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When (and How) to Fire an Employee: 7 Signs it's Time to Terminate

In Human Resources — by Riia O'Donnell


No one should ever be surprised to be fired. Unless your company has fallen victim to a pirate-worthy hostile takeover, or a 60 Minutes exposé that brings the villagers with torches and pitchforks, getting fired should never come out of the blue for any employee. Every employee who is terminated should know it’s coming and be ready to take responsibility when it happens. No surprises allowed.

But when is it necessary to fire an employee, and when should companies look for ways to rehabilitate? When separation is necessary, it’s important to do it properly, with respect and dignity. But often when you’re considering letting someone go, you may be missing out on an opportunity to modify problem behavior and salvage an otherwise good staffer. According to Josh Bersin, of Bersin by Deloitte, the time to regain full productivity with a new hire is one to two years, with an investment in that training of up to 20 percent of the employee’s salary. The trick is finding the balance between the effort needed to correct problems with the reward of reclaiming a good employee and the bonus of not having to go through the time, the energy and the expense of replacing them.


I recently read an article about companies to “avoid” when looking for a new job; one listed was companies with a progressive discipline policy. Au contraire, mon cher. A progressive discipline policy is an opportunity to fix a problem before the hammer comes down. The problem with these policies is they’re not used as intended. A progressive discipline policy should really be called a progressive correction policy. When used appropriately, it provides guidelines to turn around a problem area and reclaim a productive employee.

Here’s the first thing to consider when wondering if it’s time to terminate: You hired that person because you thought they held promise. Unless they completely misrepresented their skills and expertise, they were likely a productive member of the team at some point. If you could correct the problem and get them back to that place, would it be worthwhile?

Managers complain about having to correct employees. The employees are adults and they know what’s expected of them – why do I have to nag them about problems? It’s uncomfortable! But staff members rightfully read an absence of correction as tacit approval. The unexpected “you’re fired” down the road is often the shocking end-result. Whereas a few simple steps of ownership and correction could have salvaged that staff member, now the revolving door (and costs) of employee turnover begins again.

Let’s take a look at a few types of problem employees and examine whether they should be saved or sacked.

Tardy Theresa

Theresa is habitually late for work. She’s a good worker, but never on time. You’re aggravated that she frequently arrives late to the morning staff meeting and you have to give her separate updates as a result, but she’s really competent at her job. Is it worthwhile to recover this employee?

You give her the stink eye whenever you catch her sneaking in late; you leave notes on her desk to “make an effort to get to work on time,” but you avoid sitting down with her and having a serious conversation because you’re uncomfortable. She promises to do better, and she does, for a few days – then it’s back to tardy town.


For Theresa, progressive discipline could work. Emphasize to her that no matter how good her work, the rules apply to her just like everyone else. If she doesn’t take ownership of her problem and correct it, she will be fired – yes, actually fired! Use your progressive discipline policy and follow the steps: first warning, second warning, third warning, termination.

Now here’s the hard part: you have to stick to it. If Theresa can’t make it on time, then she has to be let go, period. The same policy should apply to any employee who cannot meet the terms of employment. They need to take ownership of their mistakes and accept responsibility for their future employment. If they cannot, then separation is of their own doing. No surprise there.

Fairness is paramount – bad employees really do diminish morale. A study of trust-based relationships and organizational fairness perception, summarized in MIT Sloan Management Review, highlights the need for employee trust. Combining the work of three data models, a team found that when employees experience something divergent from how they expect to be treated (like fairly and equitably), they react strongly. The “expectation-experience gap” can be a precursors\ to a loss in productivity. One of the authors’ top recommendations: Establish clear rules and implement them consistently and transparently across the organization.

In addition to affecting productivity, Psychology Today reported that employee stress levels can be exacerbated by workplace unfairness. People who believe they are treated unfairly tend to be preoccupied with work-related problems. This can lead to stress-related medical problems like substance abuse or emotional distress, resulting in absenteeism.

So, in Theresa’s case, yes, it is absolutely worthwhile trying correct her tardiness before giving her the pink slip. But if you’ve informed her of the problem, given her several warnings and she continues to be late, be prepared to take the uncomfortable step of firing her. It may be critical to your team’s morale and productivity.

Silent Sam

Sam is painfully afraid of public speaking. He has a great mind and a lot of innovative ideas, but the prospect of voicing them in a crowd – no matter how small – is terrifying. When he is called upon to speak, he stumbles, getting lost in the noise. The team thinks Sam isn’t contributing and believes they’re carrying him. Resentment gives rise to discord among the team, and you feel you may have to sacrifice him for the greater good.

