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Termination Best Practices

Jan 22, 2019
Deb Muller


When you first start managing people, you probably think more about hiring, training and development than you do about firing. But firing is a part of managing, and while it doesn’t happen often, it is a necessary skill to have. It’s best to be prepared, even if you think everything is going well in your department.

Here are the best practices for conducting a termination.

Document, document, document.

In the movies, an employee does something awful, the boss screams, “you’re fired!” and the employee responds, “You can’t fire me! I quit!” While this makes for good drama, this is not how real life operates.

Yes, sometimes, employees need to be fired on the spot, but even in those cases, you should think things through. It’s always possible to suspend someone before terminating. For instance, earlier this year Chipotle terminated a manager for what looked like blatant racial discrimination in a customer-made video. But, they ended up offering her the job back after some research showed that the customer was indeed attempting to run off without paying.

An employee who struggles with her job or rules should be placed on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) and all progress (or lack thereof) carefully documented. So, make sure you always have good documentation for a termination.

Everything you do and everything that’s written needs to stand up in court. This means you document all bad behavior – even if it’s just a one-off.

Always double check with HR and the lawyers.

Theoretically, in all states but Montana, employment is at-will unless you specifically have a contract. This means you can fire for any reason or no reason as long as it doesn’t violate the law. But, in practice, you need to double check.

Why? Because at will doesn’t mean that every termination is legal. If you’re terminating John for being late, but just gave Jane warnings for the same behavior, you may be violating the law. All terminations need to comply with company policies, and it’s HR’s job to make sure that takes place. Sometimes this means consulting an employment attorney.

Keep emotion out of it.

This is difficult. Terminating someone is often complex. Sure, when Keith is caught loading computer equipment into his car, you don’t even have a twinge of regret when you fire him. But, these terminations are rare in most businesses.

You sometimes have to fire good people who just aren’t good at their jobs. If you’re reorganizing the business, or are losing money, or some other business-related decision, you may have to let someone go. If someone is a bully, you’ll do more damage to your business if you allow her to continue.

So, try your best to be direct and compassionate but not caught up in the emotion of it. If you go home and cry, though, that’s okay and normal. Termination needs to be just about the facts and everything needs to stand up in court.

Holding the termination meeting.

Once you’ve got your documentation and everyone has signed off (HR, your manager, and whoever your company policy requires) it’s time to hold a termination meeting. This can be tough, but here’s how to do it.

All documentation should be prepared and ready to go. In some cases, this may mean a final paycheck is prepared.

If there are legal documents to be signed, give the employee enough time to have them reviewed by her attorney. If you don’t feel comfortable having the employee take the documents to an attorney for review, you need to stop the termination. You’re doing something wrong.

Terminations should be done privately, behind closed doors. There should always be a witness. Usually, this witness is HR or your manager – never a peer. Termination meetings should never take more than 15 minutes. Now is not the time to discuss anything other than the termination. Here are some sample dialogues to get you started.

When the termination is for cause: “Jane, as you know, stealing is not only a violation of company policy, but also illegal. We have a video of you taking money out of the cash register and putting it into your pocket. Because of this, I am firing you. I will accompany you to your locker to get your things. You will receive your final paycheck via direct deposit on Friday.”

When the termination is due to a failed PIP: “Jane, as you know, you’ve been on a Performance Improvement Plan for the past 90 days, and you have not met the terms of the plan. As a result, today is your last day. If you’d like to leave now and come back for your personal items tomorrow that’s fine or if you’d like to take them now, that’s okay as well.”

When a layoff results in termination: “Jane, you may have heard rumors that the company is reorganizing. This is true and as such, your position is eliminated and today is your last day. We’re offering you three months of severance pay in exchange for signing this general release. You have X amount of time to review it. Please feel free to take it to your attorney for review. We appreciate your hard work and wish you the best of luck.”

Short and to the point.

The important aspect of a termination meeting is to convey information about the termination and nothing else.

Terminations are a hard part of managing, but if done correctly, they can help your business thrive.


Deb Muller
Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, employee relations case management and investigations software that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world.