First of all, never fire lightly. No company wants to be the company that fires anyone. Beyond the obvious negativity and the need to backfill that production, it’s also bad for reputation. And it can kill a startup if that former employee poisons a small recruiting well, no matter how strong the company or how deserved the termination.
And firing itself isn’t easy, logistically speaking. Once you consider terminating someone, for any reason, everything from that point forward becomes a formal process. (If you’ve never had an attorney on retainer or at least on standby, shame on you, but now is the time.)
Furthermore, the rigidity and coldness of a formal evaluation process can further damage the company’s relationship with the employee. In other words, once you’re considering terminating the employee, the steps you need to take can turn that consideration into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In any termination for cause, after you consult your attorney, you’ll need to document everything you can in order to support the case for termination. This is not just to keep you out of legal jeopardy, although it’s not a guarantee that you won’t face legal action. But surprisingly often, the employee’s lack of ethics or lack of performance might come as a complete surprise.
You’ll need written results and notes from performance evaluations with dates and names. You’ll need emails of complaint from other parties. You’ll need evidence, not just assumptions or accusations. That said, any assumptions or accusations need to be investigated thoroughly.
Now, if the issue is abuse or harassment, of any kind, my encouragement to consult an attorney becomes a mandate, and it goes without saying that the accuser should be protected and given the benefit of doubt.
If you’re not doing the firing yourself, there needs to be a very good reason why you’re inflicting this job on someone else.
Once you have all your documentation in place, it’s time to make your decision. In Maria’s case, what was going on was definitely unethical and likely illegal. Without getting too deep into her story, my advice was that her first responsibility was to keep liability away from the company and herself.
As a founder or executive, you’re at least partially responsible for the actions of your employees, both ethically and legally. Once the facts are in and the judgments are made, the decision that comes out has to stand. You can’t waffle here. You have two choices: Terminate or don’t terminate.
Now, I’m a firm believer in second chances. So in the not-terminate category you have two more options: Either you were mistaken and the facts have proven that out, or you’re going to give the employee a second chance.
That second chance is also a formalized process, a probationary period by which both parties define and agree upon the details of misconduct or poor performance, establish a program with quantifiable goals and a set timeframe, and set review points along the way.
This is harder than it sounds—and it doesn’t sound great to begin with. I’ve had employees decline the process and choose to walk. That sucks, but I understand it.
Regardless, once you make the decision and/or lay out the program, you need to stick to it.
And make sure you’re the one communicating it. It’s my belief that if you’re the CEO, you need to do the firing. That’s what the “executive” in chief executive officer means. If you’re not doing it yourself, there needs to be a good reason you’re inflicting this job on someone else.
Also, you should never do it alone. Have someone from human resources there with you. If your company is too small to have human resources, it should be another member of the executive team.