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Terminating Employees

Q. I need to terminate one of my employees and I am dreading it. I have been putting it off for more than a month. Can you give me some guidance on what to say and how to handle what I know is going to be a bad situation?

A. Terminating an employee is one of the most difficult things to do in business. When it becomes necessary, we suggest you follow a few best practices that are applicable regardless of the reason for the termination.

  • Minimize the employee's embarrassment. Hold the termination meeting at a time and location that will reduce the likelihood of contact with his/her coworkers. Hold the meeting at the end of the day and allow the employee to pack up his or her personal items after others have gone home. Make sure you, or someone you trust, stays with the terminated employee at this point.

  • Don't spend time debating your decision with the employee. If the employee wants more information or wants to argue that he/she shouldn't be terminated, politely tell the employee that the decision has been made and that it is not changeable. You aren’t going to convince the employee that the termination is justified. Don’t waste time trying. Turn the conversation to next steps.

  • Don't apologize for your decision. It doesn’t help for you to say, "I’m sorry that I have to let you go." It may make you feel a bit better, but it’s confusing to the employee especially in a for-cause termination.

  • Have another manager, owner or HR professional present for the meeting. It can help to diffuse a bad situation and gives you a witness who can attest to what was said and done at the meeting.

  • Make sure you know the employment laws that governs your state, industry and the size of your organization. State laws vary and how many employees you have effects what laws apply to your business. Check with an employment law attorney or a competent HR professional to ensure you are compliant.

There are typically three reasons a business decides to terminate an employee: 1) business conditions warrant staff changes, 2) the employee has exhibited frequent poor performance in one or more of his/her duties, and/or 3) the employee has broken one or more significant work rules. Depending on the situation, the conversations may be very different.

  • Business Conditions – If you need to reduce staff due to a downturn in business, you might say, "George, we aren't making the numbers we had planned. I have to make some hard choices and have decided to cut your position. George, I am terminating your employment effective today." If the company has outgrown the skills of the employee, you might say, "George, the company has changed since we brought you on board, I feel that we need to make some changes. Therefore, I had decided to terminate your employment effective immediately." After you have delivered the news, turn the topic to what you can do to ease the blow. You might offer some severance, a reference or to connect the employee to other business owners who may be able to offer employment.

  • Poor Performance - If the employee is under-performing, and you have done everything reasonable to help them succeed, then putting off the inevitable is probably just increasing your anxiety and hurting your business. We find that being brief, to the point and professional works best. You might say, "George, I have spoken to you about your performance previously and I don’t see the improvement I had hoped for. Therefore, I have decided to terminate your employment effective immediately.” Again, turn the conversation to next steps and follow best practices.

  • Cause – If the employee has broken one or more work rules, it may be best to terminate their employment. In Virginia, this type of termination may prevent the former employee from collecting unemployment. We don't advise going into a lot of detail, we assume you have done this in your feedback sessions when you were trying to get the employee back on track. You can simply state the current conditions. For example, "George, you continue to take extra breaks and arrive late to work despite repeated warnings. Therefore, I have decided to terminate your employment effective immediately." The same “next step” rules apply.

We know that terminating an employee is always tough, but following these suggestions can ease the pain.

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