should you warn employees before you fire them?

A reader writes:

I am a partner in a small business. I need to terminate one of our admins for performance problems. Do you think I should give her “notice” before I fire her?

I am 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 season that we are still trying to recover from.

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 partner wants to give her two weeks severance as well. But I’m concerned about saying, “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.”

You can read my answer to this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and often updating/expanding my answers to them).

{ 234 comments… read them below }

  1. Ed

    I’ve always felt a manager should say the exact phrase “we’re going to let you go if you don’t fix…” at least once before a termination. I would ask the employee to repeat it back to me as well. There are situations where the entire office is fully aware someone is going to get fired but the employee still doesn’t get it (or is lying to themselves). If nothing else, I would do this as a manager just to sleep better at night knowing the employee made a conscious decision to not turn things around.

    1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.

      God yeah.

      I’m not a big believer in formal improvement processes, or dragging out terminations that clearly need to be done, but you have to say something, and something clear prior to termination or bad karma will follow you. Absent egregious issues – lying, stealing, fear of safety, you can at least give someone a week or two.

      And you give people 2 weeks pay. You just do.

      * exceptions for a poor match hire within the first week or two, if you are sure that the match is so poor it’s a mercy to both parties to move on immediately. (I am pretty sure we pay 2 weeks then also. Only happened once or twice.)

      1. TootsNYC

        I don’t think I’d feel at all obligated to give 2 weeks’ severance to someone who is being fired after being warned that their performance is so bad, their job is on the line. I only feel that I’d give severance to someone whose performance has been fine, but their job is being eliminated.

        Is that common, to give severance to someone you’re firing “for cause”? (even if that “cause” is not enough to deny them unemployment benefits, etc.)

        In this guy’s case, I might say, “I’ll give her severance in lieu of the 2 weeks’ worth of warning to improve her performance.”

        And yeah, I would want to be able to sleep at night. That’s part of why you need to say something right away when people screw up.

        Am I the only one who wishes I had more info about these offenses that would have been enough to fire her on the spot?

        1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.

          As far as I know, 2 weeks severance is what’s done by generally decent businesses generally. I honestly don’t remember what we did for people who were let go very soon after being hired. Maybe we only gave them one week (but we probably gave them two.)

          They’ve terminated a couple of people from not-my-division for theft. I doubt they got two weeks.

          But other than that.

          1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.

            p.s.

            after two years, the # of weeks severance goes up 1 week per year.

        2. AnonaMoose

          Nope, I’m curious too. And gee, there sure are a lot of chickens in that office. Why not just pull the poor girl aside about these ‘terrible’ infringements on their office productivity?

        3. Emily

          Look at it this way – an employee who leaves a bad job because of poor management, bad HR policies, lack of work-life balance, or other similar issues are leaving because of a failure on the employer’s part (as opposed to leaving for a more advanced role or higher paying job where the job they’re leaving isn’t necessarily bad). But they are still expected to give a professional courtesy of two weeks’ notice so the employer has two weeks to transition the work without being left in the lurch.

          Likewise, it shouldn’t matter that your employee is at fault – you still give them two weeks’ notice, generally in the form of two weeks’ severance pay, so they have two weeks to get their finances in order without being left in the lurch. The two weeks’ notice on the employee’s part isn’t to reward their soon-to-be-ex-employer for being a great employer, and the two weeks’ severance on the employer’s part isn’t to reward their soon-to-be-ex-employee for being a great employee. It’s just the professional, courteous, and kind thing to do, and it impacts your reputation whether you are seen as professional, courteous, and kind to people you have business dealings with, or whether you seek to punish people/bosses that it didn’t work out with by leaving them scrambling to pick up the pieces with no buffer.

        4. Koko

          Another way to look at it is that the poor-performing employee may just not be capable of performing at the standard you want, even if you warn them. Your comment seems to suggest you think that someone who fails to improve is willfully refusing to improve as opposed to just not able to improve. To some extent, it’s equally your fault for not doing enough due diligence during the hiring process and hiring someone who’s skills and capabilities weren’t up to your own standards. Some people get fired despite trying very hard to do their best. Should they be suddenly left with no way to pay tomorrow’s electric bill to punish them for their shortcomings?

          1. Sharona

            This is so true! I love this comment and wish I could give you a thumbs up :D

            Why can’t people just acknowledge that some places just don’t have it figured out? And that their process sucks, or worse, that there’s no process at all? Why does it always have to always be the Employee’s fault? I work in an industry that casually owns the fact that most of the clients that you’ll work for will be terrible. And yet, you always see people implying that it’s you who’s not working hard enough. It’s like people have a hamster wheel for a brain or something.

    2. Jeanne

      At some point it’s not about legalities but about wanting to be seen as a decent human being. You are right about being able to sleep at night.

    3. gingerblue

      ” I would ask the employee to repeat it back to me as well. ”

      While I agree with the rest of what you’re saying, that sort of nonsense was demeaning in kindergarten.

      1. Aussie Teacher

        Not necessarily! For normal instructions, I agree it’s overkill, but I think it can be useful for important conversations. Whenever my husband and I have something important to discuss, we take turns talking and then ask “What did you hear me say?” It helps me (as the listener) to be more attentive as I know I’m going to have to repeat it back, it allows me to summarise what I’ve heard, and it allows the speaker to clarify any misconceptions and remind me of anything I glossed over or missed out in my summary. We find it hugely helpful.

        1. Kira

          That’s really interesting. I’m not sure how it could be phrased in a work environment so that I wouldn’t get upset. But I can definitely see the value in hearing what the other party thinks is going on. We use that a lot in meetings, one person will be responsible for writing down the next steps. Whenever it’s not me, I always notice what the other party thought was important.

    4. No name, no state

      @Ed: I had at least a couple of colleagues like this. One was ultimately told she was being “laid off.” She reapplied for the position later but was never hired.

  2. JMegan

    You should check into the labour laws for your jurisdiction – you might actually be required to give notice, or (severance) pay in lieu of notice. If you’re a small business, you might not have an HR department, but it’s worth taking some time to do the research and get all your ducks in a row before you fire her, to make sure you’re doing everything right.

    (Apologies if you already knew this, or if it doesn’t apply! I couldn’t tell from the letter if this was the case, but wanted to make sure you didn’t get tripped up by not following proper procedures.)

    Good luck!

      1. JMegan

        Good to know! I’m in Ontario, where it is required by law. I assumed you would have flagged it if it were a widespread requirement in the US, but I had no idea how not-widespread it actually is!

        1. Blue Anne

          Yeah, I think that here in the UK, if you’re firing someone for anything other than gross misconduct, you have to either let them serve their contractual notice period or send them home but still pay them for the amount of time it would have been. If you’re quitting, you can still walk out whenever you like no matter what, but of course they don’t need to pay you any more time if you do.

          As a displaced American I found this totally unbelievable until it was pointed out to me that most of the good developers I know have 3+ months notice in their contracts, and they’re in such a good negotiating position around here they wouldn’t accept that if it weren’t the fact that it’s really binding on the employers rather than them.

          (Possibly Scotland only?)

