What do I do if an employee becomes very emotional, or even threatening, when I terminate her?

The responses run the gamut from tears to shouts to threats of violence. If you have reason to believe that an employee might become emotional or even violent, you may want to arrange to have a mental health professional—perhaps a member of your company's Employee Assistance Program—or a security person present, depending on the reaction you suspect. This person should be nearby but not in the room with you when you communicate the news to the employee. In most cases, it would prove counterproductive to have these individuals present during the termination interview. Their presence may further anger or disrupt a potentially volatile employee.

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Increasingly, I hear about companies that escort terminated employees immediately out, whatever the cause of termination—from layoff to poor performance to a rule infraction. When it isn't called for, don't do it. Not only is this not always necessary, but it is likely to embarrass the fired worker and to unsettle coworkers who may be demoralized by the bum's rush being given a former colleague. Further, such behavior may so anger the terminated employee that she may institute a charge against the company, with or without cause, due to your firm's final treatment of her. She may not win but the cost in wasted time may be significant.

Do I need to document the termination meeting?

Yes. Documentation of the termination meeting is important, regardless of the reason for termination. Actually, documentation of termination due to a serious rule infraction may be more important than documentation of a termination meeting due to continued poor performance. Assuming that the incident is serious, necessitating immediate termination, you will want to write up the incident, information obtained in investigating the situation if you were not present when the misbehavior occurred or was discovered, and the reasons for choosing to terminate the employee rather than take other action, like suspension.

You can never be sure, regardless of the rule infraction. Even the worst-behaved employee may later file a lawsuit or a claim with an investigative agency such as the EEOC, claiming the decision was prompted by bias.

Why is termination sometimes a good thing for the employee being fired?

Terminating an employee may be unpleasant, but it may be the best thing you can do for an employee who is not pulling her weight on the job. The reality is that she won't go any further than she has, given the poor quality of her performance. Further, her coworkers aren't likely to be supportive in today's lean workplace—after all, if you aren't making up for her shortcomings, they will be doing so.

And, most important, in another company and in another job, this poor performer may fit right in and be a terrific performer. By terminating her, you will be giving her that chance to excel elsewhere.

What if I don't feel right about terminating an employee?

Some managers agonize about the big "T." But if you have set objectives and the employee has done little to achieve those objectives or made only halfhearted efforts toward reaching them, then you need not feel guilty about having to use the three-word phrase, "You are fired."

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If you have fears about how well your claim will stand up in court, you may want to meet with the Human Resources Department and share your documentation with them. Ask them if they think that your case would stand up in court if the disgruntled employee brought it there.

There are also some questions that you may want to ask yourself. A "yes" to any of these questions could make them legally questionable:

Is there a written employment agreement? If so, make sure the firing conforms to any termination language there.

Were there promises made about the job and its longevity that could be construed as an agreement—or language in an employee handbook that reasonably might be interpreted as such a promise?

Could the firing be considered discrimination based on race, skin color, age, gender, religious beliefs, national origin, disability, or pregnancy? Whenever there is the possibility that a worker might raise a discrimination claim, you must be sure there is a valid business reason for a firing decision.

Could the firing be considered a retaliatory act because the worker reported some illegal activity, such as sexual harassment on the job? Under such circumstances, you may need adequate outside substantiation.

Have you required or encouraged the employee to violate the law or public policy on the job? Whistle blowing has received high visibility recently, and may be used as an argument by a terminated employee in a court case if circumstances allow it.

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