How to fire an unsatisfactory employee

June 30, 2016 by

employee being firedIt's one of the most difficult things to do in running your business

(This is a long post, but a good procedure I've learned through real life and research.)

As the Owner, President, or Manager of a small company, you have many responsibilities. Your primary responsibilities are to maintain and help your company grow. You have many difficult things to do.

One of the most difficult has got to be firing an employee who is otherwise a good person and who seems to work hard, but just doesn't measure up to what you need.

I've had some personal experience with this type of situation. Although I've never owned a multi-employee small business, I was a manager of a laboratory and had a situation like this. I needed a programmer. A young woman came to the job with great references - best in her class, etc. She was a pleasant person, very friendly, etc. I liked her as a person. But she couldn't do the work I needed. She seemed stumped when I explained that she needed to develop some code for a project. She sat at the terminal for hours and days doing other things well, but not producing any significant code. After I documented the problem, HR took care of this situation for me. And I soon found someone else who could do what I needed.

But you own and operate a small business. You don't have an HR department. You are your HR department, along with everything else. What do you do then?

Consider a woman we'll call Mary. She owns a small company:*
Mary hired a woman for an entry-level position. The woman came recommended from a former colleague, and interviewed well. The woman works really hard, even staying late to finish things. But that’s part of the problem. The woman takes much too long to do her tasks. Mary expected her to have more mastery over them by now. Mary has gone over the woman's strengths and weaknesses at both her six-month and one-year reviews. The woman acted like she understood how she was failing to meet expectations, but hasn’t improved. Mary feels she's made a good effort to help the woman succeed.
Mary doesn’t want to fire her, because she feels the woman is doing her best. But her best just isn’t good enough.

What should Mary do?

Having to fire an employee arouses many negative emotions - fear, anger, anxiety, self-doubt, and others. These lead to more stress. Mary - or you - already have enough stress just keeping the company going. High stress levels can cause sleep loss. They can cause digestive problems. Headaches. Maybe other things, too, depending on your physiology.

Well, put away the sleeping pills and antacids or whatever and get on with it.

When this problem exists ...

You could have three different reactions to it.

Avoidance. It's stressful and you don't want to deal with it - like the old ostrich sticking its head in the sand analogy - hoping the problem will go away. But it won't. It could get worse.

Procrastination. You have a solution, but you put off implementing it. You may not want to hurt the employee's feelings, or your fear may cause you to delay the inevitable.

Action. You do whatever is required to deal with the situation.

The first two will not help your business.

Whichever reaction you have initially, you must get to the Action. The sooner, the better.

You're not Donald Trump. This may be the hardest thing you've ever had to do. But countless other business owners have done it. You're not alone. For example, there were 4.8 million job changes just in the month of September, 2015. A number of those were firings.

You can do it.

How you do it?

So what actions do you - or Mary - take? Use these steps.

1 - Document the problem(s).
Use performance reviews or other information where you document that you have counseled the person about poor performance. This may take some time, but you have to start here to protect yourself and your business.

2 - Prepare three documents.
a. Summarize on a single page the facts of why this person's work is not up to par.
b. Prepare a checklist for meeting with the employee - based in part on some of the steps listed here. You don't want to forget anything in those emotional moments.
c. Prepare a hardcopy document stating the purpose of the meeting. Put a line near the bottom with the employee's name below it for their signature.

3 - Schedule a face-to-face meeting with the person, preferably early in the day.
Don't just text them, phone them, or email them telling them they're fired. Not cool.
If possible, arrange to have a trusted and responsible second person in the room as a witness.

4 - Rehearse what you are going to say before the meeting.
You don't want to stammer, ramble, or repeat yourself in front of the person.

5 - Open the meeting by stating clearly and firmly your decision to let the person go.
Be professional, compassionate, and respectful.
Don't apologize for something that's not your fault.
If necessary, provide the rationale for your decision from your summary in Step 1.
If the person disagrees and challenges your conclusion, don't get into an argument. Breathe slowly and don't respond in kind. Stand your ground.

6 - Get any keys, loose locks, badges, documents, instrumentation, or other materials your company may have given the person.

7 - Explain what happens next - e.g., when they will get their final check and what happens to any company benefits.

8 - Have the now former employee sign the form you prepared in Step 2.

9 - Allow the now former employee to retrieve any personal items before leaving, but don't let the person mingle with your remaining employees.

10 - Make certain the person leaves the company property.

Now take some time to recover

Go back to your office, sit in your chair, lean back, and take a deep breath - or several of them.
This was a very stressful situation for you, as it would be for any manager in that situation. Take some time to relax.

Realize that you have done what is best for your business - and maybe for the ex-employee as well.

Let yourself understand that you've crossed a big hurdle toward improving your business. Being a compassionate person, you wouldn't want to celebrate the firing of an employee, but let yourself feel satisfaction that you experienced success - that the road ahead is now cleared.

Call a friend and confide your feelings. Talking it out can be a good therapeutic regimen.

Realize that you want - no ... you need - an all-star team, where each employee steps up and does an outstanding job for your company. Occasionally, the only way to get there may be to let underperformers go.

There will be other challenges, but this one is behind you. Now get on to the next.

(This should not be considered strict legal advice. Consult a lawyer for your specific situation.)

* Taken from an actual letter at:

Leave a Comment