          1. When summer arrives

            Not sure how free we really are to just walk out. We are bound by contract to give an employer x week’ or month’s notice so you would be in breach of contract to just walk. And you could probably say goodbye to any hope of a reference which would be a big problem if you had worked there any length of time.

            Certainly in England, the minimum amount of notice an employer has to give you works on a sliding scale by length of service, going up to 3 months. Some employers just put a month in the contract no matter what but this is invalid. An employment contract does not override employment kaw.

            1. the gold digger

              When I was working at the company that had NotSergio as the CEO, the HR manual was based on NotArgentina customs. It said salaried employees had to give a month’s notice to quit.

              I am in the US. I thought, “Sue me” and gave two weeks. I would have quit on the spot without notice except – hmm. Why didn’t I? I suppose because it’s Not Done, not because I felt any loyalty to the organization. (The only place I have ever worked that did not pay out unused vacation – and I had unused vacation.)

    1. AnnieMouse

      OP: You should be using progressive discipline. It will save your butt down the road.

      As for severance, why would you reward bad behavior?

      1. Observer

        This person is LOSING THEIR JOB. How could you call a small severance package a “reward”? We’re talking about an admin in a small company, so we are almost certainly not talking a huge salary here, and two weeks worth is not such a big sum.

        1. AnonyManager

          +1

          Not to mention the fact she is losing her job because her “superiors” failed to actually manage the employees working for them.

        2. Kat

          She’s losing her job due to her own actions. She basically sucks at her job.

          I bet she also knows that she isnt doing that great of a job but is hoping no one is noticing.

          1. Diddly

            If they haven’t said anything- how does she know?
            Yet while not saying anything they’ve still got a laundry list of issues with her. How long is a season? How long have they not said anything?

            If the managers haven’t been managing or calling her out on her poor performance it is actually them that’s at fault, and she’ll lose her job because of it. I think she should definitely get a warning – and more than a week – but I guess OP thinks it’s gone too far (which is OP’s fault!) she definitely deserves severance she’s losing her job because no one could be bothered to manage her. And being busy isn’t a good reason at all – how long does it take to pull someone aside and say you’re doing x wrong? I assume she was making things more complicated/taking longer because of her errors…

            1. the gold digger

              I agree. As a manager, you have a responsibility to tell people what your expectations are. But if you never tell them, it’s not really their fault for not meeting them.

              It’s (again) like dating. You cannot get angry at your boyfriend for not making a big deal out of your 2.5 month anniversary unless you have told him it is really important to you. (And even if you tell him it’s important to you, he might still think celebrating 2.5 month anniversary is stupid and not do it and I would agree with him. So I guess this analogy doesn’t really hold. Except you could break up with him and I would think you’re an idiot but hey, it’s your life.)

          2. Observer

            It doesn’t make a difference WHY she is losing her job. The fact is that she is being kicked out, and there is no way to spin that as a reward, even with a small severance package.

            As for knowing she’s doing a bad job, you really have absolutely zero basis on which to make that assumption. And, under the circumstances, I actually have a hard time thinking that this is the case. After all what kind of thing warrants immediate dismissal on the one hand but gets overlooked for weeks because the boss is busy. Talk about unclear / mixed messages!

          3. Shannon

            She may suck at her own job, but it doesn’t sound like the employers had the time/ ability to give appropriate feedback. I am referring to the second paragraph of this letter. How is the employee supposed to make changes if she is unaware that there is a problem with her behavior/ performance?

  3. Voluptuousfire

    Yes! Always let the employee know their job is in jeopardy and germination could be a possibility . Alison is spot on. Never let anyone be surprised. At least they can walk away knowing what went wrong and can improve upon that feedback in their next role.

    I was let go from my last position without warning and it blindsided me. Some minor issues had been brought up before but I guess in my supervisor’s mind, since they brought it up at all, it was serious enough. My former supervisor was not very good with communicating with our group, lots of things were implied through tone of voice or inflection, not actually spoken. We never had a chance to discuss those issues and I was out of a job two weeks after that. I can see all if this in hindsight, but I’m still not entirely sure what happened. I can only guess they were looking at things long term and decided to let me go instead of giving me a chance to improve.

    1. UKAnon

      “Always let the employee know their job is in jeopardy and germination could be a possibility .”

      Always an alarming prospect!

    2. Rat Racer

      The lesson I learned the hard way on the management side is that not only is it important to give someone warning before you fire them, you need to tell them that their poor performance has them headed in that direction. I made this mistake with my direct report: she was a really low performer, and while I gave her tons of coaching and feedback on each individual deliverable, I did not say “…and these mistakes are a real problem, and a pattern. If this continues, we need to think about whether you are the right fit for this job.” Or something like that. It’s a hard thing to say, especially when you want to give someone the benefit of the doubt.

      When I finally had the “Listen, this really isn’t working out; you need to think about whether this is the right job for you,” my employee felt totally blindsided. She was hysterical and I felt like a terrible manager and a horrible person.

      Better to have the hard conversations early.

      1. Diddly

        Good point! I guess it’s hard on both sides, but will be way worse if you don’t be clear from the start. And losing your job is horrible, OP should really think how he’d feel if his partner had been bottling up loads of resentment about his performance, hadn’t said anything and then told him it wasn’t working and he had a week before he was fired… (doubt partners can do that but still…)

    3. Kira

      I’m glad you’re sharing this side of things. My coworker is probably in your shoes right now. Our boss is increasingly unhappy with her performance, but I don’t know if my coworker is getting the message… And I don’t know if she’s even aware that she’s being asked to improve certain things.

    4. Crystal

      surprisingly no one else through the idea of glassdoor issue so far. yes they can take down some reviews, but former employees might be in a better mood if companies are just upfront about all of these situations.
      In the land of the US with little employees rights beyond discrimination we have nothing else left besides reviewing former/current employers.

  4. Lily in NYC

    Great answer. I wonder what ended up happening. Our old HR team used to just fire people with no warning – they would just pick one person every week who was “too expensive” and unceremoniously dump them. We got sued so many times that our entire HR team got fired and replaced with people who now do things the way Alison mentioned. Now no one gets fired without a performance plan/warning unless they do something really bad.

    1. K.

      … My God. Your old HR team was terrible, but you already knew that. I wonder what the outcomes of the many (!) lawsuits were?

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Not necessarily. It’s not illegal to fire someone for bad reasons or unfair reasons or even no reasons. The ex-employee would need to show it was because of their race, sex, religion, disability, or other protected characteristic.

          1. StarGeezer

            Which is where firing people for being “too expensive” would run into trouble. It would most likely create a pattern of disproportionately firing those over 40 and run the company straight into an age discrimination lawsuit.

          2. Hiring Mgr

            Or the company might just settle which could be equivalent to a win for the employee.

          3. ChrisH

            Corporate standards are different that contract law. The corporate paperwork is just to cover the ‘other’ categories of potential lawsuits based upon ‘protected classifications’. Situations are fluid, and often HR and Legal have no way of understanding their risk exposure otherwise.

            Most large companies also use structured performance management systems, so the documentation (both good and bad) is happening on a set schedule anyhow.

        2. BRR

          Assuming they’re in America and not in a union, the company probably won most if not all. I imagine it’s hard to prove discrimination.

