person filling out papers at a desk
There are proper legal steps to letting an employee go. — Getty Images/fizkes

Sometimes, the need to fire an employee is clear. Maybe a worker is engaged in illegal activity, like drug use or misappropriation of company funds, or violates company policy, like using work resources to conduct a side business.

Other times, the need for termination is less obvious, such as when an employee is disengaged or fails to execute a role. While this employee may still comply with basic company expectations, their employment long-term may actually harm the business.

No matter the reason, firing an employee is challenging and unpleasant for most business owners.

"In most cases, [the employer will] go through a combination of shame, resentment and fear for bruising the person's feelings," said Pete Sosnowski, head of human resources and co-founder at Zety.

Because firing someone will impact multiple areas of their life, including healthcare access and retirement planning, an employer must have a precise and legally compliant plan for termination.

[Read: How Do I Know It’s Time to Fire Someone?]

Before you fire an employee

No employee — or business — can be successful without adequate understanding of goals and expectations. According to Courtney Keene, director at MyRoofingPal, any company's practices, including firing, should be spelled out in an up-to-date, detailed company handbook.

"Ensure each employee gets this when they're hired and require them to sign a document saying they've read it," Keene said.

Following termination procedures as they are described in the company handbook sets up employee and employer understanding for disciplinary actions and their consequences.

Similarly, Michael Elkins, founder and partner at MLE Law, said having documented practices in place will help the flow of the firing process. The terminated employee may be less likely to feel "singled out," reducing the chances of retaliation.

"A reason for termination looks less 'manufactured' when it is backed up by documentation that has occurred consistently," he added.

A reason for termination looks less 'manufactured' when it is backed up by documentation that has occurred consistently.

Michael Elkins, founder and partner, MLE Law

Steps for properly firing an employee

Once an employer decides to terminate an employee, following these steps can help protect the reputation and interests of both parties.

Gather the facts

Work with your HR department to put together paperwork that outlines the termination and includes any pertinent dates, such as their final date of employment, said Jared Weitz, CEO and founder of United Capital Source Inc. Employers should get right to the point when the meeting comes.

"Don't torture them with small talk," said Sosnowski. "Deliver the news within the first 30 seconds."

Then, follow with statements about employee performance that are based on objective, recorded information.

"If you granted a warning [and] placed them on an improvement plan, ensure that all of this is clearly documented," Weitz said. "Discuss the termination as a result of their performance."

Collecting and reviewing documented facts will also ensure that the termination is not misinterpreted. This is especially important to avoid accusation of employer discrimination based on sex, gender, race, national origin, religion, age, and physical ability.

Choose your meeting time and location carefully

Even if an employee has not served the company in the best way, Sue Andrews, a human resources and business consultant for KIS Finance, says it's best to demonstrate compassion in the firing process. She recommends scheduling a meeting at the end of the work day in a location that is not noticeable or accessible to other employees.

Another thing to consider is creating space for the employee's reaction.

"Have tissues at the ready and be prepared to adjourn the meeting for a few minutes if they need time to compose themselves," said Andrews.

Find a witness for the termination meeting

Jie "Jasmine" Feng, an assistant professor of human resource management at Rutgers University, suggests having a neutral party, such as your head of HR, attend the meeting to take notes. This removes judgement from the discussion, and "if there is a dispute, mediation and arbitration are generally much faster than formal court proceedings," she said.

Get back all company property, including electronic access

Once the termination decision is communicated, the employer should update the affected employee's personnel file and "close the loop" on any company property or tech access, said Feng.

"Promptly remove the employee's physical and technical access to the facility and communicate the change to the rest of the team or department," she added.

Andrews stresses the importance of prompt access removal: "This is essential for data security as well as safeguarding your systems against malicious actions by a disgruntled ex-employee."

Support the employee's exit from the company

As an employer, you are legally obligated to pay your employee for work done before termination and fill out any required documentation and records for employee accounts and benefits. Beyond this, Weitz suggests offering a hopeful exit for employees with potential for a good fit elsewhere.

"If the relationship is still relatively positive, and they simply were not adequately equipped for the job, [have] a conversation about how to improve in their next role, or things they did well," he told CO--.

[Read: A Complete Guide to Outsourcing Human Resources]

Firing an employee is often a difficult responsibility, but by approaching the process with attention to both established guidelines and human emotion, employers can ensure the smoothest possible transition for the terminated employee and the business.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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Published February 14, 2020