Suzanne Lucas

Why Firing a Problem Employee Can Be the Best Thing to Do

Firing a problem employee looks so simple when you see it on television. The bad employee makes yet another mistake, the boss screams, “Pack up your things!” and it’s finished.

Real life isn’t like that, though. There’s a lot more involved, which is why it’s common for employers to put off firing a lackluster employee, or even to avoid it entirely. Still, it can be (and often is) the right thing to do. Here’s why — and how to do it.

When Firing a Problem Employee Is the Right Thing to Do

Managers tend to have no problem firing people for consistently coming in late, but they like to ignore deeper issues like bullying or disengagement. Actively disengaged employees are an expensive strain on any business, with their poor productivity reportedly costing U.S. businesses up to $550 billion every year.

Even if they don’t fit nicely on a scorecard like tardiness and absences do, don’t ignore other issues — they might just be what’s holding your company back. In the long run, a bully or an apathetic employee will cause much greater office turmoil than the person who habitually comes in five minutes late.

It’s not just the problem employee you’ll have to worry about if you keep them on. Your best employees will be dragged down by working alongside colleagues who slack off or sour the company culture — and it’s your best employees who can easily find a new job if they’re unhappy. When you allow bad behavior to continue, you’re likely to lose the greatest assets your workforce has.

How to Fire an Employee Legally

Now for the legal side of the equation: In the United States, with the exception of Montana, almost all nonunion workers are at-will employees. This means you can fire them for any reason (or no reason at all) as long as it isn’t because they are a member of a protected class. So you can fire someone for coming in late — or even just because it’s Tuesday — but you can’t fire them for being pregnant, having a disability or because of race or gender, among other things.

Despite the number of at-will employees in the U.S., however, businesses rarely ever fire someone for no reason. First of all, it’s unfair. Employees depend on their jobs for a paycheck, and it’s cruel to yank that away on a whim. Second, you could end up in court. While you can say that it’s at-will employment and you don’t need to justify your decision, if the firing is perceived as being because of race, gender, age or another legally dubious reason, then you’ve opened yourself up to a lawsuit.

What if you have a legitimate reason to dismiss an employee? Should you still fear repercussions? In order to steer clear of legal gray areas, follow these five steps.

  1. Make clear rules and document when an employee breaks them. What are your policies for absences and tardiness? Do you enforce them consistently? If you make an exception, do you document the reason — and are you willing to explain in court why you made this exception?
  2. Initiate management training to nip problems in the bud. It’s amazing how many problems you can fix with good, fair management. To have good managers, you need to ensure they receive the proper training — and that extends to business owners as well. Small business owners can have great business ideas, but that doesn’t mean they have the management skills to match.
  3. Communicate with your employees. A termination should never be a surprise, so take note of your employees’ oversights and missteps and speak to them about what they did incorrectly. Remember, part of managing people (especially those new to the workforce) is teaching them how to be good employees. This means keeping in touch with your staff about their performance and letting them know when their behavior puts their job at risk. If you set realistic and easily communicated expectations, people will work to achieve them. If, on the other hand, you ignore initial problems because you’re too busy or the conversations are too awkward, you’ll eventually face bigger ones down the line.
  4. Terminate the employee. When discipline and communication fail to fix the problem, sit down with the employee and a witness (either an HR representative or another manager — not one of the employee’s peers) and explain that because of X, Y and Z, today is their last day. The reasons you give for termination are the ones you might have to defend in court, so be clear and honest. If you’re at all concerned about the termination, consult an employment attorney. A short consultation will always be cheaper than hiring the same attorney later on to clean up a mess.
  5. Adjust your hiring practices. Whatever the problem with your former employee was, don’t sweep it under the rug. Chances are, it’ll pop up again in another future employee. Was the worker dismissive and hesitant to follow directions? If that problem caused major issues, keep an eye out for it in the future. Try asking potential new employees’ references about their specific working styles, or about how they incorporate feedback into their work.

Firing an employee doesn’t mean you have to be cruel or vindictive, just patient and firm. Look at it from the perspective of doing what is best for your other employees’ well-being, and for that of your business more generally. If you’re considering termination, though, make sure you do it correctly — and avoid having to see the inside of a courtroom.

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