When (and How) to Fire an Employee: 7 Signs it’s Time to Terminate


No one should ever be surprised to be fired. Unless your company has fallen victim to a pirate-worthy hostile takeover, or a 60 Minutes exposé that brings the villagers with torches and pitchforks, getting fired should never come out of the blue for any employee. Every employee who is terminated should know it’s coming and be ready to take responsibility when it happens. No surprises allowed.

But when is it necessary to fire an employee, and when should companies look for ways to rehabilitate? When separation is necessary, it’s important to do it properly, with respect and dignity. But often when you’re considering letting someone go, you may be missing out on an opportunity to modify problem behavior and salvage an otherwise good staffer. According to Josh Bersin, of Bersin by Deloitte, the time to regain full productivity with a new hire is one to two years, with an investment in that training of up to 20 percent of the employee’s salary. The trick is finding the balance between the effort needed to correct problems with the reward of reclaiming a good employee and the bonus of not having to go through the time, the energy and the expense of replacing them.

A progressive discipline policy is an opportunity to fix a problem before the hammer comes down. The problem with these policies is they’re not used as intended. A progressive discipline policy should really be called a progressive correction policy. When used appropriately, it provides guidelines to turn around a problem area and reclaim a productive employee.

Here’s the first thing to consider when wondering if it’s time to terminate: You hired that person because you thought they held promise. Unless they completely misrepresented their skills and expertise, they were likely a productive member of the team at some point. If you could correct the problem and get them back to that place, would it be worthwhile?

Managers complain about having to correct employees. The employees are adults and they know what’s expected of them – why do I have to nag them about problems? It’s uncomfortable! But staff members rightfully read an absence of correction as tacit approval. The unexpected “you’re fired” down the road is often the shocking end-result. Whereas a few simple steps of ownership and correction could have salvaged that staff member, now the revolving door (and costs) of employee turnover begins again.

Here are some tell-tale signs this one has got to go:

1. Bad behavior is not corrected

Rules are not suggestions. If an employee has had ample time to correct problem issues but does not, they need to pursue other career opportunities.

2. They affect morale

The office bully may have a client list as long as his ego, but the ripple effect of his personality undermines everyone that has to deal with him. You may think you can’t possibly let him go, but consider how morale rises when he’s on vacation. Wouldn’t it be nice if every day was like that? Say bye bye!

3. They’re damaging productivity

Can’t get anything done because “someone” hasn’t completed their part of the project, again? If repeated corrections and progressive consequences haven’t worked, it’s time to find someone who can get the job done.

4. They’re apathetic

If they don’t care about the work, the customer, the company, or their coworkers, why do you care about them? If you can’t turn around their attitude, it’s time to turn them over.

5. They thrive on drama

These employees relish discord. They thrive on office drama, take nourishment from hurt feelings, and diss the company at every opportunity. They start the fight, then sit back to enjoy the show. These are likely personality issues you’re unqualified (if you even wanted to bother) to resolve. Remove the tumor they’ve become and let the healing begin.

6. They carry out major violations

There are some company policies that require immediate and irrevocable discipline in the form of termination. There are no “three strikes and you’re out” for bringing a weapon to the office; no progressive disciplinary steps for theft; nor incremental consequences for showing up to work while abusing substances. Such offenses require immediate dismissal. Bear in mind this doesn’t violate the “no employee should ever be surprised to be fired” rule. They should know the weapon/theft/high policy is in place, know the penalty for violating it, and should be prepared for the consequence they have earned.

7. They’re that one

There’s one final type of employee to terminate as soon as possible: The one that immediately comes to your mind as deserving of being sooo fired. If you’ve given this person endless second chances and spent a lot of time thinking about how/why/when you should let this person go, the chances are they are long overdue.

This is all very well and good, you say, but firing people stinks! It does, but if you do it properly it can be quick and virtually painless for all. Firing someone should take less than 10 minutes. That’s right: A typical separation should take no more than 10 minutes tops.

Here’s how and why:

You’ve made your decision to let someone go. It’s not negotiable. You’ve prepared all the paperwork necessary for their separation: COBRA notifications, checklists for company property to be returned, passwords to be surrendered, information on severance, anything you offer. Call the employee at the last minute at the end of the day to meet with you. Do not send them a meeting request for 4:50 when they arrive at the office at 9. It’s cruel and they’ll spend the day speculating and complaining!

When they arrive, let them know they are being let go. Provide them information and any accompanying paperwork, ask for their property and wish them good luck in their future endeavors. Period. The End.

Do not apologize, do not negotiate. Having a person beg or plead for their job is cruel. Why subject them to that indignity? Let them know that your decision is final: You hope to get them through this process as quickly and painlessly as possible, but there is no negotiation. Tell them you wish them well, but there’s no point in prolonging the meeting, nor damaging their dignity.

Ant that’s it – 99 percent of separations are this easy and smooth. (For the occasionally violent employee, I often had an officer on hand, and luckily in a few cases!) In my experience, people want to leave with their pride intact, and it’s up to you to assure that happens. If you structure your time with them as professionally and tersely as possible, they’ll rise to the occasion.

Determining the need and time to fire an employee is difficult but necessary – not only for your company but often for your employees themselves. When it’s time to terminate, make it quick and painless – but make it happen.

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