Employee Termination

Nick Staley
It’s an HR task you may dread: to fire someone. But as an HR professional, you will often be the one to inform an employee that their employment has ended. Is there a right way to do it? Absolutely. Is it an easy conversation to have? Never.

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What Do We Mean by Employee Termination?

Strictly speaking, the word termination describes any exit that occurs from the company. We often think of it as referring to an involuntary termination of employment—firing someone—but it also includes voluntary resignation. Learning how to deal with either is a fundamental skill of HR.

Types of Employee Termination

Let’s look at the different types of termination.

  • Voluntary termination. Voluntary termination occurs when an employee resigns (quits).
  • Involuntary termination. Sadly, there are times when you need to let someone go.
  • Mutual termination. This normally occurs when you are having a conversation with an employee who is underperforming. As you present the ways in which the employee hasn’t met expectations, the employee acknowledges something to the effect of, “This isn’t working out,” and the two of you come to an agreement to end the employment.

How to Know When Termination Is Needed

This can be extremely complicated. There are times when it is black and white and there is no other option than to fire someone. There are other times when it’s probably warranted, but is not as clear.

  • Harassment or creating a hostile work environment most frequently result in a clear-cut termination. Every company is required to provide a safe work environment, and that includes a culture of physical and psychological safety. If an employee is harassing another employee in any form—sexual, physical or psychological—that is grounds for termination. The same goes for an employee who creates a hostile work environment.
  • Performance. Underperformance can be due to a myriad of circumstances or outside influences. If it’s the first time an employee has underperformed, it probably doesn’t warrant termination. Discuss specific expectations for improvement and document them. If the employee still fails to meet expectations, termination may be necessary at that point.
  • Attitude. We have all experienced a coworker with a poor attitude or just an overall negative outlook on the company, work, or life. While this by itself isn’t grounds for termination, it can lead to poor performance and a hostile work environment. It’s something to pay attention to and work to correct as soon as possible.

How to Terminate an Employee the Right Way

It’s time to have that difficult conversation. No one enjoys it, but you have worked with the employee’s manager and determined that termination is the next step for a particular employee. How do you have that conversation, respect the employee, and protect your company from wrongful termination suits?

Step 1: Gather Your Documentation

Before you terminate someone, make sure you have documented everything related to the reason for termination. If it’s a harassment complaint, make sure you have statements from the person who brought the complaint to you and statements from others who witnessed it. If it’s performance-related, make sure you have documented the conversations you’ve had and steps you’ve taken to help improve performance. This does not get presented to the employee at time of termination, but is kept on file for any potential unlawful termination claims.

Step 2: Stick to the Facts

Keep it short and to the point. State that you are terminating their employment and the reason why. Follow any procedures you have in terms of retrieving keys or other company property. It’s best that you or security personnel walk with them to collect their belongings and escort them out of the building; this prevents potential conflict with other employees and ensures that they aren’t taking company property with them.

Step 3: Be Human (Be Kind)

At the end of the day, your biggest role as an HR professional is to do what’s best for the company and the other employees. But remember to take this action with a kind heart. Come from a place of sincerity when you wish them best of luck with their next role. Handle a termination the way you would want to be treated. Even though you are letting them go, they were a part of your work family. Pragmatically, treating people with respect also may decrease the anger and desire for revenge that leads to wrongful termination lawsuits.

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Questions You’ve Asked Us About Employee Termination

Should you have a witness when you terminate an employee?
In our opinion, yes. That way it doesn’t turn into a “he said, she said” scenario. You have one more person in the room to verify and corroborate everything that was said.
What is a mutual termination?
In mutual termination, an employee and employer both decide that it’s best for the employee to separate from the company.
Is being terminated the same as being fired?
In HR jargon, not really. Terminated is a term we use in the industry to talk about any exit that happens at a company. However, termination may be voluntary (as when someone quits) or involuntary (when they are fired).
Is it better for an employee to resign or be terminated?
If an employee resigns, you won’t be on the hook for unemployment benefits. But there are situations, such as a sexual harassment or hostile work environment, where you can’t wait for the employee to resign and you need to terminate their employment.
Nick Staley

Nick is a certified HR professional holding an SPHR and SHRM-CP. Nick has built HR teams from the ground up as well as worked for big corporations. Nick enjoys consulting and training those who are just getting started in HR. When not working, he enjoys spending time with his family.

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