should you warn an employee before firing her?

by Ask a Manager on May 17, 2009

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A reader writes:

I am a partner in a small, family-owned small business and financial services firm with 9 employees and 4 consultants in northern California. I’ve always handled all the back office/HR issues – hiring, firing, performance evaluations, training, disciplinary issues, etc., with no problems for the last 10 years.

My situation is that I will be terminating one of our full time admins, who happens to be family. I’ve terminated family before, again with no problems. My question is this: do you think I should give her “notice” before I terminate her this week? My father, who’s the other partner, wants to because she’s family (his niece’s daughter) and he has been stalling for the last month.

I am also a bit concerned because we’ve let her slide without formally saying anything – no verbal or written warnings – for things that I would have terminated her on the spot for, but we were in the middle of an unusually busy and stressful tax season that we are still trying to recover from. My father didn’t want me to do anything until we were finished with taxes.

I want to know if I should tell her that she will be losing her job this week due to poor performance (there’s a laundry list of things!). Also, my father wants to give her 2 weeks severance as well. “We are firing you because you’ve been an awful employee who has taken advantage of your situation, but we’re going to pay you too.” Yes, I know that this is dumb (my gut instinct along with several years of corporate HR management tells me so). I need a professional’s opinion.

Well, you’re not legally required to warn her in advance that she’s in danger of losing her job — unless you have an employee manual that spells out specific steps that must be taken before someone is fired, in which case courts have held that you must adhere to your own written policies.

However, it’s still generally a good idea to warn someone before actually firing them, for the following reasons:

1. The person may actually make the improvements you need, if you spell them out for her. People often don’t realize what they’re doing wrong, and they frequently have no idea that the problems are severe enough to jeopardize their job, unless you tell them explicitly. People can and do improve when you set out clear expectations — not always, of course, but you can’t always predict who will and who won’t.

2. It’s simply the kinder thing to do. You’re talking about a decision that will impact someone’s livelihood; she deserves to have a chance to fix the issues first. If your boss was unhappy with your performance, wouldn’t you want to know and have a chance to improve before you were fired?

3. It removes a lot of drama. If you have clearly told the employee about the problems, your expectations, and what needs to change, and have explicitly told them that their job is in jeopardy if specific changes don’t occur, then when the termination conversation happens, it’s more a matter of following through on that agreement than an out-of-the-blue shock. I’ve seen numerous situations where a manager gives lots of negative feedback to a struggling employee but never explicitly says that the person’s job in jeopardy, thinking they’ll just “get it” — but the employee ends up stunned when they’re ultimately fired.

4. If you don’t warn people when their job is in jeopardy, it can create significant anxiety among other employees, who may begin to fear they’re on the verge of being fired every time they receive negative feedback. You want your staff know that they won’t be fired without first knowing that their job is in jeopardy and having a chance to improve.

Now, obviously there are some offenses so egregious that they warrant firing on the spot, like, say, embezzlement or punching someone, but those situations are pretty rare. Most of the time, you can afford to give the person a warning ahead of time.

(That said, after a warning conversation, you should expect to either see improvement quickly or know pretty quickly that it’s not going to work out. Don’t let it drag on for weeks and weeks at that point. The employee doesn’t need to become great overnight, but you’ll want to see a fast and steep climb in that direction.)

As for severance, it’s not crazy to offer some. Companies handle this in different ways: Some give no severance when someone is fired for cause, some give a couple of weeks, and some are more generous. It’s up to you, but I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. This post discusses some advantages of offering it.

You seem to think severance would be an outrage in this case, but you also say that you haven’t spoken to her about the problems. So, frankly, your and your partner bear some of the responsibility here — you haven’t been good managers in this situation.

I’m concerned that you’ve suffering from what a lot of small, family-owned businesses suffer from: inattention to or lack of knowledge about good management practices. I’d use this situation as the impetus to focus more on that in the future.

Related posts:

How to fire someone
Alternatives to firing
I used to suck at firing people

{ 14 comments }

The Working Geek May 17, 2009 at 6:19 pm

Short version: Getting fired should never be a surprise. A firing should be the natural culmination of events that lead up to it. There should be a history of correction that gives the employee the chance to correct things, or the infraction should be so egregious that termination is an obvious result.

No one wants to be fired, but if an employee is blindsided by his termination, it means management has screwed up.

Just Another HR Lady May 17, 2009 at 8:33 pm

If I have a concern about how the person’s performance issues were handled when we are considering a termination, then it’s probably not yet time to terminate. I have never, ever, fired someone without allowing them the chance to rectify the issues first. (unless just cause) It’s good management practice, not to mention, the human thing to do. In this case, where family is involved, I would have expected MORE honest discussions, not less.

You clearly have concerns about this termination since you’re writing a letter, so I would suggest taking a deep breath, putting your anger at this person aside, and talking to her about her issues like an adult, rather than terminating her. Once you’ve gone through a regular performance management plan with her, make your decision from there.

Managing your people with ethics is good for business, good for your current employees, and good for the family. If she still doesn’t improve, then tell her it’s not working out and yes, offer the severance. 2 weeks is peanuts in the scheme of things.

Henning Makholm May 17, 2009 at 10:14 pm

I want to know if I should tell her that she will be losing her job this week due to poor performance
(Emphasis mine). That doesn’t even sound like the asker is proposing to warn the employee; it sounds more like he merely considers whether he should announce the termination before it takes effect. That is, “you’re fired, and your last day will be Friday after next”.

That sounds rather harsh to me, but perhaps that’s just cultural dissonance. Around here (Denmark), a white-collar worker terminated for performance reasons has a statutory right to 3 months notice plus the rest of a calendar month …

Rachel - I Hate HR May 18, 2009 at 4:30 pm

I agree with Henning. It sounds like the decision has already been made. Don’t tell her unless there is something she can do to change it.