Can you demand that Sam immediately and permanently gets over his fear of public speaking? Considering 75 percent of Americans have speech anxiety, that might be a tall order. You can, however, ease Sam into group discussions with a little effort. You know what the team will be discussing, so meet with Sam beforehand and note his ideas. During the meeting, offer up his insights, crediting that he contributed the ideas in a separate session. If the team has questions, try to answer them yourself, or defer to him if he’s able to respond. As his concepts become part of the zeitgeist, he might find himself more at ease, and better able to contribute.


Afterwards, follow up with Sam privately. Compliment him on his ideas that worked well, or work through the ideas that flopped. Offer him a safe space to share his voice and seize any opportunity to boost his confidence. The effort is designed to bring him on board with the group and raise his level of comfort. It’s worthwhile to take the time and put in the work to salvage a talented employee.

Many good employees with bad habits can be corrected. Turnover is costly and demanding on HR and departments. It’s hard to underestimate the value of employees who know and get company culture, are comfortable and competent with the work and don’t require training. If an employee has a bad habit that is negatively affecting the team at large, it’s not the employee’s role to identify and address it – it’s the manager’s.

Employees like Theresa and Sam are salvageable, but others aren’t worth the effort. When is it time to fire an employee? Here are some tell-tale signs this one has got to go:

1. Bad behavior is not corrected

Rules are not suggestions. If an employee has had ample time to correct problem issues but does not, they need to pursue other career opportunities.

2. They affect morale

The office bully may have a client list as long as his ego, but the ripple effect of his personality undermines everyone that has to deal with him. You may think you can’t possibly let him go, but consider how morale rises when he’s on vacation. Wouldn’t it be nice if every day was like that? Say bye bye!

3. They’re damaging productivity

Can’t get anything done because “someone” hasn’t completed their part of the project, again? If repeated corrections and progressive consequences haven’t worked, it’s time to find someone who can get the job done.

4. They’re apathetic

If they don’t care about the work, the customer, the company, or their coworkers, why do you care about them? If you can’t turn around their attitude, it’s time to turn them over.

5. They thrive on drama

These employees relish discord. They thrive on office drama, take nourishment from hurt feelings, and diss the company at every opportunity. They start the fight, then sit back to enjoy the show. These are likely personality issues you’re unqualified (if you even wanted to bother) to resolve. Remove the tumor they’ve become and let the healing begin.

6. They carry out major violations

There are some company policies that require immediate and irrevocable discipline in the form of termination. There are no “three strikes and you’re out” for bringing a weapon to the office; no progressive disciplinary steps for theft; nor incremental consequences for showing up to work while abusing substances. Such offenses require immediate dismissal. Bear in mind this doesn’t violate the “no employee should ever be surprised to be fired” rule. They should know the weapon/theft/high policy is in place, know the penalty for violating it, and should be prepared for the consequence they have earned.

7. They’re that one

There’s one final type of employee to terminate as soon as possible: The one that immediately comes to your mind as deserving of being sooo fired. If you’ve given this person endless second chances and spent a lot of time thinking about how/why/when you should let this person go, the chances are they are long overdue.

What to Do When You Spot These Signs

This is all very well and good, you say, but firing people stinks! It does, but if you do it properly it can be quick and virtually painless for all. Firing someone should take less than 10 minutes. That’s right: A typical separation should take no more than 10 minutes tops.

Here’s how and why:

You’ve made your decision to let someone go. It’s not negotiable. You’ve prepared all the paperwork necessary for their separation: COBRA notifications, checklists for company property to be returned, passwords to be surrendered, information on severance, anything you offer. Call the employee at the last minute at the end of the day to meet with you. Do not send them a meeting request for 4:50 when they arrive at the office at 9. It’s cruel and they’ll spend the day speculating and complaining!

When they arrive, let them know they are being let go. Provide them information and any accompanying paperwork, ask for their property and wish them good luck in their future endeavors. Period. The End.

Do not apologize, do not negotiate. Having a person beg or plead for their job is cruel. Why subject them to that indignity? Let them know that your decision is final: You hope to get them through this process as quickly and painlessly as possible, but there is no negotiation. Tell them you wish them well, but there’s no point in prolonging the meeting, nor damaging their dignity.

