How to Fire an Employee (The Right Way)
Closely following death and taxes on the shortlist of sure things in life is the guarantee that at some point in their career, every HR professional will have to terminate one or more employees. That makes knowing how to fire an employee more than simply a good idea; it’s an essential skill. But while there are some actions an organization must perform when letting an employee go—things they’re legally required to do—there are at least 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 an employee the right way, so that despite the unpleasant circumstances, both the person being terminated and the person doing the terminating can walk away with their dignity intact.
Verify Your Actions Are Legal Before You Terminate an Employee
First and foremost, it’s essential that any organization planning to terminate 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, but it’s essential 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 terminate an employee, and 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, sex or 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:
But it’s also worth noting that you cannot terminate an employee or group of employees for a reason that would, whether intentionally or not, 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:
Finally, most states in the U.S. follow some version of “at-will” employment laws, which, in simple terms, 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 (such as breach of contract) and situations that present a significant risk of legal action (such as firing someone under circumstances that appear retaliatory or discriminatory).
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.
Communicate Clearly When Letting an Employee Go
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 letting an employee go. If you have been practicing good communication up to the point that you decide to terminate someone, 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. And on the flip side, 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 clearly and concisely state the reason you are terminating an employee 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.
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 along with 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; notify 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:
- Keeping the termination experience as brief as possible
- Reducing the opportunity for retaliation on the part of the employee
- Minimizing the chances for emotions to take over the transaction
- Eliminating ambiguity and unanswered questions
- Maintaining a professional appearance
- Showing you respect the employee’s time and service
End on a High Note
Finding the bright side of an involuntary dismissal may sound naive or deliberately obtuse, but it’s actually something you should try to do 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, or at least maintain a neutral mood. How? Try to implement these behaviors as a way to soften the blow of termination and maintain a positive mood:
- Combining the notice of termination with a genuine thank-you for the employee’s time with your company
- Avoiding unnecessary repetition of disciplinary incidents or negative issues
- Listening, asking questions, and not interrupting or dismissing the employee’s side of the story
- Focusing on next steps and highlighting any assistance or advice the company can offer for job hunting
- Offering a reminder that this isn’t the employee’s fault (in the case of layoffs) or that this may present an opportunity to find a better job more suited to their talents and personality (in the case of performance- or culture-related issues)
- Avoiding making assumptions about the employee’s feelings, their personal life, or any experiences they had while working for the company
Respecting the employee’s feelings and experiences as real, showing you understand their termination isn’t inconsequential, and offering genuine thanks for whatever good they brought to the organization 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 wellbeing.
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 for 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 what happened during your 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. 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.
Firing an employee is never easy, but it doesn’t have to be excruciating for either party. We hope this post has shown you that there are ways to make it easier on HR as well as the employee who is being dismissed by the organization. The most important takeaway we can offer for firing an employee properly is to try to put aside your own opinions and anything you may have heard or seen about the reasons for termination, and 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.
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