What to Say When You Fire an Employee

Termination meetings are difficult, but here's how employers can handle them fairly and legally.

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For employers, the only thing harder than deciding to fire an employee is actually breaking the bad news. Indeed, firing an employee face-to-face is one of the most difficult tasks managers face, not to mention one of the saddest. Surveys repeatedly show that managers dread this part of their jobs more than any other -- and with good reason: surveys also show that the way an employee's termination is handled is often a motivating factor in that person's decision to sue a former employer. That's why the 15 or so minutes you spend firing an employee may well be the most important of the employment relationship. Read on for tips on preparing for and conducting the termination meeting. (Employers can find more articles and FAQs on ending the employer-employee relationship in Nolo's Firing Employees & Employee Resignations section.)

Where to Hold the Meeting

Unless you fear that the employee might commit some type of violence, sabotage, or theft, you should hold the meeting where the employee will be most comfortable. Choose a private place that ensures confidentiality -- and leaves the employee somewhere to process the news away from prying eyes. If the employee has a private office, that's the best place for the termination meeting. The employee will be comfortable there, you'll be able to leave once the meeting is over, and the employee will be able to collect his or her thoughts after you've left. If the employee works in a cubicle, shares an office, or otherwise doesn't have a private workspace, a conference room or another private neutral spot -- with a door that closes and walls that go all the way to the ceiling -- is the next best thing.

Getting Ready for the Meeting

Before the meeting, review the employee's personnel file, particularly the documentation of the performance or conduct problems that led to the termination decision. You should also review any steps the company has taken to help the employee improve, such as coaching or training. Especially if you are not the employee's day-to-day supervisor, you should take some extra time to get all the facts straight.

You will also want to be ready to explain what will happen going forward -- for example, when the employee will receive a final paycheck, how to continue benefits, whether the employee will receive severance, and so on. You may need to meet with HR or consult with the company's lawyer to get all of the details.

Starting the Meeting

Begin the meeting by informing the employee that you are terminating his or her employment as of a particular date. It may sound harsh to just dive right in like this, but starting out with small talk, jokes, or pleasantries will only ensure that the employee will be caught off guard -- and will probably feel foolish -- once the real reason for the meeting becomes clear.

Be direct and focused in breaking the news, so the employee realizes the decision is final and not up for negotiation. This is no time for ambiguous language ("things just aren't working out") or euphemisms ("it may be time for you to consider moving on"). Actually using the words "terminated" or "termination" is often the best approach, to avoid any possibility of misunderstanding.

Explaining the Decision

The next step is to briefly explain why you are firing the employee. The best tone to strike is objective and professional. If you're too direct, you risk seeming coldhearted. At the same time, being too sympathetic might make it seem like you are apologizing or backtracking from the decision.

Don't feel that you have to justify your decision. Simply state the reasons and leave it at that. To do more is to risk hurting the employee's feelings unnecessarily or drawing the employee into an argument. There's no point trying to prove to the employee that firing was your only option. No matter how bad the circumstances, the employee is likely to disagree with your decision -- or, at least, be unhappy about it. And dwelling on the employee's every mistake isn't a good way to end the relationship.

At the same time, make sure you don't minimize the problems that led to your decision. Even if your intent is simply to spare the employee's feelings, these soothing words could come back to haunt you if the employee decides to file a lawsuit and you are forced to defend the decision to fire.

Try to avoid being drawn into an argument about the decision. If the employee wants to vent or express unhappiness, you can simply say, "I understand you feel that way, but the decision is final." And, particularly if you didn't make the termination decision, resist any temptation to distance yourself from the situation. Telling the employee that you would have handled things differently or you don't agree with the company's decision will almost certainly lead to problems, during the meeting and after.

Handle the Paperwork

If possible, bring the employee's final paycheck with you to the termination meeting, and be prepared to explain what it includes (for example, whether it includes accrued vacation time or whether the company has decided to pay the employee through the end of the week or month, even though the employee isn't expected to come in). State law governs the vacation time issue, as well as the time limits for providing a final check; see Nolo's Chart: Final Paychecks for Departing Employees for more information.

If your company will offer a severance package, explain what it includes. If the employee is expected to sign a release or waiver in order to get the severance, briefly explain the terms and give the employee a copy of the document to review. Don't pressure the employee into making a decision at the meeting.

If the employee has contractual obligations to the company that will continue, such as a noncompete or nondisclosure agreement, briefly review those documents with the employee. Also explain whether and how the employee will be able to continue benefits, particularly health insurance.

Tie Up Loose Ends

After learning of the termination, the employee will most likely feel confused and upset. Be prepared to help the employee move forward by preparing to answer questions such as:

  • "Do I work the rest of the day or leave immediately?"
  • "When can I collect my belongings?"
  • "Do my coworkers know this is happening?"
  • "What should I tell my clients?"
  • "I have appointments scheduled for the rest of the week; what should I do about those?"

Before the meeting, you should come up with a plan for work that is in progress. Will these projects be handed off to a coworker? Do you need for the employee to complete anything? Does the employee need to assist in the transition?

Ending the Meeting

Before you leave the employee, provide contact information for yourself or someone else at the company who can answer questions that come up later, assist the employee in collecting personal belongings and turning in company property, and be sure to provide any relevant paperwork for benefits and outplacement.

End the meeting on the most positive note possible. Wish the employee good luck and shake his or her hand. If you can honestly say something positive about the employee's tenure at the company, by all means do so. And assure the employee that the contact person you've provided will be available to answer any questions that come up and assist the employee with the termination process.

Additional Resources

For more information on workplace investigations, discipline, and performance evaluations, see Nolo's book Dealing With Problem Employees: A Legal Guide, by Amy Delpo and Lisa Guerin (Nolo).

by: , Attorney

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