When I was in college and thinking about my future career path, it never even dawned on me once that someday I would have to fire someone. I suppose a large part of that was because I was so focused on landing my first job that I wasn’t picturing myself getting to a managerial position. I find it very rewarding being in a position to screen, interview, and hire employees. But totally dreadful on the flip side having to decide if and when to fire someone. I’ve had to make many tough choices in this regard and want to share with you some tips from my own experience. And even if you’re not a manager, it’s helpful to understand some of the steps that should take place.
Identify And Assess The Damages
If you’re trying to decide if and when to fire someone, give yourself a pat on the back for taking an analytical approach to the situation and making an objective decision. It’s not easy being in your shoes, but you’re smart to get prepared and to really think this through. Some managers on the other hand suffer incessantly because they are too afraid or intimidated by the notion of having to terminate an employee, while other managers pull the trigger way too fast.
The first main step to figuring out if you should consider firing someone is identifying and assessing the damages they have caused your clients, department, other employees, product/service, reputation, and future prospects. If there is a financial impact, try to estimate the dollar amount to help gauge the severity of your situation. Also think about the emotional ripple effects on your clients, partners, and other employees because of the damages incurred. You need to repair the loss of trust, fix the issues, and tighten your operational controls.
List Out All The Risks
Remember that everyone makes mistakes, but they shouldn’t become repetitive. If you have an employee that isn’t learning from their previous mistakes this is a major cause of concern. Sometimes you can have all the right controls in place and people will still manage to screw things up. You have every right to be worried and can’t let repeat mistakes slide. List out all the risks to your business from your troublesome employee’s actions.
Sometimes you may be faced with an worker who isn’t making a lot of actual mistakes, but is a major personality clash or a black cloud of negativity on the rest of your group. While that may not necessarily be a means for firing just by itself, it can definitely lead to enough friction that can cause damage to the workflow, communication, and productivity of your business. Those are legitimate risks that you need to take into consideration and address.
Document The Incidents
Did you know that in the state of California, you can fire someone at any time with or without cause? The fine print is that the employment is at-will (no specified duration), and the termination can’t be based on discrimination, union activity, or refusing to perform illegal activity. Even though you can fire someone in states like CA without cause, it’s pretty foolish and cruel to do so without valid reasons. And should always keep records of those reasons in your company files (with HR) just in case you ever need them later, and you can keep them confidential.
Make sure you understand your state’s employment termination laws even if you aren’t planning on firing someone. And keep track of all the errors that have occurred as a result of your employee’s actions. Save email dialogs, a list of oversights, customer feedback, meeting notes, dates and times of incidents, and a log of when you’ve discussed each of the issues directly with the employee.
Prepare A Performance Correction Plan
Although it’s not pleasant to have to write someone up, you just have to do it if you’re considering firing someone. The employee needs to understand that their performance is below expectations. Sometimes just putting these things in writing will snap them back into shape. I’ve had that happen to me several times – I had an underperforming employee, I wrote him up, we sat down and went over the form, and the issues didn’t come up again. Phew!
Always try this approach first instead of firing someone on the spot in the heat of the moment. People deserve a second chance, and sometimes it takes three or four before they get straightened out. And remember that a lot of times their perspectives may be so out of whack they don’t even realize that they’re messing up and causing you grief unless you lay it out in front of them.
Part of your paperwork should contain a performance correction plan. It’s your responsibility as a manager to provide the necessary training, resources, and support for your employees to correct their mistakes. Discuss this plan with your troubled employee one and one and allow them to explain their side of the story. A lot of times people screw up out of ignorance or incompetence that can be fixed with some extra hand holding. You don’t want to have to fire someone unless you really need to.
Reassess The Damage
Part of the plan that you discuss with your problem employee should include follow up meetings. If any issues recur, meet with them immediately and address the causes. Document these new incidents as well and reassess the damage. Emphasize you’re serious and talk about the ramifications of their behavior and actions.
My general guideline is three strikes and you’re out if large issues continue to occur despite coaching and preventative measures. Sometimes people just don’t have the right experience, skills, or attitude to make it worth your time to keep them. It sucks, but that’s just life. The best you can do is make sure they’re aware of what they’re doing wrong, document it, come up with a plan, and give them the chance to improve. If they physically can’t/refuse/don’t want to improve, you did your best and you can’t blame yourself.
Move Into Phase 2
If your employee isn’t taking your feedback very well and is continuing to mess up, move into phase 2. Start looking for a replacement, make sure HR is up to speed on everything that’s going on, and give your employee their final warning.
One time I had one worker once who was notorious for coming in to work late. I told her multiple times that she needed to get in on time but she kept coming in late. She was not respecting me, her clients, her coworkers, or the business by repeatedly being tardy. Finally I told her if she was late one more time she would be terminated. And guess what? She was never late again!
It’s ridiculous, but some people are just extremely stubborn and need to realize their paycheck is about to go up in smoke in order for them to change. It’s really annoying to have to deal stubborn employees, but they are more common that you may think.
Get Out The Chopping Block
If you’ve given an employee their final warning and things still aren’t looking good, it’s time to get out the chopping block. Their performance issues are taking up way too much of your time at this point and the impacts and risks to the business are too significant for them to continue.
Meet with HR and be prepared to move quickly. Once the decision has been made to terminate an employee, you need to get them off the premises as quickly as possible. Your HR manager can take care of getting their final paycheck and any exit paperwork. And always try to have HR present in the final meeting with the employee.
Avoid going into detail in the actual meeting itself. It will only make things more awkward than they need to be, and the employee should already know what they have been doing wrong at this point anyway.
I will mention that if an employee ever does something severe, skip the steps above and take immediate action to terminate them if necessary. You do not want to risk the safety of other employees or put your business in serious jeopardy. Make sure to collect any ID badges, keys, company property, or files they may have in their possession before they leave the premises.
Nobody wants to have to fire someone, but sometimes it’s a necessary part of being in business. And even though escorting someone out is just plain awful, remember that it’s temporary and that you already gave them many second chances. You’ll thank yourself when it’s over later!
Recommendation: Firing someone is a very delicate situation. I recommend buying, “How To Engineer Your Layoff” by Sam Dogen as a way to understand how the employee approaches the situation of trying to get laid off. Sam was a manager at a major Wall St. firm for years and had to go through multiple rounds of layoff decisions. There are many counter tactics that can be used by the employer, manager, or HR person to come to an amicable agreement between two parties. The book is especially helpful for laying off difficult employees.
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