          1. Lily in NYC

            Nope. We had to pay big bucks to a guy who was fired after he was diagnosed with cancer (even though I don’t think that’s really why he was fired. But he had tons of family money and had a scary lawyer). We also lost to a bunch of people who were able to prove age discrimination and filed suit together (my former boss was specifically told he was being fired because they wanted someone younger and more energetic). After that, they settled the rest of the lawsuits. Our old HR people went about things in a very ham-handed manner, which was why people were able to prove age discrimination. There’s a lot more I could say about a mass firing we had that backfired big time but I don’t want to write a novel.

            1. Shannon

              Oh my god. This happened to my friend. Only, there was an email (!) that had the top-10 most expensive employees and his name was on there with a – cancer/medical. A friend saw it and forwarded it along. When the subpoenas came, the email magically wasn’t there. But my friend had it. He was a top performer too, exceeded all numbers, his team was well managed, he was promoted multiple times, etc. But this weird new VP came in and sent that email and poof. How do people like that get jobs?????? It’s awful and sickening.

              1. Nobody

                What?! They put him on the list of expensive employees based on his medical costs?! How did the VP even have this information?

                1. Judy

                  I’m pretty sure if a company is self insured, even if they don’t get HIPAA information like what claims are being charged, the company gets a $ amount that each person (or family unit) is using. I’m also pretty sure that if the company is self insured, they get a breakdown that they paid for 3 double bypasses, 7 hernia surgeries, etc.

                  I’ve seen the charts at a company, in presentations about benefits that showed how many of x,y and z procedures happened in the last year. I’ve been told that management knows how much each person is using of the medical benefits.

                  I don’t know if the companies have the same knowledge if they are not self insured, but more than half of employees are on a self insured plan.

                2. AnonaMoose

                  That actually JUST happened recently. Alison recieved a letter from someone who, I think, was trying to figure out who to lay off based on their total cost to the company, including medical. Darn, if I was any good at searching on this site, I’d link it for ya.

              2. RVA Cat

                That reminds me of the case at one of the major tech companies where an employee had a baby in the NICU.

                1. Observer

                  At least the employer didn’t fire the guy. And after he had his face publicly rubbed in mud, he did a fair amount of walking his comments back (or at least trying to.)

                2. the gold digger

                  I used to work for a health insurance company. The two events employers (and us) dreaded most were premature babies and motorcycle accidents that led to head injuries.

                3. Stephanie

                  I think that was AOL, it I recall correctly.

                  @the gold digger My dad is a huge biker (has three) and USAA refuses to insure them. He has a separate policy for just the bikes.

            2. AnonaMoose

              PLEASE WRITE THE NOVEL. I am so intrigued because each of your posts just gets worse and worse. *grabs popcorn*

          2. Jeff A.

            My assumption would be in most cases the company decides to pay a settlement rather than draw out legal costs. So not “win” per se, but end up with the terminated employee receiving an agreed upon amount of money.

            1. Jeff A.

              Aaaaand I didn’t catch that Sue Wilson made the same comment immediately below. My bad.

        3. Sue Wilson

          They actually probably just settled, as even if they won, that might be cheaper in the long run

    2. Stranger than fiction

      This is exactly why despite at-will employment most decent companies give warning, to avoid drama, bad rep, and possibly lawsuits. And I’d like to add give her at least 30 days to try and turn it around a couple weeks isn’t long enough unless during that time she cops a bad attitude or something. I was once let go and not super clear on the reason and put on the unemployment application ‘position eliminated ‘ and the company then tried to deny my unemployment benefits citing I lied. It was a bit of a mess and we had to have a hearing. The outcome of which went in my favor (yay) because, 1) I hadn’t done anything malicious enough for them to deny me and 2) it had only been two weeks since my horrible boss had written me up on bunch of trumped up things and the EED said that wasn’t enough time for me to have made improvements

      1. Jen S. 2.0

        I think the 30 days part is critical. It sounds like OP means saying to her on Tuesday, “Unfortunately, Friday will be your last day with us, for a number of reasons I’ve never told you.”

        I think it should never be a surprise when you are fired in a case like this. You should be told that X behavior is a problem for Y reason, and you need to see Z improvement by A date, or your job is in jeopardy. After that date, they are fair game for termination.

      2. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

        I have a few “dinner table stories” about weird firings, weird suspensions, layoffs and firings rescinded, employees finding out that they were going to be laid off in six months (layoff date set), mass resignations, whole bundle of stuff.

        But the “we laid her off but really fired her, we didn’t mean to say layoff, see, well she was laid off but she wasn’t laid off, she sorta quit, well, kinda, by golly” is a common ploy used by employers who want to dodge unemployment liability. There are even companies who will coach employers in this area – I guess the objective is

        – hope the terminated employee doesn’t show up at his/her appeal; or

        – pray that the terminated employee isn’t as smart as the management — beware of this, folks! Often the employee IS smarter than you…!!! And although in the office, a manager can do no wrong — at unemployment hearings – YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS. It’s a clean slate.

        – they drag it out long enough and hope the firee just gives up.

        I had a friend who was told he was let go for “position eliminated” – then when he went to claim unemployment, they turned tail and said he was terminated for cause. When he and the state pressed the whiz kids in management “WHAT CAUSE? Please, be explicit and put it in writing.”

        They went into a Porky Pig monologue. They dragged it out for a few months, but they lost, and they knew they would, it was a stare-down, essentially. Fortunately for the management, they didn’t have to pay penalties, treble damages, etc. But in an employee-friendly state, pulling a stunt like this could burn a company.

    3. Mike C.

      Let me guess, no one from HR was ever fired for “being too expensive”, right?

      So did they do this on a particular day of the week? Did employees figure this out and start to dread that day?

      1. Lily in NYC

        Fridays at 4:30! The HR people weren’t here long enough to be deemed too expensive. We used to have really good salaries here until the economy tanked, so they started getting rid of people who were vested long-timers and replacing them with people they could hire for much less money. During this, it came to light that the HR director was giving contracts to friends/family without bidding them out (we are quasi-governmental so we have a strict bidding process). She was escorted out of the building and it was glorious. Then they dumped the entire dept. and started from scratch and things are so much better.

        1. Blue Anne

          Wow. Write a screenplay. We all want “corporate buttheads getting what they deserve” movies right now!

    4. Lia

      My ex worked for a call center once that was like that. They were losing money as one of their contracts had ended, and the big boss walked out onto the floor, said “Table 5, you’re fired” and walked back into his office. Ex didn’t work on there that much longer (he was a programmer) since he was afraid his team might be next!

      1. Val

        I worked for a call center that would do this right before Christmas. Just picked some arbitrary thing that had never been wrong to do before but that if anyone had done it that morning was fired en masse. Every year, some 15-20 people would be fired one day. (Transferring a caller to another division rather than having the customer hang up and call another number, for example, suddenly was a fireable offense, for example.)

        1. Val

          (It’s really nasty not just because it was already right before Christmas but because all of these people who had worked for the company in good faith now were FIRED and from the position of being fired had to look for a new job, presumably couldn’t count on any kind of good reference from the company, and possibly would be challenged if they did try to receive unemployment.)

