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Letting Go

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Sometimes, firing an employee is a no-brainer. Whether it’s a physical fight between employees or an employee stealing from your shop, these types of situations are just unacceptable, according to Karen Young, president and founder of HR Resolutions. 

“There are things that you just don’t do ‘three strikes and you’re out’ for,” Young says.

A company’s handbook should state what is considered an immediate termination, but most of the time, situations aren’t so clearly cut. There are just some situations that don’t go by the book, leaving the decision strictly up to an employer’s discretion. What are they?

For a little bit of context, Young provides two scenarios describing how operators should address each situation individually in order to determine the right decision.

The Situations

Making a Big Mistake

Meet Taylor. Taylor has been at the company for 15 years and has had a great reputation. But recently, they made a big mistake that cost the company $5,000—a lot of money in the company’s eyes. People make mistakes. But when does a mistake go too far?

Change in Performance

Meet Alex. Alex has been at the company for five years and has always exceeded expectations. All of a sudden, their performance has dropped significantly and it’s been lower than usual for about a month. Everyone has good days and bad days, but when does it get to the point where it’s affecting job performance too much?


Ask Yourself...

Has this happened before?

While Young says the one-and-done firing should depend on the situation, you have to look at what you’ve done in the past. Has Taylor made a big mistake like this before? Is Alex’s performance normal, or have they performed this way in the past? If this is a one-time occurrence, Young says employers should allow for some leeway, depending on the severity of the mistake or performance mishap.

For smaller, more general issues, Young uses the strike system—three strikes and you’re out if the same issue keeps happening.

The first time an issue comes up, assume that as an employer, you didn’t provide the correct information or enough background. As the employer, sit down with them and let them know of the issue and how to correct it. That’s strike No. 1.

The second time around that it happens, the employer should be asking the employee to help them understand how else they can support them. And during the second meeting, come up with an agreement on how both of you will work together to address the issue in the future and write down what you both agreed on. That’s strike No. 2. When you’ve talked about it, provided your support, and came up with a plan to address it, now an employer can assume it’s an issue with the employee. 

Now, it’s up to the discretion of the employer on how to move forward, and this is when a serious conversation starts. Young says only one of three things will come out of this conversation:

  1. The employee will improve and the conversation will never happen again
  2. They aren’t going to improve, they aren’t willing to improve, and they will resign
  3. They will not change, but you have laid the foundation for them and have the documentation in place, which enables you to safely say that you have given the employee no other choice but to terminate their employment.

“Employees don’t show up to work intentionally to make mistakes,” Young says. “It is our responsibility to hold our employees accountable and responsible.”


What’s their attitude toward the situation?

How an employee reacts to a problem is a telltale sign if they are worth keeping or not. 

When Taylor made her mistake, did they feel remorseful for it? Did they take responsibility for it, or did they blame others for their mistake?

How did Alex react when you approached him about the issue? Were they apologetic for performance and willing to work on it, or did they act like their performance hasn’t changed at all?  

“You want to tie attitudes back to performance and behaviors,” Young says.


Are there any extenuating circumstances?

If this has never happened in the employee’s work history before, it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty of what caused the shift, and sometimes, it has to do with unforeseen circumstances. Life happens, and all it takes is a simple conversation to get down to the root of the problem to fix it.

“As a human, we should absolutely take circumstances into consideration,” Young says. 

While Taylor did lose the company $5,000, you find out their child is seriously ill and they are worried about paying the bills. Alex’s mood and performance lately hasn’t been the best, but it all stems from the fact that their dog just died and they’re having a hard time coping. 

While circumstances like this do come up, it’s important to keep them to a standard and be an open book. Alex’s performance has been sub-par for over a month ever since his dog died. With this, it may be beneficial to ask the employee the steps they could have taken to address the situation sooner. Should they have had a conversation with you a month ago? Is there a reason why they didn’t tell you closer to when it happened? Maybe if Alex told you right away, you could have given them a day or two off to cope instead of going through a month of poor performance.

However, it’s no secret that some employees use extenuating circumstances as an excuse.

“The first time, the child is sick, then the spouse is sick, then the grandmother has died for a fourth time now,” Young says. “It’s only when extenuating circumstances become the rule and not the exception that you have to cut them off.”


Is the problem business-related?

When deciding to fire an employee, these questions should always enter your mind:

  • What’s the perception of this?
  • Is there a history there?
  • Is this strictly business-related?
  • How serious is the issue?
  • Are there any protected classes (age, race, religion, sex, etc.) that I need to be aware of?

When it comes to the protected classes, this is where the perception really comes into play.

Like Taylor, let’s say another employee, Alex, made a similar mistake two years ago and was not let go. Alex just so happens to be a white male, and Taylor is a black female. This is where a lawsuit could come into play if outside circumstances or biases are involved. Because they did not let another employee go over a similar situation, it could be perceived as the company letting Taylor go because of her race and/or sex. However, if Alex, who has a similar work background to Taylor’s, was let go from his position in this instance, it’s not as likely to be perceived badly if you were to let her go.

Young says this situation can also go the other way, too. She sees a lot of employers not terminating an employee because it may be perceived badly, even though it would have been the right thing to do business-wise, mostly in fear that a lawsuit may come out of it.

“You will have a chance of being sued, welcome to the United States,” Young says.

In other words, lawsuits happen all of the time, and it’s up to you to have the right documentation to plead your case. Otherwise, other employees will take notice of the situation and will ask themselves why they even bother trying to be an employee when the standard isn’t equal for each employee.

As an employer, if any protected classes are present in the situation, it should not solely let it change your overall decision. If Alex was let go in the past for the same reason, Taylor should not be kept on just because of her race and gender. Young says the employer should document that their perception has not changed due to these protected classes and it was strictly for business-related reasons.

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