Firing an employee

When we need to fire an employee

Posted in Hiring & Firing Staff, Employee issues
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There are times when we have exhausted all other options, and the remaining option is to fire an employee. Of course, getting to this point should rarely be sudden or impulsive. First off, we need a robust process for working on problematic issues. Only after significant attempts and plenty of time has passed is it time to consider firing your employee as an option. Let’s look at how to create a sound process. 

How we got here

Let’s consider several possible reasons why we are thinking about firing someone.

First, we may have failed to do an adequate job of interviewing a candidate. In my experience before nearly every termination, we had warning signs, usually in the first interviews. But we chose to minimize or ignore the issues we saw. We failed to take the issues we were seeing seriously enough. 

For more on doing excellent job interviews read here.

Second, there are times when we saw potential concerns, but we failed to provide inadequate supervision. This failure was not intentional but usually occurred because we were distracted by other, seemingly more pressing problems.

Third, are those situations where we did not fail at all. Instead, we just ended up having an employee who turned out not to fit well.

I have explored more about these situations here: Addition by subtraction: Types of difficult employees.

Whichever the reasons, firing an employee may be the only acceptable remedy that is fair to all parties. In these situations, failure to take action leads to dysfunction and sometimes even ill health for the employee and your business. As hard as it may be, part of one’s role as an owner or manager is to correct any hiring errors. 

Overview of the process

The best approach is direct, timely, honest, and requires calm confidence on your part. 

The goal of all discussions is to call attention to the problematic issues with the hope that they can be addressed and corrected. We want openness and a hopeful tone to infuse everything. We should be cheering for the employee to improve and succeed. The best option and the one we hope for is change.

Consult your contract and your attorney

Before saying anything to your employee, you should refresh your memory on what your employment contract says about termination. The contract often provides guidance on acceptable grounds for dismissal, timeframes, and other useful details. 

Secondly, you should have a short conversation with your attorney, especially if this is your first time firing someone. Explain your concerns about the employee and some of the context. Your attorney is your supervisor in such cases. Typically, they are glad to help you at each step of the way.

How to structure a Corrective Action Plan

Before that first meeting with your employee about your concerns, write out a list of the problematic behaviors. Clarity is vital. Stick to behavioral descriptions with as much detail as possible. Have your examples in mind and be ready to describe the concerns in behavioral language.

Furthermore, as much as possible, you want to be careful not to name any sources for your information. We are not wanting the process to get bogged down in who knows what and how the employee’s behavior came to light.

In addition to clarity about the concerns, I need clarity about what behavioral change I am seeking. I cannot reasonably expect my employee to figure out precisely what I am looking for if I can not spell it out. Furthermore, we need an understanding of what behavioral markers will indicate success.

Have a timetable in mind as to when you will reconvene to update each other on the progress. You can adjust this in the meeting if needed. 

I find it helpful for me to write out, word for word, what I want to say. Even though I never follow the script exactly, having found the words once makes it easier for me to see them in the anxious moment. 

I want to have all this worked out in my head before the first meeting.

Here is another interesting article on Corrective Action Plans: 3 examples of Corrective Action Plans

The first meeting

Our goal in the first meeting is to clarify the issues and expectations while laying out a time frame to accomplish the desired changes. At this point, we are trying to avoid firing the employee.

Sometimes I come into the first meeting with something written out for the employee to consider. Sometimes I do not. It depends on the complaint and the relationship I have with the employee. Whether I hand it to the employee or not, I have written it out for myself. I keep lots of notes on my phone, so I usually have them there if I need them. (A phone seems less obtrusive to me than a pad of paper. Whatever your style is, do that.)

Once I have expressed the issue, it is not unusual for my employee to give me more details about what occurred from his/her perspective. And sometimes they want to find out who “told on them.” No doubt, they are seeking to find out who they can trust. I do not blame them for wanting that information, but I do not give it. If they figure it out, so be it.

Be the good listener

I think it is essential to listen and be empathetic. And yet, my focus is on what the employee in front of me did. So I want to stay on point and circle back to the employee’s behavior. 

Once we have explored the concerning incidents, then we can move on to the corrective actions that I am suggesting. There may be some back and forth here as we work out what seems like a reasonable response. Sometimes we work on the exact language together. The goal is clarity and agreement on what needs to be changed.

Before that first meeting is over, we agree on our next meeting time. Typically, I do not want to delay the meeting for months. Because the conversations are difficult, some will try to delay what they experience as an adverse experience. The longest I would agree to is one month. While they may hope the issue will go away, I am not going to allow that to occur.

Follow-up meetings

The follow-up meetings are about reviewing the documents we created and then updating any progress. The most important aspect of these meetings is absolute honesty. We cannot let the stress of these meetings undermine our focus on the goals. 

Additionally, we have a secondary goal. If the hoped-for changes are not occurring, I want these meetings to help the employee begin to understand the shortcoming as I see them. We do not want the employee to be able to complain that the firing came “out of the blue.” If performance continues to lag, we want them to know that issues remain. 

The final meeting: Firing or not

At this point, it is time for a decision. We are either firing the employee or not. Both the manager and the employee should be fully aware of the issues and that we are getting to the end. There certainly should have been more than one discussion about any disappointing results. 

Either the behavior has changed, or it has not. Change means a release from the Corrective Action Plan and a return to the usual supervision pattern.

If the change has been inadequate, then we are facing a parting of ways. In preparation for this meeting, you will need to invite a witness and have prepared a termination document. Your attorney will help you with this document and will help you match it up with your employment contract. 

If we have done the process well, the termination will not be much of a surprise.

Typically, the employee will express either sadness or anger. Occasionally no matter what the process has been, the employee will threaten to sue. 

When a threat occurs, I see it as a last attempt to take control of the situation. Even if the employee refuses to sign the termination document, not much will come of it. Of course, your employee could sue. And yet most attorneys will not take this sort of case. If you did the process correctly and followed your attorney’s advice, you are as safe as one can be.  

On the other extreme, we have had termination meetings where the meeting ended with apologies and hugs all around. It was surreal and yet affirmed that we did the process well. But of course, whether there are hugs or not, it is always sad when firing an employee. 

How do we know if we did it right

In those cases where a parting of ways ends up being necessary, we evaluate the success of our process in this way.

We always did a debriefing with my leadership team. We wanted to look at any lessons we could learn about our contribution from the way we conducted our job interviews, and to how we trained and supervised the employee. Our goal was to improve our performance as best we could.

But in the end, we had to give grace to all the parties involved. We are all humans and prone to mistakes and errors.

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