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Firing Problem Employees: What Every Manager Needs to Know

How many times have you read about a disgruntled worker suing a former employer for wrongful termination? And how aggravating is it when the former employee wins the case and is awarded a substantial settlement -- even though the person was terminated for good reason? Here's how you can prevent a similar situation in your own organization

Many wrongful termination cases can be entirely avoided if managers follow a few simple guidelines and steer clear of some common but easily avoided mistakes. One of the biggest mistakes is failing to properly discipline a poor performer.

The following is an edited excerpt from the Kiplinger audio conference titled Firing Problem Employees: What Every Manager Needs to Know. Employment attorney Laura Liss, partner in the Employment Relations Practice Group and Michael Best & Friedrich in Chicago, explains why early, effective discipline is so important, and she offers some basic techniques to help guarantee successful discipline:

Many managers would like to avoid the discipline process altogether, because it’s not pleasant. But that’s a big mistake. Supervisors have to actively address matters relating to discipline. It’s far easier to nip a problem in the early stages than to tackle it later. So here are some steps to follow in any disciplinary action:


1. Investigate thoroughly. A manager needs to know the full situation before taking any action. Look at the employee’s personnel record and investigate any complaints that may have been filed against the person. Know your facts before you take any action.

2. Don't procrastinate. If one employee gets away with something, others are sure to follow suit. One of the quickest ways to lose control of employees’ behavior is to let problems slide.

3. Be compassionate. Warnings and other actions are intended to improve the working environment, not to be destructive. If you have a probationary period, use that time to evaluate and eliminate future problems.

4. Follow up on disciplinary measures. For all of your employees, set up goals with specific timelines and make sure to follow up. If a problem occurs during the specified time, address it and document it.


5. Avoid sarcasm, idle threats or any form of abuse. This may seem obvious, but sometimes you can become so frustrated with a problem employee that you lash out. Venting may make you feel better in the short run, but it will not serve you well in the long term. Remember to always maintain your professionalism.

6. Conduct all disciplinary meetings in private. This is especially important since today’s offices often have open designs with cubicles that offer little privacy. It’s vital that no other employees can hear the disciplinary meeting.

7. If problems have occurred throughout the year, include them on the employee’s annual performance review. Honest performance reviews are critical. Reviews for star performers are easy, even enjoyable. Reviews for problem employees are the difficult ones. But it’s critical to be honest. If a problem employee brings litigation claiming wrongful termination, there’s nothing worse that having a personnel file full of good (or even average) performance reviews.

To learn more best practices for terminating a problem employee, click here to buy the recording of the full audio conference.


In addition to discipline best practices, you’ll learn:

• How to manage your mouth -- what you should and should not say

• What "at-will" employment means and how much protection it provides

• What to do when progressive discipline fails

• Critical steps to follow when conducting exit interviews

• The benefits of severance or separation agreements