John May 18, 2009 at 7:20 pm

Before anybody gets the chop they should be warned if they are performing underpar. It is then up to them to shape up or ship out.

In most cases people will shape up. However, if they don’t improve the firing part should come as no surprise.

llamaface May 19, 2009 at 3:42 am

I agree with Henning as well. It doesn’t sound like they are even going to give her the chance to change.

While I agree that there are “fire on the spot” kind of things, but if you are willing to overlook them “because it’s tax time” it’s kind of shitty to fire them later. “Remember that time 4 months ago? Yeah?”

I think the OP is also really risking the relationship they have with this family member. It’s a shitty way to treat an employee, even worse when you want to maintain a healthy relationship with them after the fact.

I’m not in HR, but my advice would be to talk to the person who will be fired. Lay it out – This is what is wrong, this is what needs to be done to fix it, this is how long you have to show significant improvement.

Anonymous May 19, 2009 at 4:23 am

hi there, i’m the writer of that letter. you are all very correct and i take the responsibility ultimately. there are, of course, circumstances/details that i didn’t elaborate on, fear of going on and on with it. i personally had spoken to the employee on several occasions-and was clear, but never ‘formally’ put anything to writing or took any disciplinary actions. she was/is fully aware of our issues with her performance, some of which are: taking excessive lunches/breaks; neglecting her duties and making critical mistakes; disappearing for hours at a time (“i’m going to my car, i’ll be right back”) while we were totally swamped with taxes and clients! (we had to hire a p/t temp because of her!); running her new business while on company time, using company resources/suplies; she’s crashed our network/computers several times because she was doing ‘her company’ business; that she’s ‘padded’ her time card (yes i spoke to her then too). no, we didn’t act immediately, only spoke with her. we were tying to ‘do the right thing, the employee is family; is in a financial bind, her husbands not working, lost their house to foreclosure and are in a not so great living situation along with other sad things – a victim of the economy on the surface, but we realize that she’s in the situation she’s in due to poor, selfish decisions, and a ‘user’ mentality. yes, it would be easier for all involved to keep her, to keep ‘coaching’ her. yes, we’ve tolerated her.
yes, we want to be ‘done’ with her – she has taken complete advantage of the situation, the fact that we are family, that i’ve only been in the office about 2 days a week due to cancer treatments, and the fact that she knows that we wanted to help her. that’s what it boils down to. we wanted to pay her because of the financial situation she’s in. that’s the only think i feel bad about – terminating her knowing that she is barely getting by. i may still be doing an awful job explaining the situation, especially without seeming like i’m looking to justify or for sympathy (i’m tired from medical treatments). yes, i sought your opinions, and i greatly appreciate them, am thankful for the objective input because yes, i’m too close to this situation-hurt, disappointed.

and like you, i feel employees should not be blindsided either (previous corporate experience-not fun or nice).

thank you all! have a geat, productive, and safe week ;p

Ask a Manager May 19, 2009 at 4:28 am

Thanks for weighing back in! That definitely adds helpful context. Personally, I think that lying on her timesheet warrants firing on the spot (I put that in the “really egregious” category). For the rest, I agree it’s the sort of thing where it doesn’t make sense to coach her — and instead I’d just tell her, “This kind of thing is unacceptable and if it happens again, we’d have to let you go.”

I can’t tell if you’ve explicitly said that to her or not, but hearing all these details, I agree that she’s imposed on you for too long and it’s time to put an end to it. Good luck!

Slaten January 3, 2011 at 8:55 pm

How many managers and higher level employees take 3 hour “lunches” and still get paid for an 8 hour day..

Jamie January 4, 2011 at 12:39 pm

Some people take advantage of that – but many higher level employees (to use your phrase) put in time after hours, weekend, work vacations. Not being timed to the minute on your lunch is a perk, but hourly employees can generally leave work at work when they clock out for the day – there are pros and cons to both sides.

If people game the system it sucks for their co-workers no matter what level of the company they’re in.

Emily August 1, 2012 at 10:42 am

Yep. My boss, the head of our org comes and goes as she pleases, takes long lunches, goes to yoga in the middle of the day. But I also see her sending work emails at 6am, 11:30pm, 3:30pm on a Saturday, etc. She’s never not working.

I sometimes log in to check my work email outside of work hours just to see what’s going on, but I don’t feel as though I have to reply to any requests until the beginning of the next business day.

twentymilehike August 1, 2012 at 11:31 am

Emily, I agree, however, to some extent. Half of our staff is salaried and the other half is hourly, and as an ourly employee I think there is a very fine line here. My bosses often dissappear for hours, unable to be reached, no explanation of what they are doing. I know that they don’t really need to explain themselves, but when the hourly employees that are glued to their desks who need to interact with them to get their work done, start feeling like the bosses are slacking off or don’t care, it really hurts the company morale. It really causes a huge rift in the office: those who are “entitled” and those who are “obligated.”

Anonymous May 19, 2009 at 4:53 am

thanks! yeah, that time sheet thing was what i was talking about in the originally post “for things that I would have terminated her on the spot for”. again, we were trying to ‘help her out’. no, i didn’t ‘explicitly’ tell her that she could loose her job, but it was implied. still, i take the blame for that. i guess my father and i were really hoping that she’d straighten up. a lesson in this for sure! thanks again ;p

ps… really wish i could post with my blogger id, but i think employee reads my blog.

Jeff January 5, 2011 at 1:17 am

Lying on a timesheet is theft. I would think that this would be just cause for an immediate termination. Theft is theft. No second chances.

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