Firing an employee is hard on everyone – the employee who is suddenly out of a job as well as the employer who has the unpleasant task of doing the firing. There’s also the concern that the fired employee will take legal action. Fortunately, there are steps to make it a less painful and more constructive situation for everyone.
What to do before firing an employee
It’s critically important that you maintain clear policies and procedures and have unacceptable behavior defined in an employee handbook. Posting procedures where employees can easily see and read them is an additional precaution. Furthermore, you should have well-defined processes for providing employees with regular feedback, coaching, and warnings. All your interactions with the employee about performance or behavior must be clearly documented.
Most people are considered employed on an “at will” basis (unless a signed contract specifically states otherwise), meaning they can be let go for any reason or no reason, except where specified by law, and they can also leave for any reason or no reason.
There are, of course, restrictions: you cannot fire a person based on age, race, color, sex, religion, or nationality. You cannot fire someone for following the law or for reporting your company for not following the law – i.e., being a “whistle blower,” and you cannot fire someone for filing for workman’s compensation.
By having policies and procedures well known to employees and by clearly documenting every attempt to coach or guide the employee to help them keep their job as well as every warning the employee receives about their job performance, you will avoid losing a lawsuit in which the employee accuses you of termination due to discrimination.
What to do when you fire an employee
Once you have collected sufficient evidence to justify termination, meet with the employee in person with another witness present. Treat the employee with dignity, speaking politely but clearly about the situation, and let the person know that his or her employment has been terminated.
Provide reason for the termination and include documented examples. You can state that the person’s performance is not up to the level the company needs and remind the employee that he or she has received frequent coaching and warnings on specific dates.
Try to help the employee save face. If you can, note some of the employee’s strengths which you unfortunately don’t have a position to utilize. Make some job search suggestions to help the employee find a position that is “a better fit for your talents.”
Clearly state the termination date, which in most cases should be that day. Request that the employee hand over all company property, keys, etc. at the meeting. Do not allow the employee access to company technology or systems, and do not let him wander or return to his workspace unattended. If possible, have the meeting when other employees are not around, perhaps near the end of the day, to minimize unpleasant scenes.
When firing an accountant or bookkeeper
An accountant or bookkeeper is crucial to the continued operation of a small company, so you should have a replacement ready if you need to fire yours. An accountant must maintain your financial records to be turned over to the next accountant. If he or she destroys or discards your accounts or otherwise tries to make things difficult, he or she is breaking the accountant’s code of ethics and possibly breaking the law. If you are firing your accountant because you have reason to distrust him or her, preventing access to your company systems is even more critical and you may have to terminate access pro-actively.
No matter who you are firing, try to end on a positive, professional note. In this age of social media, chances are good that the news will spread quickly among your own employees as well as strangers. Understand that the fired employee may misrepresent the facts to make themselves look better. However, if you treat the employee with respect and create a sense that he or she has much to offer another company, you will mitigate the likelihood of a lawsuit or nasty feedback and will help the person to move on.