I’ve had to fire several employees over my past 15-plus years as a businesses owner.
It’s never easy.
But as owners, we all have to do it at some point. Our employees work too closely with clients and reflect too directly on our brands to keep them on staff if they aren’t the right fit.
If I’ve learned one thing about letting people go, it’s that having the right procedures in place and paperwork ready makes a world of difference in the experience. And while it can’t give you total peace of mind, you’ll feel much better making sure you’ve covered your bases.
I’m no lawyer, and employment laws can vary a lot by state, so you definitely need to make sure you discuss all your personnel issues with a local attorney. That said, here are the basics of what I’ve learned and implemented at my own businesses when it comes to terminating employees.
Documentation is Your Best Friend
Most states are “at-will employment” states, which basically means an employer can terminate an employee for any reason, at any time, and conversely that an employee can quit her/his position at any time without any reason.
However, federal law protects certain groups from discrimination. Even though lawsuits aren’t common after terminations, they do happen, so you need to be able to prove that you didn’t let anyone go because of their gender, religion, race, national origin, etc. – either intentionally or unintentionally.
To prove you didn’t discriminate, you’ll need documents that show that the employee in question failed to meet the expectations you gave them.
So, the first step is to make sure they understand your expectations by having them review and sign a few documents when they’re hired:
1. An Employee Handbook
In addition to general guidelines for behavior, the employee handbook should clearly outline your business’ disciplinary process and the grounds that can lead to termination. It should include a statement that employment is at-will, if you live in an at-will state, and that you reserve the right to terminate an individual without notice at any time.
Most employers follow an escalating step policy regarding terminations starting with a verbal warning, followed by a written warning, performance improvement plans (which can be added at any stage in your process), and ending with termination. All of these steps need to be documented and discussed with your employee; keeping “secret” documentation doesn’t help anyone and only makes you look underhanded and untrustworthy.
Review your employee handbook with your employee when they’re hired, point out the disciplinary process and then have them sign that they’ve read the handbook. Keep a copy of the signed document and give the employee a copy, too.
Finally, have your attorney review your entire handbook, paying particular attention to the termination procedures. Sometimes what seems like perfectly harmless language can get an employer into trouble with terminations.
2. A Job Description
Job descriptions should outline an employee’s specific responsibilities, required skills and education, and duties for the position you are hiring. Not only does the job description set the tone for expectations for the position, but it can be really important during later conversations for employees who are underperforming and may face termination.
Remember to re-visit your employee’s job description periodically. It’s natural for job descriptions to be dynamic and for roles to change, but you should capture these changes so that employees can’t argue that certain tasks or behaviors aren’t or weren’t in their job descriptions. Eliminate wiggle room as much as you can. Plus, it’s only fair to your employees to let them know if expectations and roles have changed.
Document Any Problems
At some point, you may notice some problem behavior from one of your employees that’s serious enough to warrant considering whether it’s a good idea to keep them on board.
That’s when you need to start the disciplinary process outlined in your employee handbook. Of course, there are some offenses that require immediate termination (theft, assault, etc.), and it may be worth noting a few examples of grounds for immediate termination in your handbook, too.
To document a violation, always write up a detailed description of what the violation or underperformance is. Include details such as specific statements or comments made if the issue surrounds an argument type of situation – yes, including any profanity used. (You can document specific language by putting a statement or word in quotes if it was actually said by the employee.) Also include the date, time, location and names of other individuals or witnesses to the incident.
If the situation is a minor one and you’re just looking for performance improvement, draft your plan before you meet with the employee and implement the official disciplinary process.
Meet and Make an Improvement Plan
Once you have your documentation, it’s time to meet with the employee and discuss the situation.
Outline your issues and any of the problems that you documented. Give the employee the opportunity to read your documentation and gather their thoughts. Truly listen to the employee, give them a chance to explain from their position (if appropriate) and also allow them a chance to document their version of events. Sometimes it’s surprising to hear that other things have been happening which may have influenced or caused problematic behavior.
Be as flexible as you can – within reason – especially when developing an improvement plan. Just as job descriptions sometimes morph, your improvement plan needs to be adaptable depending on the feedback you receive from the employee. Make sure all of your performance improvement plans are specific and include clear goals and steps that are measurable, realistic, and have deadlines. If necessary, include steps like re-training or employee development as you are able.
The plan should be written in such a way that your employee understands that they will be terminated at the end of the designated time period if the expected outcomes are not achieved. Often performance plans are based on 30, 60, or 90 day increments.
You always need to sign and date each piece of your documentation. It’s a good idea to ask your employee to also sign it, too, but you can’t make them. Some will just flat out refuse. If that happens, don’t make a big deal out of it, just write a note on the document stating that the employee refused to sign it. Let the employee know and see you do this.
This is not required for legal purposes; it just makes things a little neater and cleaner.
Anything that shows that the employee is not fulfilling their employment requirements – any and all official verbal warnings, written warnings, performance improvement plans, poor performance evaluations, customer complaints, etc. should be documented and shared as it occurs with with that employee, or it could be argued that they didn’t know there was a problem.
This isn’t just for negative experiences, either; employees should always know where they stand in terms of performance whether they are underperforming or overperforming.
Prepare for the Final Meeting
In the case of an improvement plan where the employee did not improve or the plan was not met by the established date, you’ll need to decide whether or not this person continues as an employee. Good thing you have all your documentation; it makes the process much less painful for everyone involved.
Set your meeting with the employee and be upfront that the reason for the meeting is to discuss the performance improvement plan and/or violation/incident. Make sure that you have all of your documentation with you, including the employee’s file if necessary.
It’s also helpful to have a list of all company property the employee has so that you can be sure to collect it after the meeting ends. Consider things such as keys, cell phones, laptops, portable WiFis, etc. You can also ask for password information for desktop computers, company voicemail, email, and software accounts, but they don’t have to provide this to you.
If you’re offering severance, that documentation needs to be presented at the time of the final meeting and ABSOLUTELY needs to be reviewed by your attorney first. All other information such as health insurance, COBRA, final paycheck issues can be handled via the mail. If personal items need to be collected, let the former employee know that you will box the items up and schedule a time for them to meet you and pick them up. It’s best to limit access to the business if you can and immediately change passwords or access to any business software or company information.
Finally, plan exactly what you’ll say: choosing your specific words ahead of time will make the meeting easier. Remember to be empathetic, but direct, and keep the conversation focused on the problems you’ve documented. Don’t let yourself be dragged into conversations about other employees or other issues that could confuse the conversation and lead you to say things that may hurt you later.
If you feel uneasy about the meeting or the termination, don’t hesitate to consult a lawyer. It’s always better to be safe rather than sorry.
At the end of the meeting, escort the terminated employee immediately to the door – that makes things less uncomfortable for both your ex-employee and your current staff, and is safer for everyone (sadly, this has become standard procedure).
As I mentioned before, termination lawsuits are uncommon, but they can pop up at any time (employment discrimination claims do have a statute of limitations). Keep all of your personnel documentation in a locked and secure place in case you need it later or just need to review the circumstances of the situation.
Most sports academies don’t have the luxury of a Human Resources department to help them with all this personnel work. If you find yourself falling behind, just remember the basics: terminating someone’s job should begin long before the actual firing – never a knee-jerk reaction, and the right documentation is essential for protecting yourself and your business.
Finally, it’s much less stressful and expensive to avoid terminations whenever you can. Being involved and aware of your business’ working environment and in regular communication with each of your employees goes a long way to avoiding them.
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