Sooner or later, almost every manager has to fire someone. And let’s be clear: Firing is different than laying someone off. The latter is a business decision in which the targeted employee is innocent, while the former is a response to employee behavior. We’re talking about firing here. Here’s what you should and shouldn’t do.

Don’t React Quickly or Emotionally

Do: Remain Calm and Patient

So, you catch an employee stealing equipment. You should immediately say “You’re fired!” right? It seems like a logical reaction. You’re not going to keep the employee who’s stealing from you, but what you should do is tell the employee that she is suspended pending an investigation. Why? Because when you fire someone you don’t want anger to come to play. It increases tensions and can complicate the outcome.

Additionally, you need to double check with your management team and HR that no one else received a second chance for the same offense. If someone did and they happen to be a different race , gender or other protected class, that can result in a lawsuit.

Waiting one day to fire someone to dot your i’s and cross your t’s is well worth the wait.

Don’t Surprise Anybody

Do: Make Sure the Employee Knows What’s Coming

When you terminate an employee for repeatedly coming in late, inability to do the job, bad attitude or any of a whole host of other problems you should have warned them the termination was coming. While the law (except in Montana) doesn’t require you to have a reason to fire anyone, you should — and it should be a reason you’re willing to say in court.

Give the employee a serious of warnings. The most often used system is called a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). This documents the struggles the employee has, what she needs to do to keep her job, and the timeline for termination — usually 60 or 90 days.

Each struggling employee gets a PIP with the clear understanding that if she fails to meet these conditions, employment ends on day 90. The manager should meet with the employee regularly during the term of the PIP and keep the employee up to date on her progress.

Don’t Go It Alone

Do: Consult With Your Boss and HR

Many small businesses don’t have a HR department, but if you do, always consult with them before terminating someone. They can help you make sure the termination is legal. For example, you may wish to fire an employee who has a terrible attendance record, but she just told you yesterday that she’s pregnant, she wasn’t on a PIP and she hasn’t received warning that termination was coming. That situation might look like pregnancy discrimination in the eyes of the law.

Regardless of whether you have an HR person or not, you need to consult with your boss. If you’re the CEO or owner, consult with your management team. You want to make sure that you handle terminations consistently and fairly.

Firing people is never fun. Doing it wrong can make it worse. Don’t make a delicate situation more complicated than it needs to be.

ABOUT Suzanne Lucas

Avatar photoSuzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers. She now writes about Human Resources and Business for a number of different publications.