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How to Fire Someone

There's a right way and a wrong way to terminate an employee. The Evil HR Lady explains which is which.

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Sooner or later all business owners have to fire someone. It may be because you catch someone stealing from petty cash, but it's more likely that you'll have an employee who just isn't performing well in his job, or the company overall isn't performing well and someone needs to be let go.

Whether it's for cause or a layoff, terminations are going to happen and you need to do it right. I'm not talking about documenting the reasons behind the firing or choosing whom to lay off -- I'm talking about how to fire someone.

There are right ways and wrong ways to go about this, and often people choose the wrong way because it seems easier and managers are generally wimps. Sure, it's hard to tell someone that they no longer have a source of income, but when it has to be done, it has to be done.

Wrong Way: Management/HR aren't in agreement.

Lisa Makowski's company fired her while she was on FMLA leave for childbirth. The executive committee was reorganizing and determined that Ms. Makowski's job should be held by someone else. This is a perfectly legal reason to terminate someone, even if that person is on FMLA. An HR director, however, felt that the reorganization was a ruse and pulled Ms. Makowski aside after the termination and told her the real reason for her termination was the pregnancy and that she should sue.

Even though this HR person wasn't involved in the actual decision making, the courts ruled the case could go forward.

Right Way: Everybody is on the same page.

Note that I did not say everyone has to be happy about this. The direct supervisor usually wants to protect her own people and will claim that her department can't afford to lose any headcount, but that someone else has the deadweight. No matter. The message must be decided on before the deed is done and everyone involved in the termination needs to speak the same message, whether they love the idea or not.

If there is any chance that the employee could appeal the termination by going to HR, a higher-level manager, or owner, you must clear that up before notification. Under no circumstances do you want a situation where you tell an employee that today is his last day and he runs to the CEO and gets reinstated.

Wrong Way: Get someone other than the manager to break the bad news.

In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, the county terminated employees by sending plainclothes police officers to the unlucky employees' doors. The theory, according to the HR manager, was that they didn't want people to find out by coming into work and not being able to get in the door because their badges didn't work anymore.

Can you say "wimptastic?" You do not deactivate a badge until after the employee has been informed. You do not send police officers or even George Clooney (although some people might prefer to hear it from George Clooney, you still can't do it). You may also not do it via email.

Right Way: The direct supervisor delivers the bad news.

The direct supervisor fires the employee. If that person is not available then the supervisor's boss does the firing. Never, under any circumstances other than nuclear war (and then, is firing really necessary?) is the firing done by Human Resources, an outside consultant, a peer, or a manager from a different department. It should be done only by the direct chain of command.

Just as hiring is a part of a manager's job, firing is also part of that job. If you don't have the guts either it's the wrong decision or you shouldn't be in management. (That's not to imply that firing someone is easy. It's probably the most difficult thing a manager will ever do. At least it should be.)

Wrong Way: Just wing it.

Firing someone is hard, so people don't like to think about it. As a result, they walk into the meeting unprepared and blurt out something they didn't mean to say. It's not a good idea to apologize, make up a false reason, or blame anyone else. You must prepare your statement and think about how the employee might respond before you ever open your mouth.

People who aren't prepared have a bad habit of not getting the "you don't have a job anymore" part out of their mouths and the employee ends up confused and then later embarrassed to find out she was fired and didn't realize it.

Right Way: Have a written script.

I'm not telling you to read off a piece of paper, but I am telling you to write out what you are going to say on a piece of paper and practice it. You want to be clear about three critical things:

  1. The employee's job is now over. This is a final decision and there is no appeal.
  2. What the reason for the termination is. This is the official reason, not just a "Well, we kinda thought you stunk."
  3. What the next steps are. Is there severance? How much? What papers need to be signed? Can the person clean out her desk now, or should she come back tomorrow?

Here are some sample scripts:

Bob, as you know, the company is making some changes. As a result of these changes your position has been eliminated and today is your last day of work. The company is offering you four weeks of severance, as explained in this document. Please take this home and read over it and consult with your lawyer as it is a binding legal document. We appreciate your hard work and wish you well in your future endeavors.

Or

Bob, you were caught stealing money from the petty cash box. As a result of this, we are firing you. Today is your last day and Steve will help you gather your personal items and escort you out of the building. Here is your final paycheck.

Or

Bob, you've been on a Performance Improvement Plan for the past 90 days. As part of that plan you agreed to accomplish A, B, and C. As stated in that plan, if those were not achieved, you would be terminated. As the 90 days is now over and you have not achieved B and C, your employment is terminated. Today is your last day.

Notice how all of these statements do not contain apologies and don't beat around the bush? There are no long explanations of why stealing is wrong or detailed financial statements that prove the only thing the company can do is terminate Bob. Because it doesn't matter. What matters is that Bob is being terminated and he needs to know that.

Wrong Way: No witness, just the manager and employee.

A termination is a very emotional situation. You need a witness and helper to make sure you stay on track, and to testify that you did, in fact, stick to the script and didn't start screaming and throwing things.

Right Way: Witness is on hand for the entire meeting.

There is some flexibility on whom the witness should be, but there are two kinds of people it cannot be: a peer to the soon-to-be-terminated employee or a direct report of said employee. It can be someone from HR, another manager, or another person higher up the chain of command. The important thing is that this person is there and informed beforehand.

Firing people is hard work. It's painful and unpleasant, but when it has to be done, you might as well do it in a way that lowers your risk.

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