On the firing line

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.

    As soon as possible after releasing the employee, contact the vendors, clients and departments who worked with the employee and let them know what's going on so they don't worry about the stability of your organization, Ebert advises.

  • Prepare to lock down the network.

    One serious risk when firing an IT staffer is the potential for network sabotage or theft of data while the person is on the way out the door.

    On the day of termination, back up your network, check the backups to make sure they work, and scan for viruses or any other unusual activity. Ebert recommends putting a security person or other IT manager on standby who will be responsible for changing network passwords, canceling remote dial-up IDs, deleting e-mail access, and locking the person out of file and application servers at the moment of termination.

    Timing is critical. Make sure these changes take place at the moment you fire the person, not before and not after.

  • Execute the conversation.

    When the time comes to have your meeting, choose a private space and give the task at hand your full attention. Arrange to have an outplacement counselor or human resources representative available to answer questions, explain any release agreements or severance packages, and help the person exit the building.

    "Design a very succinct script that has been reviewed with HR, and then stick to it. Anything more than that could get you involved in potentially litigious conversation," Ebert says.

  • Conduct damage control.

    The more humane you are in planning and executing the termination, the easier it will be for the person to accept it, Ebert says.

    Once the conversation is over, it's time to inform the remaining staff. "It's a good idea to call everyone together to ensure them that the firing was not a random act and that their jobs are safe," Repa says.

    The best firings never happen in the heat of the moment, she says. "They're carefully considered acts that aren't a surprise to anyone. Employees are hard to come by and even harder to replace, but when you're sure [firing] is the right thing to do, be smart and do it fairly."

  • This story, "On the firing line" was originally published by Network World.

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