        2. BananaPants

          This happened at the call center my husband had been working in – he was there for 2.5+ years, had several performance awards, etc. and was unceremoniously canned one day with zero warning, ostensibly for incorrectly transferring a call to tech support more than twice in a rolling 12 month period. I’m not exaggerating, that’s what was on his termination paperwork.

          It happened often. The workers called it “being disappeared” (some sort of gallows humor) and every month or two it would happen to 5-10 people. He outlasted 3/4 of his initial training class – others either quit or had been fired already. The company successfully fought all of those unemployment claims, too; they have a firm that they pay to do it.

          Having experienced it ourselves – good luck finding a decent job when you have to say in an interview that you were fired for what sounds like an absurd reason. I’m positive some hiring managers assumed he was lying about the circumstances, but it’s the honest-to-God truth. That was 2.5 years ago and I still want to spit when I see ads for his former employer. Mr. BP was desperate for any work (I was pregnant and we lost his appeal on the unemployment claim) so he accepted the first job he was offered and that ended up being an absolute nightmare.

            1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

              Oh yeah. That’s why you appeal bogus “he wuz fired” claims. Usually managers – placed in a showdown situation – can turn yellow in those hearings and start claiming it was a mistake.
              This seems like one that someone could win.

            2. Camster

              Actually, there are times when a company needs to fight an unemployment claim. Years ago, I worked in a department for a large restaurant chain that handled the company’s response to unemployment claims. Many employees were fired for good reasons such as poor performance, frequent tardiness, walking off the job, using drugs on the job or even something like yelling at customers. (Warnings were given for poor performance and tardiness, though). The company pays for unemployment insurance so it is in their best interest to keep their claims down. We didn’t fight unemployment claims if, for example, an employee was laid off.

              1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

                Camster, I do not deny that people ARE released for good cause, and their unemployment claims are denied – and legitimately so.

                However, there are companies that lay people off, and then say “it was for cause”.

                And there are even firms that will advise management on dodging legitimate unemployment claims – and as was said in Inglorious Basterds “business is a-boomin’!”

        3. Connie-Lynne

          I worked for a manufacturing company that did something similarly awful. They’d hire a bunch of workers to fill a temporary demand, then, when they needed to downsize the workforce, they’d start a rumor that there had been an INS raid in nearby companies.

          The next day they’d strictly enforce the “miss a day, you’re fired” policy.

          It was reprehensible. I caught the VP bragging about it once, he thought he was so clever. I quit shortly thereafter.

      2. Blue Anne

        I worked for a call centre that had us all on zero-hours contracts for this purpose. It was okay for me – I was a uni student signing up for weird flexible shifts, trying to make beer money and cheap rent so I didn’t have to beg mom for money. But there were people there who had young kids or couldn’t get “real jobs”, and if there wasn’t a big contract on they just wouldn’t get any work at all. Completely legal and pretty sickening.

        Between that, the 15p charge for cruddy coffee, timed bathroom breaks, and talking-to for signing into my console 90 seconds late that morning… I got a deeper understanding of Marx at that place than my Philosophy degree gave me.

    5. Rat Racer

      Did the fired HR personnel then sue the company? That would have been deliciously ironic!

    1. Hellanon

      I like “germination” as a typo in this context. It has a felicitousness to it, as if to imply that the person, properly planted in newer soil, might flourish…

  5. Hellanon

    Heh, the body odor issue you reference in the header – I had occasion to draw on that bit of advice this last week, when my downstairs tenant, who owns a bar, asked me if I knew what to say to an employee who was otherwise great but came to work smelling like cat pee every day. Ha! I thought, thanks to AAM I know exactly what to say… “sit them down and straightforwardly tell them that you have noticed they smell like cat pee and that it is unacceptable. Don’t pawn it off on their coworkers & don’t negotiate about *why* they smell like pee. And don’t sandwich into praise for other areas of work. Just address the need to make the cat pee go away…”

  6. beauty at a distance

    Good answer, Alison! I get the sense that there’s a lot more to this story: LW seems to have specific issues with the admin, that aren’t necessarily shared with LW’s business partner. And LW sorta implies that it’s not merely a ‘performance problem’ when they mention the admin is “taking advantage” somehow. Ie, this is more than, say, she’s making too many typing errors.

    I feel compelled to mention, though, that the LW states they didn’t provide the admin with any warnings because they “were in the middle of an unusually busy and stressful season”. Strictly speaking, it sounds like LW had their own “performance problem”. Is it possible that the admin was herself struggling with her own part of this “busy and stressful” time? *shrug* I don’t know. But – pardon my cynicism – years ago I noticed that execs and other VIPs often get away with behavior that would get a lower-level employee terminated.

    In any event, Alison nailed it: LW may not be obligated to warn the admin, but there are a number of really good reasons why they should.

    1. Stranger than fiction

      I caught that too! If it was unusually busy and stressful could that be partly to blame? I just do not get how someone could be doing so horrible that nobody would say anything?!

      1. TootsNYC

        And, did they never say, “that was wrong”? I mean, it was so bad that the Letter Writer says “things that I would have terminated her on the spot for.”

        Did they say nothing at all, even though these things were that bad? That’s pretty bad, if your boss would fire you right on the spot! That’s not a typo!

        The LW says “without formally saying anything”–but did they say anything at all? If they said something at the time about it being a serious error, and there were several things, all of them reacted to in the moment, it wouldn’t bother me as much for them to say, “Look, remember those mistakes? Those were incredibly serious, and we don’t want to wait for you to figure it out and do it right. We just want out. So because we’re not going to give you a chance to improve, we ARE going to give you severance, which we don’t normally give when we fire people, and we’re going to cut you lose.”

        And in many states, this wouldn’t be enough to deny them unemployment benefits, so the employer could stress, “You’ll qualify, despite being fired, and we won’t contest it.” Those might help me sleep better.

        Also–it would depend a lot on how much the dysfunction that other people pointed out might have influenced her. And how bad those things were on that “laundry list.”

  7. Not the Droid You are Looking for

    My former company used to give out huge severance (2-3 months) because no one would document employee problems or..you know…have a conversation about performance issues with employees. So when it finally got to the point where the person had to be replaced, they would be offered the chance to “resign” with a 2-3 month severance package.

    We lost good people to this, as some of the issues could have easily been corrected with proper training after the first incident, but instead it was allowed to go on for years. Some of these people even received good/decent performance reviews because their managers did not want to address the issues.

    1. jmkenrick

      That’s so weird. This might be an insensitive analogy, but it seems like just throwing out an old car rather than taking it to the shop. Sure, sometimes it’s cheaper to get a new one, but more often then not, with proper maintenance, you’re better off with the old one.

      1. Not the Droid You are Looking for

        It’s actually a really great analogy, because it was like not checking the oil when your light goes on and then wondering what happened when the engine explodes.

        With a bit of regular “maintenance,” many of the people this happened to could have been great employees.

        1. MashaKasha

          Well the engine should’ve guessed that the light was going on and off, and done something to make it stop!

          1. Not the Droid You are Looking for

            OMG! I just cracked up at my desk and all my coworkers are looking at me like I’m crazy :) That was too funny!

