When does someone deserve to be fired?

The first step in making sure you fire an employee the right way is to have good reasons for doing it. Here are some of the most common reasons employees are terminated.

Poor Performance

An employee’s inability to perform their duties is perhaps the best justification for letting them go. Every employee has specific tasks they are responsible for. If they fail to perform those tasks, it’s not only an under-utilization of resources, it’s also costing your company money. The quality of the products or services your company offers are only as good as your staff. And if you have an employee that’s bringing down the productivity or morale of the entire team, it may be time to cut them loose.

Attitude Issues

Getting work done is not the only thing that matters, though. An employee who cannot take constructive criticism or who makes up excuses for their shortcomings may not be a good fit for your company. A supervisor who does not know how to communicate professionally, or reprimand team members responsibly, is probably not good for your company, either. A good attitude goes a long way – especially on small teams – and can help push your company forward. The last thing you need is an employee that makes other team members miserable at the office.

Unable to Cooperate with Team Members

An employee who cannot work alongside others is likely not a viable long-term fit. The ability to communicate and collaborate with team members is essential to the success of your business. The best way to avoid this issue is to properly vet new hires. Make sure they have experience working closely with others, and ask a candidate’s references about their experience working with a team.

Looking for Another Job While Still Working for You

It does your company no good having an employee coming to the office every day who’s already “moved on.” If you suspect an employee is searching for another job, you should confront them about it. It’s in their best interest to maintain a good relationship with you – by letting you know as soon as possible that they are looking at new opportunities – as you’ll likely be a reference for them. It’s also in your best interest to know what your employees’ plans are so that you can prepare for the future. For example, you may have an employee who’s planning on leaving help train their replacement, which would be difficult to do if an employee departs quickly.

Regardless of why you fire an employee, there’s a wrong way to do it, and there’s a right way to do it. In addition to making sure you’ve terminated an employee for good reasons, there are several protocols – many of which are implemented long before an employee actually is terminated – that you can use to make sure you’re doing what’s best for both you and the person being let go.

How to Fire Someone Gracefully

A flowchart that shows the steps you should follow to fire someone gracefully.

Don’t blindside them. Keep them inthe loop about how they’re performing.

Most businesses have some type of performance review system. There are all kinds of systems you can put in place to help determine when it’s time to let someone go. Of course, a three-strikes-and-you’re-out policy cannot be applied to every situation, but it’s a good example of a tried-and-true system of determining an outcome based on measurable results.

Whatever system you implement, it should include some definitive lines that cannot be crossed and are a grounds for termination. A common one for most businesses is tardiness; being late or not showing up altogether typically is not tolerated. This is something that can vary on the workplace, especially in more low-key environments, but it’s a good reference to use for developing your own definitive rules and bo


For employees who are not performing at the level they need to be, you can put them on something called a performance improvement plan, which is designed to guide an employee back on track. Performance improvement plans typically are used after an employee has received a lot of feedback, but has yet to improve. There are several ways to set up these plans, but the basic principles are as follows:

  • Identify and track an employee’s performance issues in detail.
  • Create a plan that includes specific, measurable goals and performance benchmarks that must be reached within a particular time frame.
  • Meet with the employee to go over the areas that need to improve and the objectives they must complete.
  • Set up a follow-up meeting schedule to review the employee’s progress. These meetings usually occur weekly.
  • Make a decision on whether or not the employee will remain with the company, based on their ability to address the concerns outlined in the plan.

Pick the right person to deliver the message.

It should not be the head of the company doing the firing, unless the employee being fired worked directly with them. In most cases, it makes more sense for it to be an employee’s direct supervisor or team leader. Whoever handles the actual termination meeting should take with them a termination checklist that’s made in advance. That way, they don’t have to worry about skipping over any mandatory protocols or legal requirements.

Break the news at the best time.

The termination meeting should be arranged so it’s right before lunch or right before the end of day, because it makes it easier for the former employee to exit the office at a time when most people aren’t there, and it gives them the opportunity to gather their belongings with some privacy. You also could set up a time outside normal office hours for the employee to come back and gather their things. Regardless of when the employee clears out their belongings, be sure to collect any equipment, such as a laptop, headset, webcam, phone or files that belong to the company before they leave. You’ll also want to disable their ability to use or access any company servers or other electronic systems they had access to as an employee.

How to Make Sure You’re Firing Them Legally

A flowchart that shows the steps you should follow to fire someone legally.
An employee who’s been terminated can sometimes feel the need to retaliate. Perhaps they felt they were treated unfairly, or let go prematurely. In these cases, it’s important you follow a few simple rules to ensure you’re in the clear legally and avoid any issues after firing an employee.

Make sure a witness is present when you fire them.

This is probably the easiest thing you can do to help avert possible legal repercussions. It’s really just about having a third party that can confirm a particular employee was let go. An additional benefit is that the witness can jump into the conversation in a supporting role – if the person doing the firing runs out of things to say, for example. So don’t pick just anyone for this task. It needs to be a loyal and trusted employee who can act as a mediator if it comes down to that.

Abide by these three fire-at-will limitations:

1. Discrimination limitation: It’s against federal law to terminate an employee based on their age, race, religion, sex, nationality or a disability that does not affect their performance in the workplace. Other limitations, such as sexual orientation, may apply, depending on which state you’re in.

2. Public policy limitation: It’s also illegal to fire an employee based on reasons that go against public policy. One example of this would be an employee getting fired because they disclosed information to the federal government about their company performing illegal activities. Another example would be an employee getting fired because they were asked to partake in illegal activities and refused.

3. Implied contract limitation: You cannot fire an employee if an implied contract has been formed. An implied employment contract could be created by telling an employee they will be fired only “for cause,” or by specifying a termination process in company documents.

Implement a progressive discipline policy.

Some businesses use a progressive discipline policy in order to provide historical documentation that can be referenced when it comes time to fire an employee. It’s a system used to enforce consequences as a result of bad work performance. The consequences escalate as an employee’s performance gets progressively worse. These policies vary from workplace to workplace, but generally follow a similar procedure, which begins with oral warnings and moves on to written warnings, followed by suspension and eventually resulting in termination.

Once you’re in the room, what do you actually say?

First off, it should go without saying that firing someone should be done in person. Not over the phone; not in an email; and certainly not in a text message. Think of it like a breakup; it’s only fair to the individual who’s receiving the news that it be said to their face. It’s a sign of respect. Technology has muddled the line of what’s appropriate and what is not appropriate both in and out of the workplace, but it’s extremely important that terminating an employee is done professionally. It also helps set a standard for your company’s culture. Think about it: if you fired someone through email and the rest of the team found out, it would put them on edge and create trust issues, especially between core team members and those who are more entry-level.

Now, there are a few key points you should address when explaining the decision to let someone go. The most important is to be clear about what is happening. That doesn’t mean you start the conversation by saying, “you’re fired,” but you also don’t want there to be any confusion. Avoid using any ambiguous language, as it could be interpreted the wrong way; you don’t want them thinking they have another shot. Something as simple as, “unfortunately, this is going to be your last day working with us,” will do. Don’t beat around the bush either, which means no small talk leading up to the task; it will only give them a false sense of what is happening. You may even want to inform them from the start that the purpose of the meeting is their termination.

One Last Piece of Advice

It’s also a good idea to end the meeting on a more positive note. That could be informing them that they’ll be able to collect unemployment or letting them know they can use you as a reference in their job search. You also could offer them a bit of advice on what types of jobs may be a better fit for them – if you truly think they could do a better job in a different role. Regardless of where the conversation goes after you break the news, be sure to let them know you wish them the best moving forward.

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