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How to Fire an Employee

Ruth Haag • Sep 3, 2013 at 3:00 PM

Ways to remove non-working employees

Over the years I have supervised hundreds of employees, and trained hundreds of supervisors through outreach programs at several community colleges.  What I like best about supervising is taking an employee who might not have been successful in a previous job and creating a work environment where they can be successful.  Unfortunately, not all employees are able to accomplish this and some of them have to be fired.  There are several ways to remove employees who are not willing or able to do their jobs:  

A new-economy way to fire someone

One ploy used these days, with the bad economy, is to call the non-working employee in and tell them that they are being downsized.  This removes all of the need to counsel the employee and help them improve.

Several years ago Radio Shack made it into the news when they laid off staff with e-mail notifications;  pretty insensitive.

A supervisor can fire them

In spite of what most people who have been fired will tell you, most supervisors find it very difficult to fire someone, and fear the process.  Here is a suggested approach.

As I mentioned last week, the first step in removing a problem employee is to check to make sure that they were fairly dealt with.  Consider the following before firing:

1.  Were they given a clear explanation of what the expectations were?

2.  Were they told when they were failing to meet these expectations?

3.  Was there only one person handling their assignments, or was there a committee, and if so, did the committee all agree on the assignments?

If the employee was fairly dealt with, then when the supervisor finds that they are not working or not working well enough, they should sit down with the employee to clearly explain what is wrong and what they need to do to correct it.  Here is how to do it:

1.  This talk should take no more than 15 minutes, and should take place in private.

2.  Identifying a definite change and a definite outcome desired is necessary.  Simply saying, “Improve your attitude,” is not as clear as saying, “Each time you receive an assignment you complain bitterly about it for five minutes; I want you to accept your assignments without complaint.”

3.  All employee/employer discussions such as this should be documented.

4.  A timeline should be set, such as improvement within two weeks.  If no improvement is seen, another talk should be had, this time explaining that the employee is fired.

5.  This is a talk about the employee, not about the supervisor, the employee should not be allowed to talk about what they feel the supervisor and company are doing wrong.

Most employees who find themselves being fired feel that they have done nothing wrong.  This is logical because if they felt they had done something wrong they would have fixed it after the first talk with the supervisor.  As they are leaving they most often tell the supervisor that the reason the supervisor has given for firing them is not correct, “there is something else, I know what it is but I won’t say it.”  About half of them threaten to call their lawyer.  Oddly enough, the next thing they typically ask is if the supervisor will give them a recommendation for their next job.  

A co-worker helping get a person noticed and fired

All of this discussion has assumed that the supervisor knows that an employee is not working or not working hard enough.  Often the employee can fly under the radar of the supervisor.  These non-working employees always look busy when the supervisor is around.  At times they take credit for other people’s work.  They are so successful with this that many times a supervisor will say, “Joe here is my right hand man,” and in fact Joe is the non-working employee.  These people know how to be friendly with a supervisor.

Co-workers can cautiously allow the supervisor to discover that the employee is not working.  This depends on the co-worker’s relationship to the supervisor.  Bob (my business partner) and I were sitting in our backyard one Saturday afternoon when one of our employees came driving up.  He sat down and quietly told us that the supervisor that we had sent to the field with his crew, never once got out of the car to do any work.  He gave a few details and then left.  Bob was able to drop in on this person’s next project and witness the infraction ourselves and start the firing procedure.  The employee who told us about the problem did so without making any disparaging comments about anyone and did not ask us to promise anything.  He just gave us the facts that he was sure we didn’t know.

Another time, after I had fired a non-worker, her staff member came to me and told me that the work she had turned it was actually done by him and copied to be in her handwriting.  In this sort of situation I wished that the staff member had let me know before I fired the problem employee.  It would have helped me.  He could have waited until I was is looking at the copied work product and said something like, “I finished that graph up last week, how do you like it?”  This would establish who really did the work and would have been enough for me to figure out that something was wrong.

The co-worker should make sure that they are not unconsciously helping the non-worker by doing their job.  If it won’t do much damage to the final product, step back and allow them to fail publicly.  

All of these co-worker exposure techniques require maturity and finesse.  You have to be dropping hints, not complaining.  Everyone always decides that the complainer is the problem.

A committee removing a non-working employee

Trying to get improved work from an employee who is supervised by a committee, such as a Board of Directors, a Council or a Commission is very difficult.  As I noted previously, many people are afraid to fire someone and with a committee, normally more than half of the members feel this way. Most of the members of the committee have no real supervisory experience.  Also, each committee member sees their time on the committee as limited, and are content to let the next guys take care of it.  The next guys come along and say, “I have barely worked with this person, I can’t fire them for at least a year.”

The only way I have seen to fire a person who is supervised by a committee is to find something so egregious that all of the committee members will agree they have to be fired.  I have observed that, interestingly enough, the egregious thing does not have to be true.  Committees fire with emotion.  The pattern then is this: one committee member finds something in the employee that they don’t like.  They tell their story to all of the other committee members, infusing it with lots of emotion.  If it seems egregious enough, the committee meets and agrees to fire the employee.  

The unfairness works both ways

My last story above sounds pretty unfair to the fired employee.  Of course, if the employee was not working it would also be unfair to keep paying them.  This “unfairness conundrum” will freeze up many supervisors, which tends to keep non-working employees in place.

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