Know when and how to fire someone

Avoid litigation and troubled staffs by following these firing best practices.

One of the toughest management tasks is firing someone. It's rough on the nerves, and it's often a tough call. All too many times, managers stall, not wanting to cope with their own feelings. They delay, no doubt hoping the problem will disappear without any intervention. If they wait too long, though, good people—the employees that managers want to stay—start leaving because they can't take it anymore.

On the other hand, people have sued (and won) for wrongful dismissal when they feel they haven't been given enough warning that their performance wasn't acceptable. Other employees, especially those who know only a few details, might feel you acted impulsively. So, moving too quickly to remove someone can cause other problems.

When to fire someone is always a judgment call. Before you do anything, take the time to think through the situation. Have clear in your mind what the problem is—and what would be happening if the problem disappeared. Are there external constraints, such as insufficient training or resources, affecting the person's performance? Can you remove the constraints?

Talk it out
The problem employee could be in the wrong job. I once had an employee who had a bad attitude and couldn't get the simplest tasks done correctly in a reasonable period of time. After talking with her, I figured out she was bored by the menial work we had her doing. I told her that I thought she had a lot of potential and promoted her into a job where she had real responsibility. She thrived and is now a vice president.

A frank and open discussion with problem employees is always a good first step toward correcting a problem. Do it as soon as you notice the problem behavior. Don't wait for them to figure it out on their own—that may not happen. If you delay, they may take that as a signal that their behavior is acceptable. Believe it or not, some people do not understand the requirements of the job, or they may be working off the wrong set of priorities. Telling them what you expect and what their responsibilities are may be enough to do the trick. They could realize that they don't want the job and start looking for another one—or, they may snap into line.

Don't rush things
Don't make a final decision until you've talked to other managers, especially your boss and the appropriate person in HR. To preserve your sanity and also to protect the company from possible legal action, always discuss your decision with your immediate supervisor or the human resource department manager. If you can't explain your decision to an objective third party, then maybe it's the wrong decision.

Delay firing someone until you feel calm and clearheaded about the decision. Never do it when you're angry. If you feel that you've done your best to help the person succeed, but you feel troubled about the decision, it's best to wait. Talk with your manager, talk with HR, but figure out why you're not comfortable with the decision.

Although some companies have rules regarding suspension (i.e., "We don't do that here"), suspending a problem employee can be a useful coping strategy. If you want more time to decide what to do, or if you're not sure the problem is the employee's performance, then sending the person home for a week or two (with or without pay) will give you some time to make better decisions.

Of course, if you feel the person is a danger to people in the company or might destroy corporate assets, then you must move quickly. Delaying the decision to remove someone when you suspect that person could do harm is never a good idea.

It's also a good idea to move quickly to remove someone if his or her behavior or performance is affecting other people. If one of your support people is rude, missing in action, or clueless, lots of people are going to notice. Good employees become resentful, and poor employees start letting their performance slide.

Staff people aren't the only ones who notice poor performance if a problem employee interacts with other departments. The last thing you want is for your boss to mention that one of his peers was asking questions or making comments about someone on your staff. The sting from that can take months to go away, and your boss may never forget.

When the employee is in a highly visible role, you must take highly visible action to correct the problem—or at least send a signal far and wide that you are aware of the problem. If the employee is habitually late, you might position yourself outside the employee's office when he or she should be arriving. Scowling, arms folded, eyes fixed on your watch—you're going to send a powerful signal.

Whether you feel you want to go slowly or must move quickly, remove people before they have hit bottom. You've talked to them, you've outlined what level of performance you need to see and by when, but their performance gets worse instead of better. You may want to talk with them again, but maybe it's simply time to let them go.

Deciding when to fire someone should be a tough decision, but you can make the decision easier on yourself. Work with the employee to improve his or her performance, but don't delay if someone or something might be in danger. Always talk with the appropriate people about the situation, and don't fire someone unless, and until, you've exhausted your other options.

Editor's Picks