The Right Way to Fire Someone

The Right Way to Fire Someone

Joan Lloyd

Firing an employee can be a difficult task for any manager. The loss of an employee, in terms of time, money, training and experience, is a costly, though sometimes necessary, proposition. There are ways to try to keep a situation from reaching such a crisis, and ways - if it’s unavoidable - to make sure it doesn’t become even more costly. When you consider that three million employees are fired for non-economic reasons annually (according to the “Monthly Labor Review”) the net loss seems staggering.

The termination-at-will rule has long been accepted by the free enterprise system, but over the last 10 years, the doctrine has been gradually eroding. Non-union as well as union companies currently face the costs of reinstatement, back pay, and punitive damages if a termination is ruled unfair. In 1983 alone, 10,000 employment-related civil rights cases were filed with US District Courts. Some legal experts are calling in the labor law issue of the ’80s.

Clearly, companies and their managers must take steps to make certain their policies and procedures are equitable for everyone involved. Any company with more than a handful of employees needs to implement a three-step approach:

  1. Adopt anti-discrimination guidelines and appeal procedures.

    Whether the company is union or non-union makes no difference. Employees need to be heard. Managers must listen and respond to employee concerns.



    Occasionally this breaks down and a more formal communication channel is necessary. This can range from a specific step-by-step procedure to an “open-door policy.” Whatever the form, the key question employees will ask is, “Does the company only rule in its own favor?” If it does, employees will sour quickly Also, these procedures are only useful if employees know about them. In short, communicate, communicate, communicate.

  2. Introduce a performance evaluation system.

    Employees need to know where they stand. Specific, objective feedback is not only motivating to a good worker, but fair to an employee having performance problems. How can he take steps to improve if his boss doesn’t tell him there’s a problem? The courts feel the same way. The biggest problem companies face in legal action brought by a discharged employee is the lack of proper documentation.

    It makes sense to keep accurate performance records for promotional considerations as well as for documenting problems and improvements. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

  3. Introduce a progressive disciplinary system to support terminations and to allow for self-correction.

    Self-discipline is the goal. Basically, progressive discipline involves communicating any performance problem immediately and then providing support to help the employee correct it. If the problem continues, a more formal discussion is held to develop specific action steps to correct the problem.

    Subsequent discussions become more formal and eventually a written warning is given, clearly stating the consequences of continued poor performance. Documentation is kept throughout.

    If the employee chooses to continue down this path, he almost fires himself. The actual termination should never be a complete surprise, unless a serious violation occurs, like stealing. If the employee turns the situation around, careful and thorough documentation should be provided. Fair is fair.

    If at some point, the boss feels termination is the only remaining alternative, the personnel department as well as the appropriate executives should be consulted before the final decision is made. Once the decision is cast, severance benefits and options should be determined. Then, all that remains is to tell the employee - the most difficult step of all.

About the Author

Joan Lloyd works with executives and owners who want to improve the people side of their business, and with managers who want their employees to have a sense of ownership and commitment. She is a speaker and speaking coach, trainer & management consultant for companies of all sizes, from start-ups to the Fortune 500, as well as trade & professional associations across the country.