One of the most difficult situations that a manager has to deal with is the termination of an employee. Because this is a situation most of us would rather avoid, there is a lot less written about how to fire an employee than there is on how to recruit and retain employees.

However, in my experience, the ability to terminate an employee at the appropriate time is actually more critical to your long-term success than your ability to hire the right employees.

Consult your attorney
Human resources law is complicated and varies from country to country and state to state. This article is not intended to provide legal advice relating to employee termination. You should ensure that you are familiar with the labor laws within your jurisdiction and seek the advice of qualified legal counsel when appropriate.

Reasons for termination
There are a variety of reasons why a manager may need to fire an employee. For example, the company may reorganize, and certain positions may be eliminated. Or maybe the employee has breached company policy or broken the law. Each termination situation may call for a different strategy.

In addition, the labor laws within your state may affect the situation. Certain states are employment-at-will states. Under employment-at-will, an employee can be terminated at any time, without an explanation. But according to Jonathan A. Segal, an attorney and expert in labor law, it’s best to inform the employee why he or she is being fired because failure to do so could make it seem as if you don’t have a legitimate reason. Segal describes this advice in the article “Executions Corporate Style” in HR Magazine. He recommends that you avoid detailed or specific reasons when explaining a termination to the employee.

“When notifying employees, express the reasons for the termination in broad terms, such as noting that the employee displayed a pattern of inappropriate behavior. Doing so will work to your advantage in case of litigation because you have not limited the facts available for your defense,” Segal said. “In particular, do not suggest that the precipitating event leading to the dismissal was the sole reason for the employee’s termination.”

Document everything
You should always fully document the entire termination process, no matter what the circumstances, to provide protection if you face a legal challenge. As soon as you are aware that a termination may occur, make certain to record the events leading up to termination. Include the dates and times of events (if available), as well as the names of witnesses or people who have reported any misconduct. Don’t assume that the human resources department is taking care of this documentation. If you are an IT manager who supervises employees, it is your responsibility to document problems with your staff.

Appropriate documentation includes the following:

  • Performance reviews
  • Disciplinary reports
  • Minutes from managerial discussions
  • An e-mail that describes a reprimand that was sent to the employee

If the termination is due to poor performance, you should document, in writing, the steps the company took to make the employee aware of their performance issue. You should also document that the employee was given sufficient opportunity to correct the performance shortfall.

The documentation process will help you give careful consideration before you decide to terminate the employee. You should not fire anyone “in the heat of the moment.” For example, you shouldn’t make your decision during an argument with the employee.

You should take time to document the case even in situations when you are tempted to expedite the process. Barbara Ford, TechRepublic’s vice president of human resources, recommends that you always take the time to complete a thorough investigation and document your findings—even in situations when you are tempted to fire someone on the spot.

“Even a situation that, at first glance, seems like a clear-cut case for dismissal, may in fact call for action other than termination,” Ford said.

Remember that any written documentation is subject to a subpoena in the event of legal action. Any witnesses to discussions relating to the employee may be subpoenaed, as well. Do not discuss the reasons for termination of an employee with inappropriate people or coworkers. You should strictly limit your discussions of the situation to people who require the information—such as the human resources department and the employee’s department head.

The corporate grapevine is a very effective communications tool. Unfortunately, this communications chain can result in the spread of inappropriate and incorrect information about a terminated employee. This is especially dangerous if the communications begin before an employee is terminated.

I remember a situation where a manager was involved in discussions about terminating an employee, and the manager communicated some of those details to a few “trusted” employees. Of course, word got out, and the employee to be terminated actually knew beforehand. Needless to say, this made the circumstances quite uncomfortable and could have resulted in difficult legal complications had the employee chosen to pursue the matter.

The meeting
Once you’ve decided to terminate an employee, you may find it very difficult to actually complete the process. Some managers may hint to the employee that they should perhaps “consider looking for other opportunities” or ask the employee whether they are “happy in their current position.” Don’t take this indirect approach.

While this may seem more humane, in my experience, it is always best to sit down with the employee and communicate what is happening. If I have done my job properly, the employee already knows if there is a performance issue that has led to the termination. Termination due to performance problems should never be a surprise to the employee. But if the situation is due to circumstances outside of the employee’s control, such as a downsizing, then termination may come as a shock.

Your organization may have rules about how a termination takes place. Many companies require a representative from human resources to attend the meeting. How do you actually tell an employee that he or she has been fired? Here’s an example of a tactful way that I have used to deliver the bad news:

“After careful consideration, we have determined that it would be best if you and the company parted ways. We have decided to terminate your employment today.”

I don’t pretend to be an HR expert. In fact, Ford said she doesn’t like the way I phrased the termination announcement. She prefers to give people a broad reason as Segal recommended. Ford gave this example of how a manager might explain a termination to an employee:

“We have spoken on a number of occasions about your performance and what you needed to do to raise your performance to an acceptable standard. Because your performance has not improved, we are terminating your employment effective today.”

Or, Ford said certain circumstances might make the following statement more appropriate:

“We’ve spoken to you before about your inappropriate behavior on the job. Clear standards of acceptable and nonacceptable behavior have been discussed with you. Because your behavior has not improved or changed, we are terminating your employment effective today.”

What’s the best way to say this difficult phrase?

Most experts agree that you shouldn’t use the word, “fired.” Do you like the statement I recommended, or do you think the advice from TechRepublic’s Barbara Ford is preferable? Do you have a better way to state this difficult phrase? Post a comment to this article if you have a suggestion.

Seven tips from a national expert
Daniel J. Meloni, a trainer for SkillPath Seminars, lectures and writes about labor and human resources issues. Meloni recommends these guidelines to managers when they must terminate an employee:

  1. Schedule a short meeting—no longer than 15 minutes.
  2. Plan what you’ll say in the meeting.
  3. Communicate the conditions of termination with the employee.
  4. Do not say, “I’m sorry.” Remember that anything you say may be used against the company in future legal proceedings. If you have grounds to terminate someone, there’s no reason to apologize. A manager who apologizes makes it seem as if the termination is not appropriate.
  5. Discuss any assistance or benefits that will be provided by the company.
  6. Escort the employee off the premises.
  7. Document the meeting.

Meloni’s last recommendation concerning post-meeting documentation is something that managers often overlook. You should record the results of the termination meeting and include any questions that the employee asked and the answers that were given. This documentation is as important as the documentation leading up to the termination. In addition, if there is any conflict afterward, make your HR and legal teams aware of it so that they are prepared for any future litigation.

Remember that in the case of downsizing, you may want to leave the door open should circumstances warrant rehiring the employee.

While there are legal reasons why you should conduct a termination properly, I believe I have an even greater obligation—on a personal level—to conduct this process professionally. I try to make the situation more comfortable for the employee, and I make every effort to build up the employee. You would like to reduce the chances that the employee will leave your company and spread negative information about you or the company. And most importantly, you should be satisfied that you’ve done everything to treat an employee with respect and fairness.