Deciding When to Fire an Employee: 7 Things to Remember when Terminating Someone

Deciding when to fire an employee can be complex and emotional. In some instances, dismissing an employee can come with mixed emotions. It may become tough for you to let go of someone when there isn’t a clear-cut reason for their termination.

It’s easy to terminate someone when there’s just cause—instances of ongoing subpar performance, poor work ethic., misconduct, policy violations, or negligence may all constitute justification for the termination of an employment contract. Nevertheless, personal feelings and subjectivity can often obscure the decision-making process. As a result, managers and executives must exercise clear judgment when deciding to fire someone. Oh yeah…and leverage your legal and HR teams before you do anything.

This article discusses seven things to remember when firing an employee. Specifically, these points will serve as a checklist to go through before making the final decision on when to let someone go.

when to fire someone

1. Draw a line in the sand

The proverbial “line in the sand” stands for objective criteria that delineate when your company has invested too much time and effort into an employee. Naturally, an underperforming employee requires all the support needed to help them improve. Actions like training, coaching, mentoring, or training courses can help boost an employee’s skills leading to better results.

Nevertheless, you must make a reasonable assessment at some point. Will the employee turn this around or not? Is it fair to expect they will deliver on the potential you first saw in them?

Eventually, you will need to draw a line in the sand. This action implies setting firm goalposts. If the employee cannot make the mark, they must go.

For example, an underperforming salesperson has received training and coaching sessions for six months. Yet, they continue to fall short of their monthly sales targets. Moreover, their lack of sales has negatively affected the overall sales team.

At this point, you decide it’s time to let them go. You feel that six months has been long enough to produce tangible results. But why six months? Why not eight, ten, or even a year?

More often than not, your experience and instincts have taught you when an employee is willing to turn things around. Mark Twain once said, “Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.” Indeed, employees who are eager to work hard often get the results, especially when they struggle. Ultimately, the best yardstick is their willingness to put in the hard work to produce small, albeit incremental results.

Reflect on your thoughts

2. Reflect on your thoughts

We all tend to get caught up in our emotions from time to time. Sometimes deciding when to fire an employee becomes a truly emotional decision. It is one of those “heat of the moment” situations. Nevertheless, no one fires a good employee on the spot. Thus, if the thought of firing someone has crossed your mind, there isn’t very much they can do to change your mind. At this stage, deciding when to fire an employee is only a matter of time.

Consider this situation:

An employee’s negative attitude has begun festering within their department. You have heard consistent complaints about this individual. As a result, the idea of letting them go has crept into your mind. Nevertheless, there hasn’t been a catalyst to spur you to act. As Paul Foster, CEO and Founder of The Business Therapist, once said, “Dealing with employee issues can be difficult, but not dealing with them can be worse.”

What can we distill from this idea?

If you’re contemplating letting go of someone, you should act sooner rather than later. Take the time to reflect on your thoughts carefully. Come up with a solid reason for your decision, and then act accordingly. Putting off a decision will only make matters worse.

3. Analyze the root cause

When firing someone, you must ask yourself why. When the root cause is clear, dismissing an employee is a slam-dunk decision. For instance, when an employee engages in misconduct (e.g., harassment or drug abuse), policy violations (i.e., negligence or breach of trust), or even illegal activity (theft or fraud), firing them is a no-brainer.

Things get complicated, though, when there isn’t a definite issue underpinning your gut feeling. Here’s a good checklist of some questions to consider before rendering your verdict:

  • Does the employee fully understand what their duties and responsibilities entail?
  • Has the employee received adequate training for their position?
  • Has the employee had enough supervision and guidance?
  • Are the position’s expectations clear enough?
  • Is the employee truly ready for the position?

The next question involves careful introspection:

  • Did I hire the wrong person for this position?

Being frank about your role is key. It could be that you merely made an error in judgment. The employee seemed like a worthy candidate for the position at the time. However, the employee didn’t work out. Such things happen and serve as learning experiences.

4. Get input from those around you

Reflecting on your thoughts is a great place to start. Your introspection should help you get a good sense of the root causes motivating your thought process. Nevertheless, you may seek input from trusted colleagues, supervisors, and peers. Getting input from others can help you avoid that “is it just me?” feeling by confirming your overall assessment of an employee.

Getting input from others around you helps avoid confirmation bias. Indeed, confirmation bias can be a dangerous situation to contend with. For instance, you’ve decided to fire someone but can’t quite pin down a reason for it. So, you look for reasons to justify your rationale. Third-party perspective, including with input from legal and HR, helps you focus on objectivity

Journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Kathryn Shulz sums up confirmation bias as “…the tendency to give more weight to evidence that confirms our beliefs than to evidence that challenges them.” Indeed, getting input from others around you is about challenging your perception. In doing so, you can ensure that you’re making an informed decision and not just going on a “gut feeling.”

5. Be transparent

Transparency is a crucial matter. Therefore, blindsiding an employee with dismissal is ultimately unfair. An employee should get the chance the rectify the areas you feel need improvement.

Therefore, performance reviews are an essential part of transparency. However, there might be issues that require your urgent attention—as such, waiting six months or even a year for a performance review might be too long.

For instance, you feel there’s an issue that requires immediate attention, don’t delay. Set up a meeting to discuss the situation with your employee. Most importantly, document the case. Documenting the case allows you to create an action plan with a prudent timeline in mind.

Consider this situation:

An employee failed a drug test. So, you addressed the situation, created an action, and set a timeline. Then, they failed another follow-up drug test. At that point, you may be able to proceed with dismissing the employee pending local and state laws. After all, you gave them every chance to rectify the situation. Furthermore, documenting the entire process helps protect your company in case of a complaint.

get HR involved

6. Involve HR as soon as possible

A good rule of thumb is to involve your human resources department as soon as possible. Bringing your concerns to your HR helps document the process and allows you to seek input from other sources.

However, we often make the mistake of trying to handle things ourselves. Thus, you must make a judgment call at this point. Is the problem big enough to involve HR? In this situation, it’s always best to err on the side of caution. Don’t be afraid to take your concerns to HR. It’s always best to act proactively than to wait too long.

7. Get all facts

When deciding to fire an employee, your decision should ultimately boil down to facts. Naturally, there are subjective issues to consider. There is nothing wrong with trusting your instincts. However, it’s essential to document your entire decision-making process adequately. In doing so, you validate your instincts with objective data.

Consider this situation:

An employee continues to produce subpar results. After providing training opportunities and conducting several performance reviews, you assess that they will not turn this around. Your decision to fire the employee rests on the evidence you collected. As a result, you can sit down with them and explain what factors motivated your decision.

Investor and entrepreneur Sam Altman once discussed that terminating an employment contract is better for the company and the employee. Indeed, this idea holds true. There are instances where the employee and company simply aren’t the right fit.

How can TalentZök Help You Make the Right Call?

At TalentZök, we have a wealth of experience in staffing, recruiting, and human capital management. We know what it’s like to be in your position. We understand the mixed emotions and careful consideration when deciding to fire an employee. At TalentZök we strive to become your trusted partner, particularly when making tough decisions. Our professional staff is ready to support you. Learn more today about how we can help you throughout the decision-making process.


This post is made available for informational purposes only to provide a general understanding of the topics discussed herein. It is not intended to provide specific business, legal, or professional advice, and should not be relied on as such. TalentZök is not liable or responsible for any damage or loss arising from any reliance placed on such materials.

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