How to fire an employee

by Latosha Craig


April 26, 2004



Table of Contents












   Donald Trump made the words “You’re Fired!” famous.  Those two words hold power and consequence.  As a manager, you may be put in the position to deliver those words to an employee.  With that responsibility, a manager must prepare efficiently and thoroughly before he or she can dismiss an employee.  How a manager executes the plan can mean a relatively smooth transition for the employee as well as the organization. Carelessness and inefficiency can result in legal ramifications as well as scarred reputation within the organization.

   However, managers must ensure that every policy has been followed.  Before an employee is officially terminated, he or she should be given the opportunity to correct the behavior or problem. This must be documented and followed closely by his or her supervisor.  Remember the process is only as good as the initiator.  However, there are some factors to consider. Consulting your organization’s policy should eliminate confusion and specify details for areas such as procedures or probation periods.  Mangers should also take into account other preventative measures to ensure employee productivity.  Regardless, the dismissal of an employee is one that requires planning from start to finish.   Callousness can result in legal claims as well as damage to the employee’s reputation and that of the organization management.  The guidelines presented here present the basics of firing an employee from problem solving to the actual dismissal. For the novice manager, this will serve as introduction to one of the components of human resource management.


Problem Solving


Dismissing an employee is a serious step. Before the situation progresses to that point, managers should consult formal policies. Most often measures are set in place to give the employee the opportunity to correct the behavior. Progressive discipline is described as “a series of rules and regulations involving steps to take to prevent or punish infractions of rules and regulations” (Kingsley, 1984, p.66). They vary from organization to organization. When an infraction occurs, a manager will heed a verbal warning. If the infraction occurs again, a written warning is given to the employee.  If the action is not corrected, a final and written warning will indicate termination of employment.  It is important that written warnings should clearly state:


1.      The problem

2.      Corrective actions to eliminate the problem

3.      The time frame in which this is to be accomplished


     Regardless of form, reprimands should be documented immediately and copies should be stored in the employee files.  This solidifies the employee’s dismissal in the event of termination and legal ramifications. However, these are not the only documents that can be used in determining dismissal.  Complaints by co-workers, customers, notes on meetings where concerns were voiced as well as letters of clarification are applicable.  However, they are somewhat informal.  Managers can express their concerns in writing without causing embarrassment or anxiety to the employee that is associated with formal warnings.  The contents of these documents should contain the same elements associated with written warnings. Letters of clarification are presented to the employee for his or her signature.  Employees do not have to sign this document.  However, a manager can and should call in a witness to verify that the letter was given if the employee denies being given the warning.


Tips to remember:

  1. Communicate clearly and effectively with your employee. Let him or her know what is expected in terms of goals, deadlines, etc.  When there is a problem, reveal the problem and what should be done to correct the situation.
  2. Document warnings and other relevant documents immediately whether they are verbal or written. They are legal documents that can be used in the event of a lawsuit.
  3. Perform regular performance evaluations.  When problems occur, tackle them early.
  4. Give the employee the opportunity to correct the problem.  Consult your organization’s policy manual to find out what is allowed. In some cases, the employee may suggest agreeable alternatives.








The Manager’s Role


    After preventative measures have been exhausted and dismissal is inevitable, it is your job to prepare for the exit interview.  A manager should decide who would conduct the interview, where the interview will proceed, when it will take place and who should be informed of the employee’s dismissal.


Who will conduct the interview?


     In most instances, the employee’s supervisor will be the person conducting the exit interview.  However, in some instances the department head may conduct the interview.  Personnel from the human resources department could participate in the meeting. In cases where the employee is known to be disruptive, security in addition to other personnel should be present.  Considering that this is an emotional time for the employee, it is suggested that the employee and his/her manager should be present.


Where will the interview take place?


     The interview should be scheduled in a vacant conference or meeting room. A dismissal should not be done in the employer’s office.  If the employee is disruptive, he or she may want to engage in an argument. In this instance, the employer may not be able to leave his or her office. Similarly, dependent upon location, this interaction could be disruptive to the office.  In a different location, the manager can leave the room, which indicates the end of the interview.


When will the interview take place?


    This varies employers.  Some argue that morning is the best time.  The justification is that this is the time when people are ready to start their day.  Others believe afternoon is a better time. If someone is dismissed at the end of the day, their chances of facing co-workers is less with most people ending their day. 

   Some employers’ feel firing workers at the end of the week is favorable because it allows a short period of rest as opposed to firing someone at the beginning of the week when workers are conditioned to routine.


Who should you tell?


  Being terminated is a stressful situation for anyone.  The fewer people know, the better it is for the process and the employee. The human resources department should be notified especially if a final paycheck is offered during the interview. If the manager reports to a department head, the department head should be notified in addition to other department heads where the employee works. You do not want to risk the employee knowing about his or her dismissal ahead of time. At some point after the final interview, you may make a brief announcement without going into detail.




     The manager or employee should gather the employee’s personnel file and discuss the formal reasons for termination.  Evaluations, warnings, complaints by co-workers, customers are valuable documents. This information should be assembled and present during the meeting in the event the employee raises issues regarding the dismissal.