  8. neverjaunty

    OP, it seems very strange that things were so ‘busy and stressful’ that you couldn’t even find time to give an employee verbal warnings about offenses that should have gotten them fired.

    1. Lyssa

      Yeah, it makes me wonder if part of the problem is that no one was effectively communicating expectations and needs to the employee in the first place, to the extent that her poor performance is more “failure to read minds.” I hope that’s not the case.

      1. katamia

        Yeah, I had a job like this once, although it actually was busy–I had an inventory job in retail, and I was hired juuuuuuuust before the big yearly inventory thingy, so people were busy getting ready for that instead of training me to do my job. I figured out some of it on my own and did get a little bit of training on half the job, but nary a word about the other half. As would be expected, I was terrible at said job and quit after about a month, but if I’d tried to stick it out, I suspect I probably would have been fired eventually.

    2. fposte

      I was thinking that in a case like this you could consider two weeks’ severance to be the bad management tax.

    3. M

      ^^This. I had a job where I didn’t get along with one of the partners and put up with a lot during busy season only to be blindsided and released when it was done. He listed some basic excuses(like one time I didn’t open office overlooking fact that I had been on phone since 5am taking care of emergency and once it was settled at 9 am I needed time to commute to office) while his partner couldn’t even look me in the eye. He knew they used me with the expectation that a raise (& slow season) was coming. They didn’t have the assets to bother with any type of lawsuit but karma took care of him for me.

      1. SerfinUSA

        I got fired like that once. The owners were on vacation and we had a meeting scheduled for the day they got back. I was ready for my glowing review and raise for turning their production department around and energizing the team I supervised into some awesome attitudes and performance.
        Nope. They had a check ready (no severance, just my pay to date) and fired me because the ‘hands on owner’ wanted to take back over the department I just fixed for them. That pretty much cemented my employer-related cynicism at the ripe old age of 25.

        I found out from my predecessor that her husband actually threatened to commit bodily harm to them for they way they treated her. Ugh!

        1. Sharona

          Some people really deserve the bodily harm, I should say.

          Here’s to cynicism! *toasts beer*

  9. KJR

    Yes, please warn your employee! It’s the right and fair way to run a business. Typically, you can try one on one counseling first, then move to written warnings. And be clear and up front as others have stated – avoid vagueness at all costs. Also, are you not doing regular performance reviews? Or at the very least, informal yet regular discussions about her performance? We do formal performance reviews annually here, with a focus on past performance as well as plans for the future – how do I want to improve over the next year? Is there training I could participate in that would help me perform better at my job? What roadblocks do I anticipate? Then, we have a “check-in” every 6 months to see how these goals are progressing. Any performance issues are addressed at this time, although I would strongly recommend not saving them for just review time. It works out much better to address performance problems quickly. No one benefits if they are allowed to continue, and they often just get worse. Plus, it’s a lot easier to talk to someone about their performance and what can be done to improve it than to terminate someone! Also, turnover is expensive. This is one way to reduce it.

  10. Jerzy

    My now husband lost a job several years back that started out as a bit of a personality clash with a supervisor, who used a totally fixable mistake by my husband as an excuse to fire him. The supervisor said it was because my husband hadn’t attempted to fix the mistake, when the reality is the supervisor didn’t tell hubs about the mistake, handed it to someone else to fix, then used it as an excuse to fire someone he didn’t like. Not only was there no warning that his job was in jeopardy, but he wasn’t given the opportunity he would have liked to remedy the problem.

    I know at least two other people left the company shortly before and after him due to similar issues with that management style. Not giving warning can affect how your other employees view their employment with your company.

    1. TootsNYC

      “Not giving warning can affect how your other employees view their employment with your company.”

      Absolutely true! And Alison’s point about your -main- audience being the people who will still work for you.

      Even if they think she was awful and are glad she’s gone, they’ll want to know that you treat people fairly. I went through layoffs once that were so much more bearable because we all felt that our colleagues had been treated like valued professionals through it all. It still stunk, but it felt respectful and fair.

      And ditto with a firing–employees will think: “would you treat *me* like that?”

      1. the gold digger

        I was the only one of the ten people in my group to be laid off. Two of my co-workers immediately started looking for new jobs (and left soon thereafter) because, as they told me, “If they will treat you like this, they will treat me like this.”

  11. YandO

    I am very irritated with owners/partners/managers who find excuses to not give direct feedback and then deal with under-performing employee by firing them. I’ve got owners like that right now and let me tell you, I have no loyalty, no good will, no positive things to say about them and neither do many of the employees that they let go suddenly before me.

    In fact, I have a list of previous employees I can call upon for support in court if I ever need it.

    Trust me, you don’t want to have this situation on your hands. Give feedback. Don’t make up excuses.

    1. Beancounter in Texas

      I’m in the same boat – owner doesn’t communicate about disappointing and poor performance of employees. Instead, he ignores them, doesn’t raise their pay for years (not even “keeping up with inflation” increases) and waits for them to quit or he gets so fed up with them that he finally fires them.

      He was on the verge of firing one long term employee (just passed her 20th anniversary!) over some poor employee management discovered during a corporate office visit. I asked The Owner whether she knew her job was in jeopardy and he replied with concern that she might learn as much, “No!” I gently pointed out that she should be told so that she has a chance to correct her behavior and an understanding the seriousness of the infraction. He didn’t. She was ceremoniously fired for a laundry list of reasons (most of them from years ago) and she filed for unemployment. She won the claim, of course, because we didn’t have a single shred of evidence indicating that she had been told about her poor performance. She was (rightfully) pissed off at the company. The only consolation I feel for these victims is that they rightfully receive unemployment compensation at the company’s expense.

  12. Claire

    If your employee was doing poorly in her job, why WOULDN’T you say something to her to let her know she needs to improve upon things? I mean, as a manager, that is just common sense to me. Ever heard of one on one meetings with your employees? It is not fair to just fire her when you didn’t even meet with her to tell her what she is doing wrong and what she needs to improve on in order to keep her job. Not to be rude, but honestly employers/managers like you make it incredibly hard for support/admin staff to be successful. I don’t know the whole story, obviously just what you wrote, but if you are so stressed out by a busy season that you don’t even have time to talk to your employees, you should not be in that role to begin with.

    1. some1

      It sounds like the LW is dying to get rid of her. I don’t understand how the admin could have done something bad enough to want to fire on the spot, but not doing so because it’s “too busy”.

    2. AnonyManager

      It sounds like the company LW works for isn’t big on giving any of their employees the tools/training they need to be successful. It feels like Management 101 to me. Of course, you address performance issues with your employees before it is time to fire them! If you have seen behavior that should have gotten them fired on the spot…why not actually fire them on the spot?

  13. DM

    If you do give two weeks severance, one thing to consider is having the employee sign a release in exchange for the severance.

      1. Brett

        Interesting fact though…in some states if you don’t have them sign the release, the severance will replace UI payments. At least this is the case in Texas. After a layoff we got part of our severance guaranteed, and the rest in exchange for a release. UI won’t pay while you’re receiving a severance but if you have to give anything up to get it (like your legal rights when you sign a release), then UI would apply. So for the period of unrestricted severance I was ineligible for payment and then for the period where I had to sign the release I could collect both.

