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Stepping up to the firing line — The ABCs of proper firing

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in Leaders & Managers,Performance Reviews

These days, it’s a lot harder to get rid of a problem employee. Workers are more aware of their rights under the law—and they’re more likely to seek the advice of an attorney if they think they’ve been wronged by their employer. The result: A lot of workers are getting even by claiming they were wrongfully discharged or discriminated against. The lesson: Fire away, but do it the right way.

Laying the Groundwork

It’s a lot easier to discipline a worker if you’ve made your expectations clear from the beginning. Each employee should have a job description that lists the tasks you expect accomplished daily or weekly. Make it clear, however, that these tasks are subject to change depending on the organization’s needs.

If you have rules specifying how certain tasks are to be performed, post them in the work area. That helps workers do their jobs correctly and helps you point out when a rule is broken. Some employers state clearly in their handbooks that employees are subject to firing without cause. Some companies ask employees to acknowledge this by signing a form. There’s a trade-off here: Signing such a statement won’t endear your workers to you and the company. A policy of firing only for just cause is more likely to build loyalty, but it might subject you to judicial review.

When you’re unhappy with a worker’s performance, the first step is to point out the problem and suggest ways to correct it. Be objective, direct and specific. Ideally, the employee will acknowledge the problem and do what it takes to straighten up.

If that doesn’t work, write a few notes about what the employee is doing wrong or failing to do right, and reference the standards you’ve communicated. Include the date of specific failings. Document every warning. Keep enough of a record that you can remember what happened, but not so much that it looks like a setup.

The firing line

If you’ve been careful to set standards, discuss shortcomings and suggest improvements, you may see enough progress that you don’t have to terminate the worker. If nothing else, giving constant feedback should make the firing process easier because the worker will see it coming.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the process will be easy. Some workers will get teary, others might get violent and all might try to distort the events of the actual firing. To protect yourself, try the following:

  • Have someone else with you when you talk to the employee so there’s no question of what was said.
  • Write a memo afterward about the meeting and have the witness sign it.
  • Conduct an exit interview to give employees a chance to let off steam or express their concerns.

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