what we’re here to provide: suggested guidelines for how to fire someone the right way. The result is that despite the unpleasant circumstances, both the person being terminated and the person doing the terminating can walk away without resentment.

Common Reasons for Firing Someone

There are many different reasons why you may be required to fire an employee. Most commonly, employees are let go due to:

Certain processes must be followed by the employer in these instances. This will ensure that the termination is fair. Knowing how to fire someone legally will also ensure that the dismissal will not be challenged at a tribunal.

Verify Your Actions Are Lawful

It’s essential that any organization terminating an employee is fully aware of what constitutes a legal reason for dismissal at the federal, state, and local levels. Reasons like poor performance, unexplained absences, or being the perpetrator of sexual harassment are all acceptable reasons to fire an employee. However, keep in mind that any reason given is not just acceptable, but also true and verifiable.

Then there are situations in which it is either illegal or highly inadvisable to fire an employee. Those legal guidelines may vary depending on your organization’s location, the industry in which it operates, the role of the employee within your organization, and more.

Equal Opportunity Employment Laws

It should go without saying that you can’t use age, gender, religion, sexual orientation, gender (or gender identity or expression), disability, or any other status protected by federal equal employment opportunity laws as a reason for termination. You can read more about those laws here:

Law Enforced by the U.S Equal Opportunity Employment Commission

But it’s also worth noting that you cannot fire an employee for a reason that would target or adversely impact people who fall into one of those protected classes. For example, firing anyone who cannot work during a time that also coincides with their observed religious holiday. That’s another form of discrimination, and you can read more about it here:

EEOC Prohibited Employment Policies/Practices

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At-Will Employment

Most states in the U.S. follow some version of “at-will” employment laws. In simple terms, this means that it is not technically necessary to provide a cause, or business reason, for terminating an employee. Some people think this means they can fire any employee at any time for no reason at all. However, there are many exceptions to at-will employment and situations that present a significant risk of legal action.

For instance, there are public policy, statutory and breach of contract exceptions for at-will employment. Meanwhile, firing someone under circumstances that appear retaliatory or discriminatory could land you in some serious legal trouble.

In short, it appears there are so many legal “buts” applicable to at-will employment that it is anything but a bulletproof defense. That said, we also aren’t lawyers, and this is a pretty complex issue, so we’d just recommend consulting an expert in employment law for your state before you start letting people go without a real reason to do so.

How to Fire an Employee Correctly

Communicate Clearly

Clear, consistent communication is a good general policy for any organization: it improves alignment, increases engagement, and strengthens culture, among other benefits. It’s also the best thing to have on your side when you’re terminating an employee. If you have been practicing good communication up to the point that you decide to let someone go, chances are good that they are somewhat aware of their situation.
Negative performance reviews, disciplinary write-ups, and other records of bad behavior, workplace conflicts, or poor performance make it easier to answer questions about your rationale. Plus, if you’re laying people off, downsizing, or restructuring, a policy of clear communication means employees likely won’t be taken by surprise. After all, if numbers have been down for a few quarters in a row, something has to give.
Clear communication in the moment is also critical. Using plain language to state your reasons for firing someone may sound cold, but it keeps an already unpleasant situation from dragging out any longer than needed. It also leaves no room for the personal judgments, equivocation, or “beating around the bush” that may leave employees confused or create questions about your motivations for dismissal. That’s something both parties can appreciate.

illustrated interrupter alt

Prepare for the Meeting Ahead of Time

As with your plan for communication, preparing any offboarding processes in advance is a good guideline for multiple reasons. There will almost always be some sort of documentation requiring signatures, so make sure to have it pre-printed and organized. You’ll also need to present any records of disciplinary action or information about unemployment, health insurance policies, etc.

If you need to revoke access to data, facilities, or equipment, make sure you can do that without any delay. That means notifying IT and managers ahead of time that they will need to collect gear and turn off account permissions. And if you need to escort the employee off-campus, be sure to have security on call. Doing all of these things in advance can help with:

End on a High Note

Offering genuine thanks for whatever good they brought to the organization can help employees make an easier transition out.

Finding the bright side of an involuntary dismissal may sound naive or deliberately obtuse, but it’s something you should try if you want to fire an employee the right way. Without coming across as saccharine or dismissive of the real impact this will have on the employee, you can still try to focus on the upside. How? Try to implement these behaviors as a way to soften the blow of termination and maintain a positive mood:

Respecting the employee’s feelings and experiences as real, showing you understand their termination isn’t inconsequential, and offering genuine thanks can help employees make an easier transition out. You’ll also likely come away from the situation feeling better about what you had to do, which is essential for your own well-being.

Why Should You Have a Witness When You Fire an Employee?

Despite taking the utmost care during a notice of termination meeting, things can still go wrong. And even if things don’t go wrong, it’s still possible that a former employee will take legal action against the company. This may be because of how they were treated or the reason(s) they were fired.

This is the main rationale behind having a witness present when you fire an employee. It provides both strength in numbers, as well as someone who can support your side of the story if it comes down to recounting the meeting. Who you pick to act as your witness is up to you, but we’d suggest using HR as a witness if the employee’s manager is willing to conduct the conversation or vice versa.

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If having the manager present could be problematic, another HR team member or a senior executive can act as a witness. Remember, they aren’t there to explain why the employee is being terminated, they’re just there to provide support.

Conclusion

Terminating an employee is never easy, but it doesn’t have to be excruciating for either party. The most important takeaway is to try to put aside your own opinions and anything you may have heard or seen about the reasons for termination. Instead, think about how the employee feels in the moment.

After all, if you give them all the information they need to move on, you will likely not have to interact with them after this meeting. It doesn’t take much to give them the best possible impression of you, your organization, and their prospects going forward.