How To Terminate an Employee (And What Not To Do)

Updated June 22, 2023

When you terminate an employee, it's important to do it professionally and ethically. Not only do you need to know what to do when terminating an employee, but you also need to know not to do. Understanding how to handle this sensitive process ensures an efficient and effective termination meeting.

In this article, we explain some reasons why you might want to terminate an employee and we provide you with a list of how to terminate an employee and a list of how not to terminate an employee.

Related: 45 Better Ways To Tell an Employee They Are "Fired"

Why should you terminate an employee?

If you plan to let an employee go, you need a specific reason why. For example, maybe an employee's behavior impacts your business, hurts workplace morale or poses a health or safety risk to your employees. Keep in mind that your reason for terminating an employee needs to comply with state and federal laws. Here are some common reasons for terminating an employee:

  • Performance-related issues

  • Attendance or chronic tardiness issues

  • Criminal behavior or theft

  • Violence or threats against employees

  • Company reorganization

  • Poor personality or attitude

While you can terminate an employee for any of these reasons, your final decision should depend on the facts and circumstances of each case and employee.

Related: All You Need To Know About Termination for Cause

How to terminate an employee

Knowing how to properly end someone's employment can make the process more efficient. In fact, following proper protocol when terminating an employee makes the termination easier for the employee to accept and protects your company from potential litigation in the future. Here's how to properly terminate an employee:

Document issues and warnings prior to the termination

Before you terminate an employee, make sure you've documented the various reasons that lead to your decision. For example, perhaps an employee has consistently threatened their colleagues. Take note of each of these instances as it provides you with support during the meeting and potentially during a court case if it comes to that. In addition, take note of any warnings you've given your employee such as a poor performance review. Having proof of your efforts to notify them of their shortcomings makes it easier for them to realize you tried to warn them before you made your final decision.

Bring your documentation to the termination meeting

Have your documentation in order prior to the start of the meeting. Bring performance reviews, written warnings and relevant correspondence you've had with the employee during their employment. This allows you to review them and have proof of the reason why you're terminating their employment.

Prepare a termination document

While you shouldn't make the termination meeting longer than it should be, make sure to cover all of the essentials. Prepare a transition document that highlights important details regarding their termination. Be specific regarding the next steps such as their last day of employment, their final paycheck, their benefits, ongoing projects and their unused vacation days. Make sure everything's definite and that they have all the information they need before the end of the meeting. Have them sign the termination document and give them a copy of it. You should also keep a copy in the personnel file.

Download Termination Letter Template

To upload the template into Google Docs, go to File > Open > and select the correct downloaded file.

Have the meeting in a private location

Hold the termination meeting in a private location such as your office. Make sure the location you choose prevents interruptions and isn't subject to observation. Since it's a sensitive matter, it's important to treat it as such and give the employee the courtesy of holding the meeting in a private location.

Listen to what they have to say

When you terminate an employee, they may react in shock, denial, anger or grief. Take the time to listen to what they have to say to determine their exact emotions regarding the news of their termination. Knowing how they feel about the situation can help you provide them with the right response.

Use a checklist

Use an employment termination checklist to keep you focused when you meet with the employee you plan to let go. Having a checklist ensures you address everything you need to during the meeting. Your checklist should essentially provide you with guidance on how to let the employee know what they can expect legally and from your company once you end their employment. The checklist also serves as proof of what was discussed during the meeting.

Be respectful

When you meet with the employee, treat them with kindness and respect. Instead of arguing, be firm, polite and professional as you inform them of your decision. Even though you're letting them go, ending on a cordial note helps them feel grateful for the time they spent with your company.

Allow them to ask questions

The employee you let go has the right to ask questions regarding your decision. Give them the time to ask anything they'd like about why you chose to dismiss them and about the next steps. Since people have different reactions to this type of situation, it's important to give them the time to voice their thoughts. Provide them with honest answers and avoid a debate or a heated argument.

Hold the termination meeting at the end of the day

Be respectful of the situation and the employee you're letting go by opting for a quieter time of day for the termination meeting. Instead of letting an employee go in the middle of the day, wait until the end of their workday when fewer people around. This avoids unnecessary questions and prying eyes.