        My guess is they structured the payment so that the guaranteed payment was long enough that many people would have a job, but still offered enough in exchange for the release that anyone who wasn’t already planning to sue would still sign it.

        Of course this wouldn’t really apply to a shorter payment like 2 weeks. Agreement all the way there.

        1. Beancounter in Texas

          Interesting, because hubby was terminated in December in Texas, filed for unemployment, declared what severance he would receive and he was eligible to receive both severance and full UI benefits. I wonder whether the differing factor is you were laid off and he was fired? Or perhaps just different case handling by different officers.

          1. KAZ2Y5

            I think UI goes into effect after the last payment? So it would depend on whether you got a lump sum or if they paid it out like your regular paychecks.

          2. Brett

            Did he sign a release to get the severance? If so he can be paid UI as well as receive the severance. There’s also circumstances that I don’t fully understand around whether a payment is a published benefit or not. It’s something like, if the company’s policy is to pay 4 weeks when you leave then you can’t get UI during that time. But if it isn’t a published benefit then it’s not treated as wage income for some reason.

            In general I think they err on the side of the employee, but a mass layoff is required by law to include either a notice period or “wages in lieu of notice” and that’s what I got. So in my case there was no question where it fell under the rules.

  14. Fired First, No Feedback

    Oh Alison, sometimes I wonder if you have a look-glass into my life. All of your articles recently have dealt directly with my employment situation, this one in particular drives me up the wall.

    Yesterday I was let go for “poor performance” even though I have stellar track record. I had been apparently put on a 4week “probationary period” (my self and recruitment agency had not been notified of this), and finally the axe came down when my boss decided to scapegoat me to save a client account.

    I was not aware that I was “struggling” or having “performance issues.” My work load was light, since we only had around 15 new accounts, but I kept my self busy by making individual projects that would better the company.

    The other employees were shocked, and now the new hires (2 of them) were skitterish like deer. One lady has been actively looking for a new job, as am I now, obviously, but no one saw it coming. I had even been talking with a more senior employee minutes prior to my firing who was super positive about my future at Company Co, since she thought my work had been exemplary and my individual projects really added to the culture.

    Live and learn, I guess.

    1. MashaKasha

      I was put on probation once, at a Fortune 500 company. I had to sign the papers notifying me of the probation, on the day it started. I’m pretty sure there was some kind of accountability, with them having to show my signature as proof that I had been informed of it. How could Company Co have you on probation for four months without you or your recruitment agency knowing? Sounds like a terrible business practice. Sorry about what happened to you.

      1. Fired First, No Feedback

        Thankfully it was only for 4weeks, but that was really 1/3 of my time at Company Co. My next job is going to be for a major company, I absolutely refuse to work for a small organization again. Having an employee sign that they have been warned is pretty common practice, even having an informal meeting would have been appropriate in my case.

        There were a lot of issues there, this was obviously one of them. In someways its a relief to have been let go since I don’t have to deal with other bizarre managerial behavior, but it really rubbed me the wrong way when they tried to blame it on my performance.

        In terms of OP: Talk to your employee and give her a 4week probation period, since that is good managerial practice. If things are in Dire Straights, as Alison said, then consider more extreme action, but most times things aren’t and people just need to be told they’re doing something wrong.

        “If I don’t know there’s a problem I can’t fix it.”

        1. YandO

          I know this is not universal…..but small organizations/businesses are the worst, aren’t they?

          They can do whatever they want. No rules, policies, laws apply to them. You’d think losing talent/employees would teach them some decency and professionalism, but it really does not. What a shame.

          1. Fired First, No Feedback

            My experience with them has been really poor, I will definitly not be pursuing employment with a <50 employee business again. This is actually the second time this has happened to me, shockingly the first time was also at a small business…

            There is no accountability in management and employees are worked to the bone.

          2. Laufey

            I think I have to speak up on behalf of a small orgs. I work at a small org (<50 employees total), and it's great. There's no bureaucratic policies, HR is actually HR and Litigation Avoidance Services, everyone cuts each other slack during emergencies, people are allowed to turn out their dogs or go to their kids' ballet recital or let in the cable man without losing vacation time, people are rewarded for merit, not seniority (except for vacation time), there's no facetime "you must work overtime to advance" requirements, and the BS per head ratio is much, much lower than at any other company I've worked for. There's a lot more emphasis on quality, continuing education/training, and happy employees, because losing one has much more of an impact.

            So yes, some small business management can be crappy, but so can Fortune 500 companies. I don't think we can categorically say that one type of company is any better or worse than any other type. It's like saying that all non-profits are poorly run and pressure their employees to donate, or that all Fortune 500s have great HR teams. Obviously, neither of those statements are true.

          3. Stephanie

            I think in small orgs, there’s just usually less buffer against the crazy, fewer or no places to transfer to to get away from the crazy, and maybe less accountability.

            1. Tyrannosaurus Regina

              And there’s less likely to be any kind of process/authority to appeal to when things go bad in bizarre ways. When things are good at a small org, they’re great! But if they go bad, especially in weird ways, they go Very Bad and there’s really nowhere to turn for meaningful help.

        2. MashaKasha

          Oops. Sorry, my reading comprehension has been terrible all day today due to lack of sleep.

          I’ve worked at BIG companies for the last fifteen years, and had been kicking myself for having gone that route many years ago, because there are a lot of things wrong with major companies. But at least there’s a lot of accountability on all levels and a manager (even a president or CIO) cannot just do whatever his whim of the day happens to be – which is a very good thing.

    2. LeighTX

      I am so sorry you were let go yesterday. This has happened to my husband twice–both times he was completely blindsided. Once, the termination happened just two weeks after a local newspaper published an article spotlighting his employer, in which his boss was quoted saying what a great job my husband was doing and how he was a huge asset to them.

      I hope you find something new very quickly, with en employer that will appreciate your talent.

        1. AtWill

          Because they can. “Shame” does not have any meaningful impact in employment decisions.

          And I don’t understand why all these companies are having so much trouble at unemployment hearings. Just go in to the hearing, lie your face off, get the claim denied, and move on. It’s not like you have a burden of proof ; the former employee is the one who has to prove that his/her termination was illegal. Not unfair, illegal.

          When the reason for termination is given as “no longer a good fit for our corporate culture”, what can the employee say to respond to that? If they don’t have documentation of every last aspect of that culture (which is impossible) how can it possibly be refuted?

          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            In most states, you’d still get unemployment is you were fired for not being a good fit. Most states require you to be fired for misconduct or serious performance issues to be denied.

            1. AtWill

              Unless they decided to fight the claim and give several (true or otherwise) examples of the conduct that made you no longer a good fit. Or, they’d find some tiny little insignificant infraction of, let’s say, the dress code. There’s your cause. No UI for you.

                1. AtWill

                  What is there to wonder about? You broke the rules, you’re fired for cause. End of story. You get to wonder how you’re going to pay the rent while your employer laughs at what they’ve been able to do to you because they can.

      1. Fired First, No Feedback

        Thank you! In a way I view this as an opportunity because I can more easily identify poor managerial practices and figure out a good company culture that fits my needs.

