When an employee who has been with your company for years is no longer dependable, you may dread what will surely be awkward and painful conversations with the employee. After all, that employee has been with the company through thick and thin, and you have relied on him or her for many aspects of your business. The employee has risen in the ranks as your company has grown, and held it all together during rocky periods. When something changes in the employee’s attitude and he or she has become a drain on your time and resources, it is time to cut ties. You can do this in ways to minimize hurt feelings and retribution with careful planning.

First, look back to see when the problems started. Have you documented problems and had discussions early on to correct issues? Possibly not. Having conversations early on and documenting your discussions may nip the behavior in the bud, and, failing that, it will help you defend your actions after the fact. If attendance is an issue or work performance has been lacking, you may use a performance review or performance plan to shift the employee back on track before the problems become insurmountable. A probationary period may be appropriate. A performance plan should set the minimum requirements of the employee’s position and discuss remedial actions the employee will be required to take. However, if the problems are egregious and disruptive, or beyond correction, it is time to cut ties.

Don’t let the fear of litigation lock you into a prison of poor performers. Taking actions early on, and discussing your options with an attorney or a professional, will best prepare you to avoid such pitfalls. You may not, for example, fire an employee due to their age, disability, gender, religion, race or national origin, and in Iowa and some other states, their sexual orientation. However, any employee who is a poor performer may be fired for violating company policy or failing to achieve the minimum requirements of their position.

Prepare for the meeting by discussing the issue with a trusted advisor and deciding on an approach of respect. Stick to the facts and explain honestly why the employee’s performance or behavior has caused you to take the action to terminate his or her employment. Set up a time and an out-of-the-way private room to hold your meeting.  Think about whether security may be an issue and prepare accordingly. Include another person in your meeting to ensure there is a witness to keep the situation calm and to act as a witness should the employee claim the meeting went down differently. Prepare materials the employee can take with him or her with information and forms to extend health benefits, as well as other helpful information. Include the employee’s last paycheck. This keeps potential negative interaction in the future down to a minimum.

At the meeting, state simply and honestly that the employee is terminated and state the reason. It should not be a surprise to the employee. Offer for the employee to resign. Be careful not to overcompensate by overly praising the employee out of your own guilt. This will add confusion and resentment. Obtain the company keys and property at the meeting, if possible. If you plan to offer a separation package, you can discuss those details and your expectations on each side. For instance, let the employee know that you expect them to sign a separation agreement in exchange for the compensation you have offered. Make sure you advise that he or she may discuss the agreement with a lawyer before they sign and you compensate him or her.

After you have let a long-term employee go, consider the other employees. They will likely be affected by the termination of a long-time fixture at work. Help them with the transition by assigning work duties as needed and discussing the new paradigm at work. It can be difficult for a co-worker who has looked up to the long-term employee, or a contemporary of the employee who has been let go. These employees can begin to feel insecure. Handle this by letting them know where they stand and that you would discuss problems and issues with them as they arise. No termination should be a surprise to the employee.

Although letting go of a long-time employee can be difficult and fraught with tension, doing so carefully and with purpose will ease the transition for all involved. Careful preparation can help curtail emotional outbursts and limit legal repercussions. Navigating the situation deftly can ensure your other employees remain engaged and motivated through a transitional period.

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