Firing an employee is never easy, but making the right termination decisions is critical for the success of your business. When someone is damaging the business rather than helping it, it’s time to let that person go. Here are some key steps to making sure the firing process is done properly, paying proper respect to the employee in question and also making sure your business is compliant with any legal aspects of the decision.

Use Progressive Discipline

In the United States, all states but Montana have at-will employment. This means you can fire someone with no notice. Generally, however, this is not best practice. If the termination is for poor performance or even rude behavior, put the employee on a performance improvement plan (PIP) first. This is a formal document that states the problems and the requirements for success.

When writing a PIP, be specific. Set clear goals, such as “complete the following five reports on time,” as opposed to “turn work in on time.” To use another example, state that you want the employee to “arrive at work by 8 a.m. each morning,” not simply to “be on time.”

Progressive discipline keeps the focus on the employee’s problems and will help stem any surprise or anger if the final firing decision is carried out. During the PIP phase, continually bring everything back to the written document and keep track of the employee’s progress.

Have Your Ducks in a Row

Everyone who needs to sign off on firing an employee should be in 100 percent agreement before you speak to the employee. All the paperwork needs to be ready in advance. Some states require that you hand a final paycheck to the employee on the last day of work. If the employee is eligible for continuing benefits through COBRA, have those papers ready, as well.

Make sure you’ve checked with your employment attorney before terminating to ensure legal compliance. For example, say that you’re firing an employee, Jane, because of excessive absences. But what if Jane suffers from migraines and told her supervisor she was going home because of a migraine? Jane may then qualify for protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Family and Medical Leave Act. By telling her supervisor, she put the company on notice.

Say that you’re firing John because of consistent poor performance. Sounds fine, but what if Harold has also been doing poorly and you transferred him to another department as a result. Does this discrepancy make you nervous? It should. Talk with legal counsel when weighing these decisions to make absolutely sure that you’re acting fairly and under compliance with any applicable regulations.

Be Very Clear

When the PIP period (which usually lasts 90 days) has finished, hold your termination meeting on that day. Always have a witness, either an HR person or the manager’s peer or superior. The manager should always deliver the bad news, with the other person there for backup and acting as a witness.

When you hold the termination meeting, be direct. It’s difficult to terminate someone, even if the decision is easy based on their performance or behavior. When delivering the news to the employee in question, it’s important to be direct. You can phrase it like this: “Jane, you’ve been on a performance improvement plan for the past 90 days. As you are aware, you did not meet the objectives, and as a result, today is your last day. After this meeting, you can pack up your personal belongings. Here is your final paycheck. We wish you well.”

When you focus on the PIP, things should stay civil. The employee clearly understands the reason for the termination, and you avoid any last-minute conflicts or confrontations. By leaning on your PIP and doing your due diligence in terms of legal compliance, you’ll have treated the employee with respect and protected your own company’s reputation in the process.

Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she interviewed and hired employees, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers. Her writings have appeared in Inc. Magazine, CBS MoneyWatch, US News, Readers Digest and other publications. She focuses on helping businesses nurture great employees and helping employees enjoy great careers.