        As for your husband, my only reaction to that is: ????? ad infinitum. His boss must of had a screw lose, if the newspaper caught wind of that, that would have been a HORRIBLE windfall.

        1. LeighTX

          ????? was our reaction, too–and the unemployment office’s as well. Even though the employer fought it, he was still awarded unemployment benefits. He’s in a much better job now working for lovely people, but it’s amazing how that type of situation will mess with your mind and your ability to trust.

    3. Uyulala

      You must have been on Double Secret Probation.

      I hope you find something better soon!

      1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

        I was in a place once and heard the managers tried to put someone on “retroactive probation” to keep her from getting an internal job transfer (a step up) .

        Boy, did that get messy!

    4. Helen of What

      I totally feel your pain. I was fired a few months ago despite being told I was an asset, and getting a promotion two weeks before my sudden dismissal. I think the CEO was looking for reasons to fire me to save money, twice he emailed me CC’ing the CFO regarding “mistakes” that didn’t exist.

      1. Sharona

        I’ve been in this situation. I’ve had people basically “touch” up my work and act as if I didn’t notice. And I’m pretty sure in my case my awful manager had my coworker do it. She was covering for her boyfriend’s nephew and didn’t want to have to fire him because it would cause tension in the relationship.

  15. Jennifer M.

    I think that warnings can be very helpful. One of our satellite offices had to put two people on PIPs at approximately the same time. Our PIPs tend to range from 14 to 30 days and in this situation both were 30 days. One of them recently resigned because it became clear that he was just not the right fit for the level of work that we needed. But it was clear through the process that he understood what the issues were and he tried his best but was just too junior for the role. By displaying the effort to respond to the issues and improve during the PIP, he will actually come out of this with a pretty good reference – hard worker who wants to contribute and has demonstrable skills in X, Y, and Z, but not A, B, and C. The other person really turned herself around. The manager of the office said it was like night and day, making it clear that the issue was likely on the side of management/HR for not creating a job description that was clear on what we really wanted/needed and not articulating those needs in her first 2 months on the job (there was a big management change and it was the new management that actually wrote up the PIP). Once she knew what was needed from her and that we weren’t kidding about holding her accountable, she stepped up.

    Even though one person ended up leaving the company, I think both examples demonstrate that a PIP can be effective in making sure that a problem doesn’t linger – either by getting the needed turnaround or getting both sides on the same page that it’s just not working out.

    1. Not the Droid You are Looking for

      I love that your company’s PIPs were actually uses as growth plans.

      When my former employer would use these (30,60,90 days with 90 being the most common), it was an opportunity to continue to document everything the person did wrong and basically count on them making the same or similar mistake within the time so you could fire them.

      1. BRR

        Oh dear god I hope I get put on a 90 day PIP. I’d kill for that much more time to job hunt and get paid.

        1. Not the Droid You are Looking for

          There was one employee who made it to day 68/90 before being fired, and had a new position within a week. I always assumed that person was job hunting, which is why they were being ultra careful.

          Unfortunately, a lot of the employees trusted that it was actually an improvement plan and didn’t see it as a neon sign flashing “get out now! protect yourself!”

            1. Stephanie

              I survived one! And then was the first one “cut” when we lost some revenue. I don’t think I ever survived the credibility hit.

              1. Beezus

                I think people who are on or have recently been on PIPs are the first laid off at most places.

      2. Maxwell Edison

        I was put on a PIP at ToxicJob and knew it was a sham when my manager told me I was on the PIP at the end of August, but I didn’t actually get the paperwork with all my deadlines for completion of what I needed to do to get off the PIP until mid-October (which left me with less than a month for some of the goals). I resigned the Monday before most of the goals were due; even if I’d completed them all to perfection, she would have found something I’d done wrong (a coworker had the exact same thing happen to her).

  16. DF

    If you don’t tell your employee what they are doing wrong, how in the world are they supposed to correct their behavior?!?

    1. AtWill

      They’re not. You can then fire them and replace them with someone cheaper, or, more likely, just make someone else do the job in addition to their own.

  17. AE

    Where I used to work, nobody was given a warning that it was imminent. At-will employees could be terminated at any time, and union workers had their escalating disciplinary process, but once the decision’s been made, it’s a secret. They were afraid of …? Anger? Violence? Sabotage? Gossip?

  18. MashaKasha

    Yes to #4 in Allison’s answer. If I saw a coworker get fired out of the blue, for the poor performance she’d had no idea about, and had never received even a verbal warning about, I’d start coming into the office every day with the expectation that today I might get fired for no reason. And I would probably start looking as well, because no one needs this kind of a ticking time bomb in their lives.

    1. Not the Droid You are Looking for

      ^ 100% this

      I inherited a team that had many people “fired overnight” because new management was frustrated that old management never managed low performers.

      I spent my first 6-8 months constantly ensuring my top performers their job wasn’t in jeopardy, and that my coaching of middle employees was truly “coaching” and warnings.

  19. BethRA

    Is LW really asking about giving someone warnings, though? “I want to know if I should tell her that she will be losing her job this week due to poor performance” Not fired “IF,” but “will be” fired. That sounds to me like the person is going to be fired, and LW just wants to know if they should get advanced notice they way one would give notice if you were quitting.

    So yes, warnings make sense, clear communication about expectations makes sense, and it should never be a “surprise” to someone that they’re not performing well. But if someone’s going to be fired regardless, I’m not sure it makes sense to tell them that in advance.

    1. Artemesia

      Yes. I sounds like this decision has been made. I would never warn someone they were ‘going to be fired.’ When someone is fired they need to be gone with their stuff that day. You don’t want people around bringing down their colleagues, shooting up the place, sabotaging the files etc etc.

      This person should have had feedback earlier i.e. improve X and Y or you will be terminated, but once the decision has been made then it is about how to handle it most gracefully.

      Given where the OP’s office is, the only possible decent thing to do is to provide severance. Blindsiding someone and then not providing a cushion is just mean as well as incompetent.

      1. TootsNYC

        That’s where I would have thought that 2 weeks’ severance comes it–it’s the equivalent of two weeks’ notice, just coming from the other side.

        Kind of: “You can quit; we can quit. We just need to give one another two weeks’ notice, either way.”

        Not saying that’s a smart way to manage this, just that it’s part of what the partner may be thinking of.

      2. AtWill

        Where does “decent” come into it? Why should that be considered “decent”, and more importantly, why should the employer care? There’s nothing saying they have to treat their employees “decently”. If they don’t like it they can go work somewhere else.

        At least that’s the attitude most American companies have as far as I can tell. You’re a cog, and we own you. Get back to work before we fire you; there’s 100 people who want your job.

  20. Mike C.

    Please tell me this isn’t one of those situations where someone in management has decided that “the issue is soooo obvious that they should have just figured it out on their own and if not then too bad for them”. I’d love to be wrong but that’s the vibe I’m getting here.

    1. Windchime

      Me too. I hate, hate, hate it when people hint and then are surprised and annoyed when the person to whom they are hinting doesn’t get it. Saying vague things like, “Your behavior on [thing] is an issue” is NOT the same thing as, “Please stop doing [thing]; it is a serious performance issue and could make you lose your job”. For those of you who think that a polite hint should be enough, STOP doing this. Please.

