How do you fire an employee?

A recent article by my friend Amy Gahran about The True Cost of Cowardly Management has left me thinking about the proper way to tell an employee that they’re on probation and, ultimately, to fire them.
While I haven’t fired hundreds of people (no, I’m not Donald Trump and no I don’t actually enjoy firing people) I have certainly let employees go and know just how difficult it is, even when there’s no question that the person needs to part ways with the firm.


The foundation of any good employee / employer relationship is communication, in both directions, but so few companies seem to really emphasize that as a cornerstone skill. As an employee, you have just as much responsibility to communicate your accomplishments and failures to your boss as they have to communicate corporate policy and strategic course corrections to you.
As a stepping stone along this path, I will state bluntly that there should never be surprises in an employee review. If the employee is surprised, their management is in error and needs to learn more about how to manage. If the manager is surprised at the employees response or rebuttal to comments, then the employee is deficient in communicating to their boss. Either way, just like any other good relationship, the employee / boss relationship should be characterized by frequent, clear and honest communication.
And yet so many are not that way. I can recall, when I worked at HP Labs, going into a meeting with my boss, hoping for a job redefinition to match what I had been doing, just to be completely shocked when I was actually put on probation for not doing my specified set of tasks. Looking back on it now, it was my manager who was unable to communicate clearly, because I shouldn’t have been surprised. I should have been receiving clear communications all along and the “probation” should have been step 4 or 5, not step 1.
But what Amy describes with her friend is far worse: being terminated wasn’t the seventh, eighth, or tenth step, but the very first step in the process. A clear and embarrassing error on the part of management: unless it’s for an egregious and overt violation of a written employment policy, no employee should ever be fired without warning.
If an employee is caught stealing, harassing other employees sexually, or badmouthing the firm to the press, then I can see the company documenting the situation as part of a termination letter, but even then, a documented paper trail is an important part of good management practice.
And “paper trail” is a good watchword for when you terminate someone, actually. Start with some email or written memos documenting the gap between what you expect of an employee and your perception of their performance. Then a formal letter or two, a probationary period with specific milestones for improvement, then, finally, a termination that shouldn’t be any sort of surprise because there’s been a clear and open communications path all along.
No manager I know enjoys firing someone, but if you do have to let someone go, at least have the professionalism and respect to terminate them in this manner. You should never come into a meeting under questionable, bogus, or false pretenses, and you should never be surprised by a termination.

10 comments on “How do you fire an employee?

  1. Thanks, Dave. You’ve offered some excellent advice here.
    My friend and I are actually trying to figure out whether at-will employment law truly condones or encourages surprise firings. We just can’t believe this practice, as he experienced it, is 100% legal. If any of your readers can offer an informed opinion on that, I’d be grateful.
    – Amy Gahran
    Editor, CONTENTIOUS

  2. Years ago, when faced with a problematic employee, a client steered me to man named Richard. He was an executive at my client and they simply said, “Ask Richard about the four questions to ask yourself before firing an employee.”
    I was intrigued, so we scheduled a breakfast meeting and I asked him about it.
    He said, the questions may be used to determine if there is a better place (department or role) for the employee. I wrote them down on a napkin. That was in 1997. I still have the napkin and I I turned the questions around as a means of self-assessment in my book, The IT Career Builder’s Toolkit….
    Curious? Without Explanation, here are Richard’s questions:
    1) What is your first thought of this employee as you enter the office? Is it the problems they will solve or the challenges they will create?
    2) Do they do their job (or key aspects of it) better than you do their job? A department forms a team – members should contribute something special. They are not meant to necessarily mirror you.
    3) If the employee gave notice today, would your first reaction be worry at how you would replace them or would it be relief?
    4) If you ask the employee to give you their own assessment on how they could do a better job, are all their answers external (if Joe was quicker at X I could finish my work faster. etc.) or do they take personal responsibility?
    They may not be perfect but they do cover a lot of ground. Personal responsibility, working with the team, productivity and effectiveness.

  3. Hi, Dave.
    Since I am the person that Amy Gahran was writing about, I thought I would chime in.
    I agree with any and all who say “this is not new, we don’t live in a perfect world, get over it.” I really do.
    That said, I do believe this is the sort of thing that demonstrates why hiring is obsolete. (I refer you to Paul Graham’s recent article: http://paulgraham.com/hiring.html )
    There are lessons here for me. I believe the first is that, as Paul Graham points out:
    > The market is a lot more discerning than any employer. And it is
    > completely non-discriminatory. On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a
    > dog. And more to the point, nobody knows you’re 22. All users care
    > about is whether your site or software gives them what they want. They
    > don’t care if the person behind it is a high school kid.
    I believe this experience has actually encouraged me to think more this way. Why do I want to bother with finding a full time job? I can, in a fairly short period of time, develop a web-based application, get it out there, have users, and have a larger company interested *then* in hiring me. I have demonstrated my worth, and they can see that themselves. It’s the ultimate job interview; the ultimate resume review.
    Also, I agree with you here:
    > Looking back on it now, it was my manager who was unable to
    > communicate clearly, because I shouldn’t have been surprised. I should
    > have been receiving clear communications all along and the “probation”
    > should have been step 4 or 5, not step 1.
    The fundamental problem I had with this experience was precisely that. I started to think someone there must have thought I was stealing. This was the kind of treatment I would expect if I was a bus-boy stealing tips off the wait staff’s tables, not a senior developer whom the company is investing in.
    It’s all so odd. But it is also quite typical of the “high-tech” industry. Especially when the company believes that what they are doing is “top secret.” I think when that belief is instilled at the highest levels, there is motivation to dump people without warning in the belief that if you give someone warning, you give them a good reason to start stealing your technology behind your back.
    Again, I can understand that. But it is still flawed. Secrecy probably is the “kiss of death” for a web-based company, anyway. Someone else is doing what you are doing. You’re not *that* smart … 🙂

