How to Fire an Employee

Updated: March 11, 2010

If you see these warning signs, address them quickly - sometimes a little communication and redirection can turn things around for a struggling individual. Seek to understand what has caused the change. Ask (without being intrusive) whether there's a personal issue and offer resources (some companies offer employee assistance programs or other support options). In short, do everything you can to let your team member know the following 3 things:

  1. You have noticed their change in performance and you want to get them back on track because they are a valuable part of the team.
  2. There is a clear path to better performance - use the SMART goal template to create that path so there is no doubt about what he/she needs to do to get things turned around.
  3. You as their manager and the organization as a whole are ready and willing to support them in this process, but getting it done is up to them.

Communicate these guidelines clearly and then schedule a series of follow up meetings where you and the individual will check in to measure progress, discuss challenges, etc. Don't forget to allow this to be a two way conversation. If the team member's performance is dropping because they no longer feel challenged, want a different growth path, or don't see how their current position is meeting their goals, you have an opportunity to work with them and with the organization as a whole to develop that path. This is also a time to engage HR and your manager and let them know that you have an employee who is on a development plan. It's also important to document the process - what goals you put in place, what actions the employee is being asked to take, and what the results of those actions are. From here there are three possible outcomes.

  1. They follow the process and things get better.
  2. They go find another job and quit.
  3. They continue performing poorly.

Option 1 is great, option 2 means you will have to re-hire but is not a terrible outcome, and option 3 requires that you move on to the ultimate step - termination. As a guideline it should take 30-90 days from the time you communicate the goals and changes that are necessary to the time you can make a final decision that your team member has not made the changes you needed them to make. If you are meeting with them weekly, that's 4-12 opportunities where you have reviewed their work, given them clear direction, and outlined their path to success. It should be evident to both of you at that point that things are not as they should be.

The final step in the process is to notify HR and your manager that you are planning to terminate the individual, and to complete any paperwork or processes that are required. At that point you are ready for the toughest conversation a manager can have - telling someone that it's not working out and they need to seek their employment elsewhere. Here are some tips on making the conversation go smoothly and professionally.

  1. Notify HR and IT. At the time you call the employee into your office to deliver the news, the IT department should lock their accounts, cancel their remote access to the company systems and disable any access cards or other security clearance. No matter how amicable the termination turns out to be, it's necessary to take these precautions to prevent concerns about unauthorized access to company data or systems.
  2. Once in your office with the employee, get straight to the point. Don't mince your words - this is a time to be very direct. In the case of very new managers, there is a temptation to try and sugarcoat the situation but this only leads to confusion.
  3. Don't spend a lot of time rehashing the decision. At this point there's no opportunity for the individual to change anything, so don't spend an hour talking about all the things they did wrong to get to this point.
  4. Have a representative from HR available immediately after you deliver the news to go over the nuts and bolts of severance, COBRA, and any other termination related topics. At this point you have done what you need to do, and it's time to learn from the situation and move on.
  5. Communicate the change to your team. I like to call a quick meeting and explain the situation. Make sure everyone knows that this was the end of a process in which every effort was made to find a way for the individual to be successful, but that ultimately it didn't work out. Make sure people are comfortable with the fact that this was not a surprise to the person who was let go, and offer the opportunity for anyone who has concerns to meet with you one on one to address them. If you are unable to get your team together in one place (if some work remotely), send a brief email notification and then schedule a time to call each remote team member individually.
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