To Fire or Not to Fire? Dealing with Unproductive Workers

Troubled employees lead to troubled companies. But when is it the right time to throw in the towel with an employee?

Elliot Markowitz

October 16, 2014

4 Min Read
To Fire or Not to Fire? Dealing with Unproductive Workers

Troubled employees lead to troubled companies. But when is it the right time to throw in the towel with an employee?

Althought most states have at-will labor laws, under which employees can be dismissed by an employer for any reason and without warning, letting go of an employee should be an exercise in caution. You want to make sure you are not opening yourself up to any discrimination, abuse or other claims when releasing anyone from their duties.

The ultimate goal of any organization is to avoid layoffs or firings unless absolutely necessary. Companies invest heavily in their employees in terms of training, education, market exposure and building internal processes. As a result, employees possess certain skill sets and established external and internal relationships. Dismissing someone not only impacts that person’s life greatly but also causes a ripple effect, both inside and outside the company.

Letting an employee go always should be the last option. That said, sometimes it must be done. However, as a business owner or manager it is in your best interest to first make every attempt to turn around the situation before dismissal.

Here are the actions that should be taken first.

  1. Address any situation immediately: Do not wait for review time. Employees should know if they are doing a good job or bad job. That’s managing. There should be no surprises come review time. Review time is to go over the year as a whole and set future goals, not discuss specific problems that took place months before. When a problem arises, discuss what went wrong and how to fix it quickly, before the details get hazy and to avoid a repeat event. Sweeping problems under the rug does not make them go away.

  2. Don’t criticize over email: Most communication is not verbal, according to nearly every study published. Criticizing or reprimanding an employee over email is a bad idea. While you may be trying to be encouraging and your intensions are to supportively correct a situation, the employee will react with emotion. The problem is, that person can’t tell the tone or put into context the message because they can’t see your facial expressions, body language or hear your tone. Most people will react more negatively to a harsh email than to a face-to-face encounter. Do not curse. Do not insult or attack that person personally. Try and meet with the employee to discuss the situation. If that is not doable because of location, then pick up the phone. But avoid email criticism at all costs.

  3. When to bring in HR: In most business situations bringing in human resources is not necessary. Once HR is involved there are fewer options and less flexibility. But sometimes HR needs to be involved. After the initial conversation you need to determine if the employee has indeed changed or continues along the same pattern. If the situation does not change and only animosity ensues, then it may be time to bring in HR and officially get the situation on record. This is to protect yourself, the company and even the employee.
    Also, every individual has personal issues going on outside the workplace. You can say these issues should not affect their work, but be real—they inadvertently will, depending on the situation. Managers need to be sensitive to their employees but also ensure they are doing their jobs. Maybe the employee is going through some personal issues that will only last a season. Bringing in HR formalizes the situation and puts everything on the table.
    Once HR is brought in, the employee should be given specific instructions on what he or she needs to do in a specific period of time. Sometimes this is a 30-day period, sometimes 60 days, sometimes longer. It depends on the situation and the employee's specific role in the company. Document everything and have it signed.

  4. Letting go: If nothing changes, all the steps fail and you decide to let go an individual, make sure you do it right. Make sure it is not personal, but professional. Employees are extensions of your company. They have relationships, and with today’s social media channels, companies must be careful in the way they dismiss an individual. Again, do not do this over email and do not do this without HR. Give the employee the dignity of a personal meeting explaining what went wrong and the reasons for the dismissal. Soften the blow by providing severance. Extend benefits if possible. Pay any outstanding owed vacation time or bonuses. Allow the fired employee to transfer personal files from his or her computer (yes, employees occasionally use their computers for personal use). The point is to treat them with respect.

Not all employees are the right fit for certain jobs or certain business cultures. That’s life. However, treat your employees with respect and give them the chance to correct their situations before termination and you will have a more productive and loyal workforce. Letting anyone go should not be taken lightly, but if the time comes, do it the right way. Take the high road and do your part to end the relationship on good terms.

About the Author(s)

Elliot Markowitz

Elliot Markowitz is a veteran in channel publishing. He served as an editor at CRN for 11 years, was editorial director of webcasts and events at Ziff Davis, and also built the webcast group as editorial director at Nielsen Business Media. He's served in senior leadership roles across several channel brands.

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