  4. If you feel there are legal implications here, then you shoud contact an attorney who is familiar with labor laws in your state.
    As a general rule of thumb, though, At Will employment means that an employer can fire an employee for any (or no) reason. In other words, at will. The employee can also resign for at will.
    As I understand it, if an employer sets up probationary periods, procedures to be followed before firing someone (ie, a number of warnings, discussions, etc.), then they can be leaving themselves open to be considered a Just Cause employer (and possibly leaving themselves open to law suits for firing people without proven cause.)
    Here’s a more detailed explanation of at-will and just cause employment.
    http://www.businessknowhow.com/manage/justcausevsfreewill.htm

  5. Completely agreed. There should never be surprises for the employee. Jack Welch wrote about this a long time ago. He pretty much said this procedure should be done with respect and courtesy. No surprises.

  6. I am in a at-will state. At will doesn’t mean you can fire someone for any reason, but you CAN fire them for no reason. You can fire someone for no reason, but if you do give a reason, it better be a good one. Also if in the handbook there is a process that leads to terminiation (i.e. verbal, written, then termination), and they don’t use that process, you have a lawsuit. It can be illegal on many different terms, breach of contract being one of them.

  7. I need your opinion! I’m in an at-will state.
    I was put in charge of 3 new hires and 2 other employees. The 3 new hires were hired by the office manager 1 week before she went on maternity leave. I was not there during their interviews and really wasn’t told what was said. I’m now facing their 30 day reviews, that they were told they would receive, mind you I didn’t know this. So I have the 3 new hires asking for reviews along with possible raises. The problem is, that 2 of them are performing where they should be at this point. They have both shown performance growth and willingness to learn more. They are not who I’m concern with doing a 30 day review. Mind you I was not told I was going to be in charge until the office manager told me Monday and then took her leave on Tuesday. I feel I have grounds to let this third person go. In his first two weeks he left early, although saying it was an emergency. I let him know not to make this a habit because our company depends on employees showing up for work and performing their jobs. The next week I was on vacation and he didn’t show for his schedule time and had to be called by the president of the company to come in, his reason was he didn’t know his schedule (which was posted on the employee board before I left) and everyone else showed. That same week he did a no show over the weekend. Which I got to hear about when I walked in first thing Mon. morning by the president. When I asked him about this he said, “Oh no I forgot you should have called I would have come.” I was surprised by this and a little angered so I didn’t say anything in fear of causing an argument. That same week I received two complaints from customers stating they have been over charged by this person, and not just a couple of dollars but hundreds. So on his next scheduled day I sat down with him and went over all his transactions with customers (out of 65 customers I found 45 mistakes some small and big), during this conversation he became argumentative and blaming me on the way I trained him and that other coworkers told him to do things that way and that I left on vacation just 2 weeks after he started. I was shocked by this and firmly said I wasn’t going to argue with him and I excepted to not see these mistakes again period. Since then he hasn’t made those mistakes but his performance is not where it should be (he is nowhere near the other 2) and he called in sick this past Friday, he is scheduled at 7am, I don’t arrive until 8:30am, and there was no coverage and he left a message on the machine, and he has my home phone and cell, and has been told to use them for questions, to call in or for anything. I called him asking him to give me a call. He still hasn’t! My question is can I have him show up for his scheduled time on Monday and fire him or should I call him in earlier to fire him? I only documented and had him sign one incident about the customer complaints and mistakes. I only wrote down conversation in his file but didn’t have him sign them. What I want to do is call him in early and tell him, “You are at your 30 day review and we’ve/I’ve decided after careful thinking that you haven’t reached the performance level I had hoped you would be at and we/I’m going ahead and letting you go! Once I receive your keys back I will give you your final check, after this you are to leave immediately,” and then I will walk him out. I know he will argue like he did last week, and I know I will need to be firm and say this is my final decision and I will not change my mind. Can I do this without having more documentation? I have talked to both the president and office manager about this and they both agree with me, but the president, I think in fear of a law suit, doesn’t like the idea of having him show up for his scheduled time just to be let go. The president also said maybe I should do it over the phone-but that doesn’t sound good because he has keys to get into the building and the potential to destroy a lot. I’ve only worked for this company since Nov’06, and when I was hired there really wasn’t any company policy stated, other than how important it was to show up for your schedule times. Since being put in charge of these persons I’ve come up with my expectations that I expect but I never put it down on paper, didn’t feel I needed too, and the others seem to have no problems with fulfilling these expectation. Please if you wouldn’t mind give me your opinion about this.

  8. David,
    I have worked for one extremely good corporation that would always do what you stated and one very poorly managed corporation that terminated folks simply because the wrong person did not like them. Being in HR at that company caused my heart to cry just about every day.How the system worked was from what ever corner the dislike for the employee came, a superficial head in the sand case would be made to terminate the employee and then it was left to the “HR” group to do what management instructed looking only for evidence that supported the termination and not seeing the other things that were said about the person. The bottom line is, no matter what, if the organization wants an employee out, the employee is taken out. No matter what one says to a terminated employee, the employee is still terminated. No termination is a good situration, but we all need to remember that some situations are simply not right for the company or for the employee.

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