Ant that’s it – 99 percent of separations are this easy and smooth. (For the occasionally violent employee, I often had an officer on hand, and luckily in a few cases!) In my experience, people want to leave with their pride intact, and it’s up to you to assure that happens. If you structure your time with them as professionally and tersely as possible, they’ll rise to the occasion.

In my many years in HR I rarely felt guilty for firing someone, unless a manager insisted on letting someone go despite my objections – but hey, you can’t win them all! If an employee knew they were violating policy and chose not to correct the behavior, they were responsible for their fate. If an employee was just toxic or unhappy, I often found the root of their misery was the job, the company, or something internal. Moving on was a good thing for them. Many employees I’ve run into later tell me getting fired was the best thing that happened to them. Getting fired forced them to find a better opportunity, and they were happy and thriving – but they wouldn’t have taken the leap themselves.

Determining the need and time to fire an employee is difficult but necessary – not only for your company but often for your employees themselves. When it’s time to terminate, make it quick and painless – but make it happen.

How to fire an employee

Now that you have a good idea of what to look for when it comes to warning signs that an employee may be about to quit, it’s time to learn how to actually fire them.Firing an employee is never easy, but sometimes it becomes necessary for the sake of your business and team. When it comes to terminating someone’s employment, it’s crucial to handle the situation with professionalism and empathy. Here are some steps you can take when it’s time to let an employee go.

1. Be Prepared: Before firing an employee, make sure you have all the necessary documentation regarding performance issues or policy violations. This will help support your decision and minimize any legal risks.

2. Choose the Right Time and Place: Find a private location where you can have a conversation without interruptions or distractions. It’s important to respect their privacy during this difficult moment.

3. Be Clear and Direct: When delivering the news, be honest about why they are being terminated while maintaining a calm and respectful tone. Avoid using vague language or sugar-coating the situation.

4. Listen Empathetically: Allow them to express their thoughts or concerns but avoid getting into arguments or debates that may escalate tensions further.

5. Offer Support: If possible, provide resources such as outplacement services or assistance with finding new job opportunities in order to help ease their transition.

Remember that every termination situation is unique, so adapt these steps accordingly based on individual circumstances within your organization.

What to do after firing an employee

After the challenging task of firing an employee, it’s important to take certain actions to ensure a smooth transition and maintain productivity within your team. Here are some crucial steps to follow after letting go of an employee.

Communicate the news with the remaining staff in a professional yet compassionate manner. Address any concerns or questions they may have while emphasizing that confidentiality is key. This will help alleviate any potential anxiety or uncertainty among your team members.

Next, redistribute workload and responsibilities among existing employees or consider hiring temporary help if necessary. Ensure that everyone understands their new tasks and provide additional support as needed during this adjustment period.

Additionally, conduct exit interviews with departing employees whenever possible. This can provide valuable insights into areas for improvement within your organization and potentially uncover any systemic issues contributing to turnover.

It’s also essential to review relevant policies and procedures following termination. Analyze whether adjustments need to be made based on lessons learned from this experience.

Focus on rebuilding team morale by fostering open communication channels and encouraging collaboration among employees moving forward. Recognize achievements and celebrate successes as you work towards maintaining a positive work environment.

Firing an employee is never easy, but taking these post-firing steps can help minimize disruption and set your team up for future success.


Knowing when and how to fire an employee is a challenging task for any employer or manager. It requires careful consideration and thoughtful decision-making. By recognizing the warning signs, identifying the final straw, and following proper protocols for termination, you can navigate this process effectively.

Remember that terminating an employee should always be a last resort. Before making this difficult decision, explore alternative solutions such as additional training or performance improvement plans.

When it becomes clear that termination is necessary, handle the situation with respect and professionalism. Clearly communicate the reasons for termination, provide support during the transition period if possible, and maintain confidentiality throughout.

After firing an employee, take steps to ensure continuity in your team’s productivity by assessing workload distribution and providing necessary support to remaining employees. Reflect on lessons learned from the experience to avoid similar situations in the future.

Firing an employee may not be easy or pleasant but sometimes it’s necessary for both parties involved. By understanding when it’s time to let someone go and handling terminations with care, you can maintain a healthy work environment while protecting your business interests.

Remember that every situation is unique; there are no foolproof rules about when exactly you should terminate an employee. Trust your judgment as a leader while considering legal requirements and maintaining empathy towards your staff members’ well-being.

By finding a balance between company needs and individual growth opportunities, you can create a supportive workplace where employees thrive – even amidst difficult decisions like letting someone go.

Photo: Patrik Nygren

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