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How to Fire an Underperforming Employee

These days, corporate layoffs are common. In tough economic times, companies cut jobs. It isn’t an employee’s fault. There may be other positions available. Things will get better. They can re-apply in the future. And, at the very least, they know that being let go isn’t their fault. They have a good reference.

But when job performance is the culprit, and termination is the employee’s fault, there’s no second chance. If you’ve done all you could do to help the underperforming employee improve. There may be no offer of coming back. Instead of having this conversation, some managers prefer to avoid it altogether. Firing an employee is tough. But it doesn’t have to be impossible.

Underperforming employees have a big impact on a business. Not only do they cost the company money, they also cost time. When an employee consistently underperforms, it also places strain on the other members of the team. At some point, you will need to make the decision to part ways with an employee who, due to their performance, is no longer a right fit. Here are some tips to navigate the process of firing an employee.

Document Everything

Some offenses are so serious that an employee must be terminated immediately. A second chance shouldn’t be given in these cases. Offenses of theft and violence are some of these offenses.

But poor job performance can sometimes be corrected through documentation and coaching. An employee should not be blindsighted if they’re being told that performance is the reason for firing. Before an employer terminates an employee for cause for poor performance, they must take reasonable steps to help the employee improve.

Counseling and coaching an employee can often create better performance. And, you should document your efforts. There should be a paper trail that the employee has been warned of what is wrong and how to change it. Employees should have been told that there was a problem. They should have prior warnings that their performance is a problem and should have been given clear expectations for the future with time to meet those expectations.

Whether it’s a problem with their attitude, their skills, or they’re simply not a fit for the job, document your conversations with the employee. Document if it seems to be a sudden problem or if it’s been a bad fit since day one. Document any plans that have been discussed with the employee to improve their performance, or if the employee has shown no desire to improve the situation.

Make Sure You Legally Protect Yourself

According to the US Chamber of Commerce, you should hire an HR pro when your business has grown to 10 employees. This is especially true when you think you need to terminate an employee. It’s important to legally protect yourself from the threat of a lawsuit from a disgruntled former employee.

One way of protecting yourself is by creating very clear policies for employees to sign. This includes an employee handbook. Let’s say you’re considering terminating an employee for their poor attendance. But, do you have a written attendance policy for employees?

Protect yourself by ensuring employees know your expectations. Create these expectations in writing. This will protect you when you terminate an employee. Consult with a lawyer or legal professional in order to find some of the things you need to do to legal protect yourself and your business.

Create a Checklist

Before terminating an employee, it’s important to think about what items he or she has that need to be surrendered. You’ll also need to consider the things that they don’t have, but that they have access to. Create a checklist, and include things like:

  • Badges
  • Computers/Laptops
  • Email access
  • Keys
  • Passwords
  • Phones
  • Uniforms

You’ll also need to create a plan for the employee to exit after the meeting. If the employee has access to computer systems or email, you may want to turn this off during the meeting. You’ll also want to plan on how the employee might collect any personal belongings to exit the building.

Schedule a Meeting

If possible, try to schedule the meeting at a location where many people will not hear what is occurring. If you have a conference room, this could be ideal. The goal is to allow the employee to hear the news without their peers also hearing.

Schedule what you will say in advance. Do not allow yourself to be drawn in by pleas or emotional outbursts. Stay “on script” so to speak.

Consult with your HR professional to ensure you’re providing the legally required information, such as a COBRA notice or a termination letter.

Make your meeting short and to the point. Tell the employee that the reason why you’re here is that they’re being terminated. State the reason for the termination. Provide any resources that your company may be choosing to give, such as the termination letter. Give them a phone number they can contact if they have any questions.

Have Another Leader Present

If you have an HR member on staff, they should be present at the meeting. If not, you should have another member of your team – such as a manager or business partner – present at the meeting. Having another leader present can help you remain focused. This person can also serve as a witness in case the employee becomes hostile towards you.

Avoid Getting Personal

During the meeting, you want to be direct and brief. Avoid making statements such as “I’m sorry” or anything else that engages on a personal level. You are ending the employment relationship.

It’s important to not become emotional, or to take the focus away from the facts. Stay focused on the script you created and the message you are delivering.

The employee may have questions about benefits, severance pay, or other matters. Answer these questions, or consult with someone who can. Remain professional, regardless of your own feelings.


Firing an employee is never a pleasant experience. This should not be a total shock to any employee. Being terminated should not happen until an employee has had a chance to improve job performance. Planning the conversation will help you deliver the message in a professional manner. This will provide the opportunity for the smoothest transition for the employee.

Erin Shelby on TwitterErin Shelby on Wordpress
Erin Shelby
Team Writer: Erin Shelby is a writer and blogger based in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter @ByErinShelby

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Team Writer: Erin Shelby is a writer and blogger based in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter @ByErinShelby

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