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How to Terminate an Employee and Not Feel Terrible Afterwards

No one wants to terminate an employee. It’s unpleasant for everyone involved! I feel fortunate that in 15 years of hiring and managing people, I’ve only had to fire a few employees. But because it happens so infrequently, it’s a process I never feel like I’ve really mastered. As a result, I end up having to revisit the process each time to make sure I do it correctly.

In this post I’ll outline the key steps and guidelines of how to terminate an employee. These are things that I end up having to relearn each time I go through this. Hopefully that’ll benefit you while also giving me a single source to revisit the next time I need do this!

Before you Terminate the Employee

  1. Collect data: As soon as you hear of or suspect a problem, it’s time to start investigating the issue. This can involve speaking to coworkers (discretely), managers, or customers. Or it can involve speaking to IT in order to monitor or track computer usage. The last thing you want to do is fire an employee just because you have a “hunch”.
  2. Create documentation: Build your case for why this employee needs to be terminated by documenting your findings. Doing this also helps cover you in the unlikely event the issue ends up with legal ramifications.
  3. Make your decision: Can the problem be resolved by talking to the employee? Or is it more serious and termination is required? In cases like theft, termination is an easy choice. In cases where an employee might not quite meet your expectations, that might be a more difficult decision to make.
  4. Use or create a checklist: If you’re moving forward with the termination, it’s helpful to create a checklist you can follow during and after the termination. You can “wing it” on lots of things, but I don’t think termination is one of them.

Meeting with the Employee

  1. Choose who to involve: If there is any risk that the employee might react poorly or seek legal action after the termination, it’s a good idea to involve another person.
  2. Don’t apologize: Because you’re delivering bad news, your instincts might be to apologize. While it’s probably ok to say something like “I’m sorry this is unpleasant” you don’t want to say anything that could later be construed by the employee to sound like the company is at fault instead of the employee.
  3. Be brief: When you terminate an employee, only say what is absolutely necessary. When you’re nervous or uncomfortable you might tend to ramble or say more than you should. Write out a list of bullet points if necessary, but just stick to the facts and say no more. You don’t want to be cold hearted, but this meeting isn’t about making the employee feel good about whatever they’ve done to warrant termination.
  4. Don’t debate: By this point in time the employee shouldn’t have an argument that would change your mind. That won’t stop some from trying. But unless you’ve acted rashly and not done your research, at this point your decision should be firm. Don’t get drawn into arguments if the employee gets heated.
  5. Minimize shame: Some of the things advised by HR experts can lead to a lot of shame for the terminated employee. For example, some experts advise having two people escort the employee to his or her desk with a box to collect their personal belongings. There’s wisdom in making sure an employee doesn’t steal or damage things, for sure, but find a way to make the process as shame-free as possible. One way to do this is to handle the termination very early or very late when other employees will be gone.
  6. Get your stuff: Now is the time to make sure you get all of the company property back. Does the employee have a phone? Laptop? Laptop charger? Consult your asset tracking system to make sure you actually get your property back too. I’ve heard customers talk about employees who attempted to return an old personal cell phone instead of the newer company issued phone! Using an asset tracking system like Built for Teams is a great way to make this process simple for everyone.
  7. Wrap it up: Knowing how to terminate an employee without letting it drag out longer than it needs to is key. Hand over the employee’s final payment unless you’re doing a direct deposit. Again, avoid apologizing as you part ways with the employee. Instead, say something simple and kind like “I wish you the best.”

After You Terminate an Employee

  1. Update your systems: As soon as possible after you terminate an employee, disable access or remove the employee from all systems, including email, HRIS portal, code repositories, etc. If you have an IT person or group they can actually do this during your meeting so that it’s taken care of before the employee leaves. The main goal here is to prevent a disgruntled employee from deleting data, sending damaging correspondence, etc.
  2. Notify people tactfully: Mosts HR experts advise that you shouldn’t disclose any details about the termination to the rest of your team. I mostly agree with this. There are situations, however, where the abrupt termination of an employee can leave their coworkers feeling unsettled or insecure about their own employment. I believe it’s possible, and even advisable, to share just enough about the reasons for termination so that your other employees don’t become anxious. My rule of thumb is to be respectful of the departed employee while letting others generally know the kind of behavior that lead to the termination. The remaining employees should be able to rest easy and feel secure after your explanation.
  3. Learn: Identify anything that can be learned from this failed employment relationship. Did you miss any red flags in the interview process? Could this employee’s issues have been identified somehow before you hired the person? Were there factors during the first days of employment that contributed to the employee getting off track?
  4. Move on: As unpleasant as this experience was, remember that you didn’t create this issue. The employee made poor choices and the consequences followed. Termination can be a wake up call for an employee who needs to improve. I’ve had a terminated employee reach out later to apologize for the behavior that he initially denied. He thanked me for the opportunity he’d had to be self reflective and to make decisions about how he wanted his future to go. Move on and focus on your other employees!

How to Terminate an Employee