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How to Fire Bad Employees and Have a Clear Conscience

FiringAnyone who spends a long time in management may have to face one of the most unpleasant tasks of all: firing an employee. How to fire one often is less painful with a careful ethical process. Firing also is rarely necessary.

Bad employees are inevitable, even in good companies. Effective middle and senior managers who routinely hire people occasionally make mistakes, even after going through a careful and thorough hiring process.

Sometimes they don’t make a mistake. Sometimes fate intervenes in an employee’s life and turns a good employee into a bad one. Bad employees aren’t always bad people.

Hiring process versus firing process

How to terminate an employee is often more complicated and time consuming than a good hiring process involving multiple interviews, background checks and reviews of dozens if not hundreds of applications. Any manager with a conscience may feel stress, anxiety or guilt.

Knowing the reasons why an employee is failing is critical to solving the problem without termination. Naive managers may jump to the conclusion that a bad employee also is a bad person, and so it’s only right to get rid of them. But here is an important truth: firing is rarely necessary.

Unethical managers may fire an employee without going through due process and without thinking about the possible consequences. They include wrongful termination that may lead to a lawsuit. Ethical and experienced managers will go through a process that tries to:

  1. Save the employee.
  2. If not, ease them out on their own instead of firing them.
  3. Fire only when no other options are left.

What is Due Process in Firing an Employee?

Firing is a last resort in solving problems with behavior and performance. A simple process can either fix what’s wrong with the employee or get them to leave on their own terms before firing is even necessary.

One of the better HR people I knew taught us to follow a set of basic steps over a period of weeks or at most a few months in addressing the problem:

  • Begin with a private, respectful, informal talk with the employee about the specific problem. Again, focus on the situation and not the person. Manage emotions.
  • If the situation doesn’t improve, have a second informal talk that includes a reminder about the previous one. Use non-threatening words and phrases such as, “I’m concerned about X” rather than something like “I’m really getting PO’d about this”.
  • If necessary, some managers may have a third conversation. But this time, it might help to have another manager in the room to emphasize the seriousness of the situation and to have a witness in case of legal risks. Consider using words like “formal warning” or something similar to convey the importance of getting it resolved. Do tell the employee that the next time will include a written warning that goes into their personnel file.
  • A fourth meeting is time for the first warning letter. This meeting includes a verbal or written warning: if there is a next time, that meeting will include another letter outlining a last chance at improving. The underlying message is, you are on the verge of getting fired if you don’t do better.
  • The final meeting includes a dismissal letter stating that the employee faces termination within the next X days (often 30) if he or she doesn’t fix their behavior or performance problems.

Some managers may want to use fewer or different steps than the ones above. But using them in some form has two important advantages.

  1. The employee has enough time to improve.
  2. The employee may leave without getting fired, thus saving time, energy and money — and pain for the employee.

The Negative Consequences of Firing Someone

drunkFiring an employee may end some negative consequences, but it also brings with it another set of negatives. Some employees are worth saving despite personal problems.

Again, wrongful termination may lead to a lawsuit. Regardless of whether or not it has merit, a lawsuit brings a heavy cost to a company in the form of legal fees and lost time and energy for management.

Firing someone means all of the time and energy that went into hiring them and training them is lost. All of the time and energy that went into solving the situation also is lost, including HR meetings, meetings with the employee, policy reviews, sleepless nights and more.

Replacing the employee means starting all over again with another major investment of resources including time, energy and money that are diverted from other priorities. Cost-conscious companies have direct out-of-pocket expenses in the form of advertising in addition to unemployment benefits for the fired employee.

If the firing manager doesn’t handle the situation just right, other employees start to worry about their own jobs. Morale may decline if they liked the employee who got fired. All of it could lead to more turnover.

At least one method can help address all of these concerns.

What Makes a Bad Employee?

Certification in Zenger-Miller management training, now known as AchieveGlobal, taught me a useful and ethical set of principles for managing people, especially the first principle: “Focus on the situation, issue, or behavior, not on the person”.

From that principle, and from many experiences over decades in middle and senior management, I realized managers could easily deal with people, solve problems and get better results simply by focusing on two objective standards:

  1. Behavior
  2. Performance

Neither one has anything to do with employee politics, family life, recreational pursuits, hidden tattoos or anything else on a personal level as long as none of them adversely affected the company or the staff.

Quite simply, the behavior standard means that bad employees act badly at work in their relationships, time of arrival, attitude, adherence to HR policies, etc. The performance standard means they fail to achieve the clearly communicated goals and objectives required in their jobs.

Good Reasons for Not Dismissing Someone

Effective managers will find it helpful to get to the root causes of the behavior and performance problems.

Any manager with a conscience would try to avoid firing an employee for behavior and performance if it turns out that employee was distraught and distracted by a child dying of leukemia.

Some managers might do it anyway. One executive I knew fired someone whose aunt, living in the employee’s home, died that same morning. The executive literally said he didn’t care when I warned him about it before the firing. Another alleged manager callously told me, “They have a job to do. If they don’t, I just fire them.” She fired a lot of people with little warning.

Integrity in the firing process

Integrity is a critical part of leadership. Integrity in the workplace specifically includes respect, compassion, honesty and loyalty. Managers with a conscience respond to problems with integrity. Oftentimes, it really does turn out that personal problems are getting in the way of the employee’s workplace presence.

So yes, at that point in time, they are bad employees. But that doesn’t mean they will be that way in a few months or that they were that way a few months before.

Compassion along with a degree of patience may get both the manager and the employee through a rough patch. If staff knows what is happening, everyone ends up with more respect and loyalty for each other.
While managing hundreds of employees in my career, I ended up firing only three people, which was unusually low in my line of work.

Are they worth saving?

By following the process above, I found that most employees would either leave the company rather than get to the end of the process. If they were worth saving, I did everything possible to support them to get them back on track.

Looking back, I am left with a clear conscience about the three people I fired who had unsolvable problems and the others who left before getting to the end.Although I was an imperfect manager, I know I gave 100 percent to helping them and doing the right thing for both them and the company. Conscience is a precious commodity at the end of a career.

Scott S. Bateman

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