Change security account information and logins

Even if you no longer grant them access to your company's systems, make sure to change the passwords and computer access logins and entry codes as a precaution. If they feel bitter about their termination, changing this information prevents them from doing something maliciously such as logging in and stealing information from your organization.

Act quickly

Once you have a well-thought-out reason for terminating an employee, make your decision and act on it quickly. Since the reason you're firing them likely has to do with the effect they're having on the company or your employees, it's best to put a stop to it as soon as possible.

Thank them for their contributions

Even though you're letting go of an employee, it's important to thank them for the valuable contributions they made during their employment. This helps you end the meeting on a positive note and shows them that you value them despite having to let them go. Make sure to wish them well and shake their hand before their departure.

Related: 7 Steps for Effectively Terminating an Employee

How not to terminate an employee

Just as you should conduct yourself in a certain manner during a termination meeting, you should also avoid certain actions. Aim for professionalism in all of your termination meetings and avoid making the situation any harder than it has to be. Here's how not to terminate an employee:

Don't terminate an employee until you meet with them face-to-face

Instead of terminating an employee over the phone, via letter, via email or via phone call, wait until you meet with them in person. Since you're letting them go from your company, it's important to give them the courtesy of a face-to-face meeting. Even though you're terminating their employment, you need to treat them with respect. Therefore, it's important to terminate them in a manner that doesn't hurt your relationship with your remaining employees.

Don't terminate without prior performance evaluations

Don't make your employee feel blindsided. Prior to their termination, make sure they receive performance feedback and proper coaching. Not only does this provide them with a warning, but it also allows you to find a potential reason to determine terminate them and identify what's causing them to fail.

Related: How To Write an Employee Evaluation in 6 Steps

Don't terminate an employee without a witness

To avoid a potential employment termination case, have a second employee sit in the termination meeting. Not only do they serve as a witness, but they can also speak up when you don't know what to say next. Consider inviting someone from human resources who has more experience with dismissing employees. Using their experience, they can keep the discussion on track and ensure that the employee receives fair, equal and professional treatment.

Don't make it a long conversation

If you've provided the employee with performance evaluations and feedback that lets them know they're not meeting expectations, you don't need to reiterate your dissatisfaction. Since most employees ask for the reason for their termination, prepare a summarized answer that doesn't give too much detail or places blame. For example, instead of listing all the ways they've failed, simply state that you've already discussed their performance issues and that you're letting them go because their performance doesn't meet the company's standards and what they expect from that position.

Make sure to end on a positive note and wish them well with their future endeavors and in a position that's a better fit for them. In addition, you can emphasize that given their many talents, you're confident they'll find another position to pursue. Overall, keep the conversation brief and don't go into too much detail. In fact, if you provide too much detail, it can hinder your ability to use information you discover after the termination in a potential lawsuit.

Don't let them think it's not a final decision

Make sure employees know that you've made a final decision regarding their termination. Don't let them think they have the opportunity to change your mind. If you have time before scheduling their termination meeting, make sure to come up with reasonably articulated reasons to terminate them.

Don't forget to ask them to return company property

Before the end of the termination meeting, ask the employee to return their key, door pass, their company badge and any other company-owned equipment or technology. You can accompany them to their workspace to collect the items they don't have on hand before you escort them out of the building. If they don't have all of the company equipment with them that day, make arrangements as to when you can expect to receive it. Make sure to follow up with them regarding any equipment you haven't received by the date they promised to return it.

Don't give them access to the company's electronic systems

Right before or during your meeting with the employee, terminate their access to your company's electronic systems, such as their employee email account. Coordinate with your information technology (IT) department to ensure they no longer have access to the systems. You can also check with the IT department to determine what company information they may have taken in the weeks leading up to their termination.

Don't end the meeting with negativity

End the meeting on a positive note and consider giving them confidence as they continue on with their career. For example, you can talk about job searching, suggest positions that might align with their skill set or let them know that you value their contributions. Sending them off with words of encouragement lets them know you still respect them.

Related: Termination vs. Resignation: Definitions and Differences


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