   Other documentation should be assembled.  This includes printed copies of the organization’s retirement package, medical benefits and information on unemployment resources.  If applicable, a checklist of the organization’s item that needs to be returned should be included also.  Notify computer services that the employee’s password will be inactivated at certain time (shortly before the exit interview).


The Mock Interview

   After manager has performed all the necessary tasks, it is vital that the manager conduct a mock interview before the actual dismissal. This is extremely important because it establishes the delicate vocabulary that will be used in the meeting. Rehearse what you will say with an uninformed party or alone. 

    When firing someone, there should be no signs of hesitation or misleading in any way.  This leaves the employee confused.  It should be stated that this is a final decision and that there is no alternative. If you do not feel confident that you can carry out this action, inform your supervisor and have someone else do it. Be honest, open, and direct.  Do not make job offers or other promises that you are not able to fulfill.  If you can honestly be a reference, do so and only state positive things. Arguing and apologizing are inappropriate.  It is obvious that the employee did not fulfill his or her obligations.


Tips to remember:

  1. Make sure the manager has informed the employee of his or her unsatisfactory work practices or conduct. Inform him/her that termination is possible.
  2. Gather all relevant documentation before the final interview.  You have a legal obligation to explain the reasons for terminating the employee. Make sure that the employee’s work performance is documented.
  3. Give your employee an opportunity to correct his/her behavior.
  4. Keep your supervisor aware of the situation. 
  5. Give your employee the opportunity to explain his or her side of the story.
  6. Value the employee.  Place yourself in the employee’s position. Be respectful and tactful.
  7. Be prepared. Rehearse what you will say in the interview. This is an emotional process. Anticipate the unexpected.








The Exit Interview


    As the manager, the exit interview should consist of the following components:


Statement of dismissal

   This should be brief statement that clearly states the employee’s employment is being terminated. It should also include that the decision is final.


Reasons for dismissal

    They should be stated without specific detail.  If the employee initiates a discussion, be as brief as possible and move the interview along.


Reasons for dismissal in writing

    Some employees demand this. If so, express the reasons in general terms without specific detail.  This could be used in law proceedings.


Presentation of paycheck

     Presenting the last check is an option, but no necessary. In the event, a manager does not present the employee’s last check; the employee should receive his or her final check by the next pay period.


Severance pay and other benefits

   The Law does not require severance pay.  But, the employee must sign a waiver from the employer.  The waiver must be drafted carefully. This is also the time where the manager can inform the employee as to remaining benefits and present printed copies of explaining the benefits.



     If the employee requests a letter of reference, one should be prepared.  The reference should accurately and positively reflect the employee. Check your organization’s policy on references. Some organizations do not allow employers to give references without consent.


Options to firing

    Some employees may prefer to quit.  The employee usually broaches this option first. If applicable, arrangements should be made accordingly.


Leaving the premises

  At this point in the interview, the manager will tell the employee when to leave. Instructions on gathering personal possessions and returning the organization’s property should be given.  Gathering personal property should be done under the supervision of management.  Once the interview is over, the employee should not continue working.




 Tips for the interview:

  1. Be short and straight to the point. The interview should not last longer than 20 minutes.
  2. Be positive. Try and help the employee view the situation positively.
  3. Give the employee the opportunity to speak. Don’t encourage long discussions. Stay brief.
  4. Communicate what will happen next. Give instructions on how he or she will leave the premises.
  5. Explain benefits and other services available to him or her.
  6. Leave once everything is done.



After the Interview


  Once the interview is completed, a manager must record everything about the process. Put this document in the employee’s file. If there were additional persons present, they should document the interview also.


Informing other workers

   If you have fired an employee, other employees will find out at some point. Do not avoid your employees. Soon after the dismissal, make an announcement to your employees.  Give them the chance to express their concerns.  Once they are done, express that their input is valuable. However, do not go into detail or criticize the fired employee. By doing this, you can become the target of a lawsuit.


Factors to Consider


      There are a few ways that managers can safely and legally strengthen an institutions stance for the termination of an employee.


Policy Handbooks and Manuals

     Courts recognize policy manuals as long as they are written clearly and the policies are properly executed.  The manual should describe in detail the policies and procedures upheld by an organization.  That same manual should also spell out the conduct that is expected from employees as well as the organization's own values.  In the event of misconduct or policy violation, the policy should describe the ramifications and the processes management should follow in those instances.  Employees should receive copies of employee handbook that is derived from the management’s manual to include procedures, consequences and legal references.

    Before firing someone, consult your manual and determine if consequences clearly state under what conditions an employee can be fired. Pay attention to disclaimers that only show some examples but not a conclusive list of offenses that could result in termination. As a manager, make sure you are properly trained on how to enforce set ramifications without legal claims.


Tips to remember:

  1. Be consistent. Treat every employee in the same way.
  2. Follow policy and procedures.
  3. Be aware that certain groups can be potential defendants. (Women, minority groups, workers over the age of forty, and disabled persons). Handle these situations with extreme care.
  4. Documentation is extremely important.  Failure to document conduct and policy violations could lead to legal woes.
  5. Provide well-written job descriptions. Employees know what is expected.
  6. Investigate thoroughly and properly before pursuing the dismissal of an employee.


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