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How I Knew It Was Time to Fire My ‘Best’ Employee

4-minute read

Firing an employee can be one of the toughest issues a small business owner like this man faces.
Emily Thompson

Emily Thompson

15 January 2020

He was smart, creative, educated, and had a dream resume. But a few months into the job, I let him go.

Let's call him, “Paul.”*

I had high hopes for Paul. His resume boasted experience, and his intellect was unmatched. But what he offered in brainpower, he lacked in integrity. Ultimately, Paul became the first person I fired.

Though he got off the ground running, his productivity waned. Paul spent hours browsing the web, and when I gave assignments, he disagreed and argued. Even then I held on, too afraid to let him go. I asked myself, what if he improved? Was he really that bad?

Yes, he was that bad at his job.

When I finally ended Paul’s employment, it was better for both of us. But I should have acted sooner. The experience wasted time, resources, and took a toll on my confidence.

Do you have a “Paul” at your business—someone you’re considering firing? It’s not an easy decision, and if you don’t follow the correct process, you could put yourself and your business at risk.

The 5 Signs It’s Time to Let an Employee Go.

  1. They act entitled.

    It’s an unattractive quality, particularly in the workplace. Entitlement is rooted in a lack of humility. It disrupts teamwork and causes chaos. Here are a few signs you might have an entitled employee on your hands.

    • They believe they deserve the next promotion—without having the skills and experience to back it up.
    • They complain about everything, from their desk location to the food catered at lunch. Nothing is good enough.
    • They argue against authority and act above their job description.

    Watch out for entitled employees. Over time, their attitude hinders productivity and lowers team morale. But before termination, you should give clear feedback and offer an opportunity for the employee to change. Then, if need be, consider termination.

  2. Their productivity has been down—and it’s not going back up.

    If employees aren’t getting the job done, they shouldn’t be there. I’m not talking about a bad day or even a slow week. Many employees get sick or go through bad seasons. That’s normal. I’m talking about an employee who:

    • Constantly misses deadlines.
    • Is always late for meetings.
    • Makes careless mistakes.
    • Fails to produce results.
    • Doesn’t take responsibility for errors.

    The first step is to create a performance improvement plan. Outline clear goals, as well as consequences for failing to achieve these goals. Then give the employee time to complete the plan. If results aren’t met, then it’s time to consider termination.

  3. They exhibit toxic behavior.

    We don’t always mesh with our coworkers—and that’s okay. But toxic behavior is different. It involves bullying, yelling, arguing, and even harassment. Over time, toxic behavior creates a hostile work environment and can put your company at risk.

    In my opinion, toxic behavior needs to be addressed fast. Sit down with the employee and explain your concern, as well as repercussions. If the employee doesn’t change, work with human resources to start the termination process. If you don’t have a human resources professional, contact a legal professional.

  4. They violate company policies.

    Sometimes firing an employee is cut and dry. If someone has violated company policies, you have to follow procedures. After all, a violation could open you up to a lawsuit related to professional liability.

    But, not all small businesses have documented rules. To help, here are common issues you should watch for:

    • Taking too many (or too long) breaks.
    • Inaccurately recording time and pay.
    • Stealing company property.
    • Missing days of work or being late too often.
    • Displaying discrimination or harassment in the workplace.
    • Violating safety and health requirements.
    • Sharing company proprietary data.
    • Failing to follow information security standards.

    The first violation may not be cause for termination, but it could prompt a warning. Work with human resources to document issues and take steps toward firing, if necessary.

  5. They use drugs and alcohol at work.

    Early in my career, I witnessed this scenario. A coworker went through a hard time, and over several weeks, abused alcohol at work. It made me sad, but I understood the decision to let this employee go. Workers who exhibit addictions are, at worst, liabilities to the company, and at best, inefficient.

    Try talking to the employee about your concerns. Substance abuse can cause absences, workplace injuries, and a decline in productivity. Offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) if your business has one. If not, suggest other community resources. If the behavior continues, consider letting the employee go.

So You’ve Made the Decision to Say Goodbye. Now What?

First, pat yourself on making the choice. It’s a difficult and often traumatic one—but it’s important. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, a bad hire can cost a company cost a company at least 30% in the employee’s first-year earnings. For small business owners, that’s a big threat.

As you move ahead, it’s critical to follow the right path toward termination. Otherwise you can make an awful experience worse and risk a legal case. Here are some tips to cover your bases:

  • Offer “at-will employment.” Before hiring new employees, make sure you have an “at-will employment” clause written in your contract. This will give you the leeway to fire an employee for no reason.
  • Institute a probationary period. This is a window of time, usually right after you’ve hired employees, when you can easily fire them without risking legal issues.
  • Document poor behaviors. This is critical. If you do get sued, you’ll want proof of your case.
  • Give a warning. Often the first step isn’t termination. It’s a warning or employee improvement plan. This gives the employee an opportunity to correct their behavior so you can avoid firing them altogether.
  • Bring in human resources or legal expertise. A lot of small businesses don’t have a full human resources department. But if you do, make full use of their expertise. A human resources or legal professional can walk you through your state’s laws and offer recommendations on the best action plan.
  • Carry a good business insurance plan. Hopefully you already have coverage to protect your company and its assets. But if not, it’s time to get a quote. Business insurance can cover legal fees and other costs associated with a loss or lawsuit.

Above all, I hope you don’t get into this situation often. Termination is tough on both managers and their employees. But sometimes a bad fit is just that—a bad fit. If you can identify when it’s time to let go and then take appropriate action with dignity and grace, it can be a learning experience for everyone involved.

*Name has been changed for privacy.

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Emily Thompson

Written by

Emily Thompson

I earned a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin at Madison (go Bucky). After realizing my first job might involve carrying a police scanner at 2 am in pursuit of “newsworthy” crimes, I decided I was better suited for freelance blogging and marketing writing. Since 2010, I’ve owned my freelance writing business, EST Creative. When I’m not penning, doodling ideas, or chatting with clients, you’ll find me hiking with my husband, baby boy, and 2 mischievous mutts.

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