Better Business: Why Firing Should Be a Last Resort

Feb 29, 2012

No one likes having tough conversations with problem employees, but taking the time to correct bad habits and performance issues now can save you from having the toughest conversation of all, telling an employee that he or she is fired.

Directly addressing employee issues as they arise can keep staff performance high while avoiding the general unpleasantness of having to fire someone.

“Terminating someone is always a difficult decision, but oftentimes an employee can be turned around from a productivity standpoint if the problem is addressed early,” said Lori K. Long, associate professor in the business division at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. “You need to talk to your employees if they’re not meeting your expectations and tell them what you expect and then tell them the consequences.”

Helping problem employees requires action on their part and yours.

“Basically there are two things that you should do, you should make sure you clearly explain to employees what is expected of them, where they’re having problems, if it’s attendance and they’re late, what time they’re expected to be there, if it’s performance, just outline, ‘This is what I expect, this is how you’re doing it now so this is what you need to improve,'” Long said.

“The second thing is to make sure the employees have the tools or resources that they need to do whatever you’re expecting them to do,” he said. “For example, if they are making an error repeatedly, do they need additional training, do they need somebody to show them how to do it correctly again? Do they not have the tools? What resources do they need to meet those expectations?”

Documenting Issues & Concerns

Every time you have a conversation with an employee about their performance, whether positive or negative, document it.

“The biggest mistake that I see is employers who are unwilling to have the hard discussions with employees,” said Chad A. Shultz, partner in the Atlanta office of Ford & Harrison LLP.

“[For example, they have] an employee who is not performing up to their expectations, but instead of sitting down and having a communication with that employee and then later documenting the fact that they talked, that many times [they] will hope that the thing just will automatically by itself improve,” he said. “Then at some point they realize that it’s not going to improve and then make a decision to terminate an employee, and that employee reasonably can say that they were surprised by getting fired.”

Having these conversations can help an employee get back on track.

“It’s a good idea to give folks a couple of chances, you give them a verbal warning and then a more formal written warning and then move on to termination,” Long said. “Eventually you may need to fire the employee, but if the performance improves, it is important to go back and say, ‘We had this discussion two weeks ago, you’ve improved, you’re meeting our expectations, we’re glad to see that, and we want you to keep doing this level of work moving forward.'”

Talking with employees regularly about their performance issues prevents them from being surprised if they’re facing serious consequences.

“About 90 percent of what an employee does, even your bad employees do a fine job at it, but it’s that small piece of the puzzle that they don’t do a good job at and it just drives their supervisors crazy,” Shultz said. “I think so many times supervisors are just unwilling to have those hard discussions with the employees because it’s uncomfortable, nobody likes confrontation, nobody likes to say things that might hurt somebody’s feelings or anger them.”

“I think we sort of ignore the problem until the problem, in the supervisor’s mind, has become so big that somebody just needs to get fired,” Shultz continued. “Did you lay the proper groundwork for that? And if we look in their personnel file, are we going to find that they have a pretty well spotless record or are we going to find that the person was given fair warning about what they needed to do to be successful? I think many times when you have lawsuits, you see where [you] didn’t really give the person fair warning, instead [you] just assumed that they knew that they weren’t doing a good job when, in fact, they probably didn’t know.”

Maintaining this paper trail can prepare you if you do need to fire an employee.

“My rule of thumb is document it twice, the first time document it with a warning that if it happens again, they’re going to be written up with another warning but that warning, if it happens again, will result in termination,” said Gary Marcicano, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Michigan Business and Professional Association and the Michigan Food and Beverage Association in Warren, Michigan.

“On the second offense I would always make sure that [it] was written that if this happens again, say somebody’s late every day and you talk to them about it, if that was the issue and they continue to be late, then I would document it and, if it continued, then the third time just fill out termination paperwork.”

Firing an Employee

After giving multiple warnings, if the time does come to fire an employee, your documentation and past actions will support you.

“I think [termination should be] done in person,” Shultz said. “You don’t want to do it on the phone [or] by e-mail. You don’t want to do it in an impersonal way, and I think that if the person is being let go for performance reasons, they should not be surprised.”

“It should be a situation where you sit down with them and say, ‘As you know, we had this issue six months ago, I didn’t see the improvement I needed so we talked about it again three months ago.  I still saw issues with your performance, and then as I told you a month ago, “If this doesn’t improve, I’m going to have to terminate your employment,” and, unfortunately, that’s where we are right now. I’m going to have to terminate your employment,'” Shultz said.

“I think if you don’t have the communication as a background and you can’t remind the person about the fact that you’ve talked about it, etc., then I think that you’ve got issues,” he added.

The experts advised managers to be honest and direct with the employee.

“Try to do it as best you can on a professional basis, obviously no yelling, screaming, name-calling or anything like that, it’s got to be directly above board,” said Raymond Klaver, owner of Southern Marine and Automotive in Guntersville, Alabama, who had to fire an employee because of attendance issues.

“You’ve got to be very cordial about it [and] give them a little bit of a reason why. You don’t have to go into great lengths why they’re being terminated, and stay away from any kind of confrontation at all,” Klaver advised.

“Otherwise that person would go out and if he starts to talk to other people, bad news travels fast, good news travels really slowly, so you can’t afford to have any kind of bad news behind you,” he said.

Prepare what you’re going to say ahead of time and have any paperwork the employee needs to sign ready.

“My suggestion to managers is less is more,” Long said. “The more you try to explain away the decision, the more likely you’re going to say something that’s inappropriate. It’s very important to kind of have a script ready, [something] basic like, ‘We asked you to improve your performance, you have not done so, so at this time we have to terminate your employment,’ and then be prepared to follow up with any information that they need.”

“You can inform them about their benefits, their final pay, those types of issues, and make  sure that they understand what’s going to happen next, then ask them to leave or escort them out,” Long said.

“The other thing that’s really important is to be as respectful as you can. Obviously nobody’s happy to lose their job, but as far as them getting angry and taking legal action, or even doing something inappropriate, this usually happens when the employer has been disrespectful, [for example] has fired them in front of a bunch of people,” Long continued. “It should be a very private discussion, and be discreet. It’s important to be as respectful as possible.”

“I always tell managers, ‘Certainly you wouldn’t want to be fired, but if you were, how would you like to be treated in that process?'” Long said.