How To Make a Difficult Task a Little Bit Easier


By Christopher Freeburn


There are few tasks less pleasant than firing an employee. There are bound to be hurt feelings and often emotions can run high. As difficult as losing a job is for the soon-to-be-former employee, however, informing him or her of that fact can be profoundly upsetting for the employer as well, particularly in a small business setting. Worse, terminating employment can produce more than simple emotional risks. Wrongful termination lawsuits can be costly for a small business-in terms of both time and money-even if successfully defended.



So how can you minimize the stress and potential legal risks of terminating an employee?


Document your reasons
Though many states still maintain the "at will" doctrine of employment (which states that an employer can fire an employee at any time for almost any reason), many other states place some restrictions on employers regarding job termination. "Realize that even an ‘at will' employment status has an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing," says Dr. Joanne Sujansky, founder and CEO of Key Group, a Pittsburgh-based consulting firm. "Due to this, fire with cause whenever possible and make sure to document poor performance or disciplinary offenses as they occur." Sujansky advises issuing written warnings to the employee that outline the consequences should he or she fail to improve. "If an employee's performance doesn't improve, he or she will be prepared for the consequences and you will be protected when firing the person."


Check your state's labor laws to make sure you are within your legal rights before terminating an employee. Additionally, anti-discrimination statutes common in most states can provide the terminated employee with a possible basis to pursue a legal complaint. Thus it is important for an employer to maintain sufficient documentation to clearly demonstrate that the job termination was for a valid cause and did not involve any form of legally prohibited discrimination.


For this reason, it is important for employers to keep good records on their employees and to have explained, in detail and in writing, to each employee exactly what their job entails. Having some form of employee handbook, spelling out unacceptable workplace behavior, and providing a structure for evaluating employee performance is especially helpful. If an employee has been warned about their performance, maintaining a written record of those warnings is important.


It is equally important that employers demonstrate consistent behavior toward all employees. If you tolerate tardiness from one employee, but fire another for the same, you are risking a lawsuit.


The firing process
The actual act of firing someone is rarely pleasant, but you can take steps to make the process as painless as possible.


Plan ahead. Know what you are going to say before you meet with the employee. Be able to explain your decision clearly and simply. Get to the point right away, and keep the meeting as short as possible. Dragging out the conversation only makes it worse for everyone involved.


Don't do it publicly. Firing an employee in front of his co-workers is unprofessional. Worse, it can lead to lowered office morale and become a factor in any potential litigation. Remember that juries tend to be sympathetic to workers. The firing should be done in private away from other workers.


Don't waste time. Get right to the point. "Don't start the conversation with idle chit chat, such as talking about the weather, the kids, the newest client, etc.," says Sujansky. "Don't offer the employee coffee or water or food. You want him out quickly." The sooner the firing is over, the better for all concerned.


Have a witness on hand. If you company has a human resources manager, then he or she should be present, as well as the employee's immediate supervisor.


Be clear. Explain exactly why the employee is being fired. Concentrate on his or her failure to perform according to expectations. Provide a written statement, spelling out the reasons for the termination.


Pay them. Have a check ready covering any final salary owed to the employee. If a severance package is to be offered, that should also be put in writing. In most states an employer is required to pay any outstanding salary by the next scheduled payday. Money owed by the employee to the firm cannot be deducted from the paycheck. Some states require payment for accrued vacation days. Check the labor laws in your state to make sure you pay the terminated employee everything he or she is owed. "Failure to pay terminated employees in accordance with state laws can result in civil and criminal penalties," Sujansky warns.


Be polite and professional. Losing a job can be an emotional experience. Be sympathetic, but firm.


Collect company property. This includes company IDs, company credit cards, office or company car keys, or any company owned materials that the employee may possess.


Change passwords. If the employee has access to the company computer network or online systems, cancel his or her password immediately to prevent any potential theft of company information or malicious tampering.


Keep if Confidential. Office gossip is a fact of life in any business. However, allowing the details of an employee's termination to become common knowledge in the office is unprofessional. Simply inform your other employees that the terminated worker is no longer employed at your firm and leave it at that.


An ounce of prevention
Of course, the best way to avoid the unpleasantness that accompanies firing an employee is to make sure the people you hire are a good fit for the job in the first place. A rigorous screening procedure during the hiring process, including a background check, detailed interview and clear description of the position, will go a long way toward making sure you attract the best employees for your business.