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The 5 Step Guide to Firing

Firing an employee isn’t fun. Here’s how to do it right, and what it’ll cost you if you get it wrong

Apr 1, 2014

by Alberta Venture Staff

Sometimes things don’t work out, and that great new hire you brought on six months or six years ago turns out not to be the right fit after all. But letting someone go can be a minefield, as the countless wrongful termination cases before various courts can attest. So how do you get through it without ending up as a riveting example of case law?

First, says Alykhan Bandali, chair of the Human Resources Institute of Alberta, don’t put too much stock in clichés. “There’s that saying, ‘Hire slow, fire fast.’ Great, you’ve got good processes to bring the person on board, and you’re taking your time in matching up the right fit. But if you don’t have the right processes in place after they come on board, firing fast doesn’t mean as fast as possible. It’s doing it with as much thoughtfulness and protection to the organization as possible.”

Step 1

Making It Work
Before you make the decision to fire someone, ask yourself whether firing is the best or only option. If the employee is having performance issues, consider what role your organization might have. For instance, perhaps her initial training was inadequate. It’s more economical to work with the employee you have than look for a replacement. You’ll want to determine if there are mitigating factors that might explain lacklustre performance. Is there a medical issue, or is your employee going through a tough time in his personal life, like a divorce or the death of a relative? Firing an employee who is reeling from a loss or struggling with an illness can be bad publicity at best, or a lawsuit at worst.

Cause/Without Cause?
Are you firing an employee because she’s done something unforgiveable, or just because she’s not the right fit? If you’re hoping to fire an employee for just cause – that is, without notice or severance pay on account of some wrongdoing – you’d better be able to justify it. Gregory Sim, a partner with Field Law, says unless it’s absolutely clear that the employee has committed a fireable offense, like assaulting a co-worker, you should consider checking with a lawyer to ensure you’re in the clear. It’s essential to document the employee’s behaviour and provide evidence of wrongdoing.

Step 2

Policies, Procedures and Process
Before you even begin to think about firing someone, you need to have the right policies and procedures in place to protect your business. Do you have an employee handbook that spells out the policies around appropriate office behaviour, expectations in the workplace and fireable offenses? Do you have a mechanism in place to evaluate whether employees are meeting those expectations and to improve their performances when they fall short? Terminating an employee without those bases covered is begging for a lawsuit. “Process is really important, and it’s usually the biggest problem,” says Bandali. “If it’s an important policy, you need to be clear about what your expectations are.”

Timing
Experts disagree on the “ideal” time to tell someone they’re fired, whether it’s Monday morning or midweek. But Bandali says, whatever you do, never fire anyone on a Friday. “If you do it on a Friday, the problem is that you’re giving that person a weekend to dwell on things.” Employees are also less able to start their job search and have limited access to any counselling services they might need.

Step 3

Getting Ready
You’ve tried to correct the problem, but nothing has changed. Or you’re downsizing and there’s nothing you can do. What now? Sims says planning the termination meeting well in advance is an essential part of a smooth termination. “Identify the reason for the decision and come up with a concise statement of that reason. That statement is what you’re going to use to communicate that clear, concise message to the employee.”

You’ll want to prepare a script for the meeting and your termination letter in advance. Sims says it’s critical, during this process, to revisit the employee’s personnel file and brush up on his history with the company. “Employees are likely to have questions, or they may be emotional and upset and want to talk about the decision,” he says. At the same time, you’ll also want to see if there’s any kind of employment contract that may contain a provision about working notice or severance pay that you need to be aware of.

Release Them
When terminating an employee, many employers offer additional severance pay if she signs a release that absolves the business of any liability. Work with an attorney to fine-tune the language of the agreement, and don’t pressure your employee into signing. She should be given adequate time to read the agreement and have it looked over by her own attorney.

Step 4

The Hard Part
You’ll want to pick a quiet, out-of-the-way part of the office to have the termination meeting. Sim says that while it’s best to keep the meeting as small and private as possible, you may want to include a second manager or an HR professional to take notes during the meeting. “The discussions at that meeting can come back to haunt you if you don’t have a clear memo about what was said and by whom.”

During your conversation with the employee, remember the clear statement of explanation you came up with earlier. And while it can be tempting to try to comfort an upset employee or, possibly, lose your temper with one who’s become abusive, always stick to your script.

If it’s nothing personal, and the employee is a hard worker who was simply not the right fit for your organization, or you’re letting him go for financial reasons, you may want to let him know that you’ll provide him with a positive reference to help with his job search. In the case of a difficult employee, Sim says, don’t be afraid to say “no” to providing a reference. “Employers have to be careful not to give a reference letter that’s overly generous just to satisfy a difficult employee.” If another business relies on your embellished recommendation, you may be liable.

Step 5

Tell Your Team
After terminating an employee, how do you address his departure with the rest of the team? There’s more to it than telling the IT department to close his company account. How to discuss a dismissal with the remaining staff is one element that many businesses overlook, but it’s essential to your reputation and how you’re viewed by your remaining employees. “You have to be ready to communicate to the rest of the team,” says Bandali. “If you’re ill-prepared for a termination and handle it poorly, you’re sending a message to the rest of your organization about how they might be respected or disrespected in that case.”

That doesn’t mean providing excessive details, however. Sim says there’s no need to give a reason for the dismissal, beyond saying that the employee no longer works with the organization. “Employers have to be careful not to gossip after the fact,” he says, and anything that could be construed as impugning the employee’s character or reputation could be grounds for aggravated damages in a lawsuit.

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