How to fire a non-performing employee

How to fire a non-performing employee

“I work for a company that lends me out to cowards that don’t have the courage to sack their own employees, and for good reason, because people do crazy stuff when they get fired.”

George Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, described his job with these words in the 2009 movie, “Up In The Air.” If you’ve ever had to fire an employee in your own company, you might have found yourself wanting to outsource the task to your own Ryan Bingham.

By some measures, firing an employee is as stressful as being fired yourself. You might be rightfully concerned that a fired employee will do something crazy, and try to avoid your stress or the employee’s craziness by shifting him or her into a less visible role. At the end of the day, this hurts the employee, all co-workers, and the company itself. You will inherently know when an employee needs to be let go. You just need a strategy to get through the firing process.

Laying the groundwork

Most employment situations throughout the United States are “at will” relationships that can be terminated by either the employee or the employer.  This relationship is tempered by collective bargaining agreements, anti-discrimination laws, and other rules and regulations that ensure fair and equal treatment for all employees. An employer will generally not violate those agreements or laws if it treats all of its employees equally and it has an objective rationale for its firing decision.

Sometimes the rationale is easy. A company can justify firing an employee, for example, who has been caught stealing or who has engaged in an activity that threatens the safety of other employees. Where the rationale is non-performance, the company should first document the employee’s performance problems.

This involves keeping written records of every instance of the employee’s failure to meet objective standards that you establish for that employee. Those standards can include things like completing assignments on time, meeting sales goals, documenting workflow, or showing up for work on time. Written records should also include notes of meetings where you discussed those matters with the employee.

When the employee’s performance fails to improve over a reasonable period of time and after you have given the employee an opportunity to take corrective actions, you need to take the next step.

The termination meeting

Ask the employee to meet with you in a private room away from your office.  Schedule the meeting for a time later in the day to avoid disrupting other employees in the middle of work. Have another supervisor attend the meeting with you. A second set of eyes and ears will avoid any later confusion or conflicts over what you said at this meeting or how the employee reacted to the termination notice. If you anticipate serious problems, have someone from your security department attend the meeting.

Keep the message short, simple, and as unemotional as possible. Begin the meeting by telling the employee that he or she is being fired. Be definitive about this, and leave no room for doubt or for further corrective actions or other alternative outcomes. Follow up with a short explanation of the employee’s non-performance and failure to take corrective actions. Don’t let the meeting go longer than ten minutes.

If your employees receive company-sponsored health insurance, the fired employee will have a right to participate in that coverage for up to 18 months through COBRA, but that continued coverage will be at the employee’s expense. A terminated employee might also have retirement accounts and other severance benefits that will go with him or her after termination.

Your legal or human resource departments should prepare a written explanation of post-employment benefits that you can give to the fired employee at this meeting. That team might also prepare a post-employment agreement that affirms the fired employee’s obligations to maintain the confidentiality of company information and to refrain from publishing negative information about the company. The meeting will not be the optimal time for the employee to process this information or any post-employment agreements. Accordingly, you should also provide a phone number and contact information for someone who can answer questions and explain these benefits and agreements to the employee at a later time. You should also inform the fired employee that he or she has a right to consult with an attorney before signing any agreements.

Allow the fired employee to collect personal items from his or her workspace, ask for security badges and building or office keys, and escort the employee from the premises. Explain that a final paycheck will be mailed to him or her.

The next steps

Immediately after you fire an employee, you should terminate his or her login access to your company’s information systems networks. A handful of high-profile companies have suffered cyber security attacks that were launched by disgruntled former employees who still had access to their networks. Ask your information technology team to scour the employee’s computer for evidence of file tampering or unauthorized logins.

Your remaining employees will likely ask questions about the termination. You should not leak any information about the fired employee within your company to anyone who was not involved in the firing decision. Any suggestions from your company’s management that the employee was fired for incompetence may give rise to a lawsuit for defamation. Your best response to any question is to say only that the employee was terminated following a group decision by the company’s management. You cannot stop rumors or discussions among your remaining employees, but you should also not feed those rumors with potentially harmful information.

A fired employee might seek unemployment insurance benefits, in which event your insurance carrier will likely send you a notice asking if you will object to those benefits. Employees who are terminated for cause are generally not entitled to unemployment benefits. You will need to determine for your own purposes whether to object to paying unemployment benefits to a terminated employee. If you do not object or your objections are rejected, your unemployment insurance premiums will increase.

The final word

After Ryan Bingham fires an employee in “Up In The Air” with little sympathy for his plight, the employee asks “aren’t you supposed to be counseling me?”  Bingham responds that the firing “is a wakeup call, and this is a rebirth.” You might not be able to remain as aloof as Bingham when you fire someone, but you should remind yourself that firing an employee could have positive outcomes for everyone involved.

An employee might not be living up to expectations because of a mismatch with his or her job, and ending that mismatch can be a relief. Your other employees likely had to carry extra responsibilities to handle matters that the fired employee was unable to complete. Your company will benefit from severing ties with an underperforming human resources asset.

Firing an employee is never easy, but if you follow a procedure to get through it, you will quickly put a firing behind you and get on with the business of running your company.


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