On the firing line

By Bonny Georgia, Network World |  Career

There's no denying it. The shine has definitely worn off that hotshot network administrator you hired last year. You've given him plenty of opportunities to clean up his act, but he's still not meeting your expectations. It's time to give him the boot, but just contemplating the conversation makes your stomach flip like the tilt-a-whirl at a county fair.

Of all the responsibilities that come with being a manager, one of the most unpleasant is firing staff. If the stress of telling someone he's lost his job isn't bad enough, there's the risk that a disgruntled employee will fight back with a wrongful termination lawsuit.

However, there are some steps you can take to minimize firing headaches.

  • Establish a paper trail.
  • One of the biggest mistakes managers make is "not having a legitimate reason to fire," says Terry Ebert, managing director of Ayers Group, a human resources consulting firm in New York.

    "If performance is the issue, you need to show there have been performance reviews, that these reviews were documented, that you've pointed out the person's deficiencies and given him an opportunity to address them, and you've documented where this has not happened. Without this you have no recourse if the person comes back and says, 'Gee, I was never warned,'" he says.

    In states with "employment at will" statutes, you legally have the right to fire somebody without cause. But courts are increasingly looking at whether or not there have been warnings.

    "You should have a concrete, defendable business reason for letting someone go, especially if she's been there awhile," says Barbara Kate Repa, vice president of content for HR One in San Francisco, a human resources Web site.

  • Know the employee's personal situation.
  • When deciding to break the news, it's wise to avoid special dates that could make things more difficult. "Firing someone near an anniversary of employment, birthdays and holidays may seem small, but if you release someone two weeks prior to a 10-year anniversary, which also happens to be when stock options vest, that's a lawsuit waiting to happen," Ebert says.

    You should also find out about any special circumstances, like a pregnant spouse or a serious illness in the family. "Sometimes it makes sense to delay the termination just a few weeks or a month, so as not to put a huge strain on the person's family," he says.

    Put a back-up plan in place.

    The last thing you want to do when firing someone is to leave an important client or internal departments in the lurch. Always investigate where the employee is with open projects and identify someone to take over these responsibilities immediately after termination.

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