You’re Fired!

Updated Feb 7, 2013

How to terminate employees humanely, while protecting your interests

Ask any manager: Terminating an employee is one of the hardest parts of the job. It’s emotional for the person leaving and for the coworkers left behind. Not to mention, if it’s not done correctly, firing an employee can open your business up to lawsuits, which cost time, money and possibly your reputation. Here are tips that will help you avoid the drama and the courthouse.

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“The goal is not termination. The goal is to gain the performance you want,” says Bill Cook, president of Human Resource Associates, a management-consulting firm in the Washington, D.C. area that provides business guidance to a variety of clients including members of the landscape association, PLANET. And because hiring and training a replacement can be costly, you should explore all options, which may include retaining the employee and helping him to correct his behavior.

“The termination should never be a surprise to the employee.”

In that respect, Cook advises clients to eliminate everything not connected to job performance when evaluating the employee and the situation. While some situations like theft typically warrant an immediate dismissal, other grievances, such as tardiness or low productivity, can usually be managed and corrected.


Remember to collect all company property such as keys, credit cards, passwords, laptops and cell phones before the terminated employee leaves the building. You don’t want to revisit the situation weeks later.

Ask yourself why you want to terminate the person. Have you terminated employees with comparable performance? Do you see anything personal or not job related in your reasons? Have you exhausted all other remedies? Write the answers to these questions down and discuss the points with an impartial third party.

If you decide to terminate the employee, move swiftly, but thoughtfully.

Create a paper trail

“When it rises to the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) or courtroom stage, the party with the highest pile of good documents wins,” Cook says.

All infractions should be documented. First, give an employee a verbal warning along with earnest guidance on how he can improve, and document you have done so. If the problem persists, give a written warning, and have the employee sign a copy to be kept in his personnel file. At this stage, you may also choose to put him on probation, with a clear beginning and end point. Let the employee know that he will be terminated at the end of the probation if his performance does not improve.

“The termination should never be a surprise to the employee,” Cook says. “By this point, he has been aware of the situation for some time.”

If the problem persists, give a written warning and have the employee sign a copy to be kept in his personnel file.

Carefully documenting employment violations can also save you from paying unemployment. “A thick employment file makes that go away quickly,” says Jeff Schwartz, president of Ashton Manor Environmental in Ashton, Maryland. “It doesn’t matter if your documentation is perfect. What matters is that it is there.” Schwartz also provides a handbook to every employee, outlining rules, expectations and consequences for breaking rules.

Schwartz has terminated six employees in his 10 years of business. Like Cook, he understands the importance of documenting infractions. He also holds weekly safety meetings, so employees know what is expected of them in regards to operating equipment, driving company vehicles, etc. He fired one “well-liked” employee after he damaged three pieces of equipment on three separate occasions. No one was injured. The third, incident, which Schwartz says “was the straw that broke the camel’s back and was preventable,” the individual rolled and totaled a skid steer loader. Ironically, skid steer safety was covered at a staff meeting the week before. Schwartz documented all of the incidents as well as the safety meeting.

“Not only do we have to protect our equipment and reputation, we have to protect our other employees on the site,” he says.


If you’re providing severance, have it reviewed by your attorney and have the employee sign a liability release as part of the severance agreement.

The next week at the safety meeting, Schwartz announced the termination and the reasoning behind it to the entire staff. “A termination should never be kept a secret,” he says. “I also wanted to show everyone is held accountable to the same standards.”

At Ashton Manor, Schwartz leaves firing up to the employee’s immediate manager. It empowers the manager and also commands him respect, he says. It also removes some of the emotion from the termination, since Schwartz is close to most of his employees.

Be swift, but be kind

It is in everyone’s best interest to terminate an employee humanely. It discourages the employee from retaliating, it makes an already difficult situation more palatable for other employees and it’s just the right thing to do.

Here are suggestions from Cook:

• Schedule the termination for Monday through Thursday before noon. “It’s an emotional shakeup. Evenings and weekends alone can make it worse,” he says.

• If your state has a “lay-off is pay-off” law, have the paycheck prepared for the employee.

• Treat the employee with respect. Don’t be overly analytical or too critical. Allow the employee to express his feelings.

• Get right to the point and state the reason.

• When possible, don’t have someone “escort” him out.

“Even employees who are allowed no additional compensation or benefits, but who leave with their feelings and self respect intact, rarely look for vengeance,” Cook says.

Bottom line: You must be diligent in protecting your business and your employees.

People with high blood pressure, who have ulcers or are overweight, are considered to be part of a protected class. More than 90 percent of all employees can now be classified as part of a protected class, Cook says. But that doesn’t mean you should never terminate an offending employee.

“No law requires you to ever employ anyone who cannot or will not do the job,” he says.

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