      We recently had an employee quit. She was a terrible fit for the job; her skills, personality, and everything was just wrong. Our boss had several serious talks with her about this, and then gave her a glowing performance review. Then she got put on a PIP. Talk about mixed messages! She was shocked and surprised when she was called in for the Serious Discussion in HR (“either start meeting the terms of your PIP or be prepared to lose your job.”) She chose to quit and I think that was the right decision for both her and the team, but bosses just should never give serious talks and PIPS and then give someone a wonderful annual review. It makes no sense and leaves the employee rightfully confused.

      1. Bend & Snap

        I once got fired for “performance” after a good performance review. No PIP. Then an email apologizing for laying me off because the revenue couldn’t support my position.

        Never did figure out what the hell happened.

      2. AnonAnalyst

        This is my greatest fear at my current job. We have a culture of praising people for things, but we don’t seem to have a culture of giving anyone constructive feedback at any time; at least, I haven’t really gotten much in the years I’ve worked here, and I can’t imagine that I’m 100% awesome at everything.

        I’ve seen two people be fired since I joined the company, and both times I wondered if they ever had any idea they were having performance issues. One I know didn’t, but I’m less sure about the other. I (rightfully) wouldn’t have been privy to any of the conversations that led up to the firing and she wasn’t often in the office, so I didn’t have a lot of visibility into how that unfolded.

        My workplace is pretty good overall, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t always have an eye out for other opportunities just in case I suddenly get canned with no warning after seeing what happened to other employees.

    2. Fired First, No Feedback

      What, you mean running a business like it’s the High School Gossip Squad is bad for moral and your income? ;D

  21. some1

    Good managers do pay attention to how firing a employee without warning affects the morale of everyone. Bad managers do it anyway because they *want* to be seen as a hardass whose employees are in fear of losing their jobs.

    1. Artemesia

      People with options who can leave easily tend to be the best performers, so a manager who cultivate the reputation of being a jerk to work for and likely to strike at any moment will be likely to lose his good employees and be left with mediocre ones or only those who for personal reasons have few options.

      1. AtWill

        Better to have mediocre workers who don’t ask for anything than top performers who constantly whine about “work-life balance” and “not being forced to work 90 hour weeks” and “the law”.

        And, shoot one hostage, the others start cooperating.

  22. Long Time Reader First Time Poster

    Jesus. I can’t even believe this is a question.

    Although, of course, I can. Because I got blindsided by a firing once. They called me into a meeting and said “we’re letting you go” and I couldn’t have been more flabbergasted.

    The standard rule is that nobody should ever hear something in a performance review that comes as a surprise — managers should be communicating on the regular about performance issues. That goes double — maybe triple — for a termination.

    Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. My blood pressure went up just reading that post. Only a terrible, terrible manager wouldn’t tell an employee they were in danger of losing their job before firing.

    In my personal situation, I *still* don’t understand how it happened. I’d received a favorable review, a promotion, a raise, and an out of guidelines bonus within the previous two months of my termination. There were some things I surely could have been doing better at the time I was let go, but I was managing a massive massive workload at the time while still keeping my clients happy. My direct manager did NOT like me, though, and he managed to convince the owner of the company it was me or him. In hindsight, it was a blessing to be out of there, but being blindsided like that was the most humiliating experience of my life. I wouldn’t wish it on ANYONE.

    1. OhNo

      I think you have a really great point about how awful it can feel on the employee’s end. “Humiliating” is definitely the right word.

      Even if you don’t really want to give the employee a chance to improve, even if all you really want is to fire them, at least give them some kind of warning so they’re not just out on the street with no job and no idea why.

    2. MsMarvel

      Yeah, I’ve been fired once, by a boss who was hired over me and didn’t like me. I know the reason they gave: I mouthed off in a meeting. But getting fired was a massive overreaction for the level of my “insubordination.” Anyway, it was terrible, and took me years to get over.

      Oh, that a-hole also offered me notice or severance. I.e., I was going to get a paycheck for the next two weeks, and I could either work or not work. Guess which I chose??

      1. Maxwell Edison

        “Insubordination” is the “get out of jail free” card for employers to fire people. It can be anything. If you’re thinking about something and don’t smile and wave at the right person, you’re insubordinate. Then again, I’m sensitive on this topic as I was told that my posture when I walked to the printer was insubordinate.

          1. AtWill

            It’s a thing because it’s so ridiculous, it’s impossible to refute. Insubordination is usually subjective, and if your boss says they felt you were insubordinate, you were.

  23. Richard

    I think your #4 is the most important reason – many good long term employees are risk averse when it comes to their own career. That’s why they’re still working for you. You don’t want to make “staying here” more risky than “going somewhere else”, which is what happens when they don’t know from day to day if the axe is going to fall.

    One other advantage to giving them this kind of warning: They may leave on their own, which avoids the drama and paperwork of having to fire someone.

    On the “is it legal” side – I think it depends on whether you’re telling them that you’re firing them for cause, or you’re just letting them go.

    I’ve been told by prior HR departments and lawyers that you gave cause for a complaint or suit if you fired someone for cause without backup. If you’re giving severance anyway, then you can take advantage of them being an at-will employee (“you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here”), but if you’re firing for cause, that may affect their eligibility for state benefits or security clearances. On the other hand, if you fire someone as an “at-will” employee (without documentation), and they’re your only person of a minority, sex, or other protected class, we’ve also been warned about that being a difficult problem. Finally, if you fire someone for cause, and their performance reviews don’t support it, I’ve been told that’s a cause for a tort for ineffective review. (Violating a common law expectation of supervisors).

    We had a person who was fired for cause file a complaint with the state department of labor because they claimed that they were never informed that they shouldn’t access personal information that they didn’t need for their job and send it by email. The complaint went on for years, and ultimately they won because all the witnesses, including me, had left the company.

    Often, severance checks have a string attached, where you agree, as a condition of taking the severance, not to contest your termination. I’ve heard that isn’t necessarily legal or binding, but it’s often enough to scare people into avoiding further conflict.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      It’s not illegal to fire someone for cause without backup. I think what your HR people were referring to was that if the person decides “it wasn’t really the cause they said; it was actually because of my age/race/sex/religion/disability and I’m going to sue,” then it’s really much better if you have actual documentation of the issues that caused the firing.

      It’s not illegal to fire without that documentation though. Just smarter not to.

      It’s also not illegal to fire someone for cause who previously had good performance reviews. But like the above, if they decide the real reason you fired them was because of race/sex/religion/etc., it’s going to be harder for you to show that it wasn’t.

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      We had a person who was fired for cause file a complaint with the state department of labor because they claimed that they were never informed that they shouldn’t access personal information that they didn’t need for their job and send it by email. The complaint went on for years, and ultimately they won because all the witnesses, including me, had left the company.

      Unless you’re in Montana, there’s no law in the U.S. that would have required that person to be informed or warned about that before being fired. I wonder if this was actually about collecting unemployment (where that could come into play) or there are other details here that would change this a bit.

      1. neverjaunty

        Also, the fact that the witnesses have left the company doesn’t matter. That’s what investigations are for.

  24. Poohbear McGriddles

    Seems like the letter writer has already decided not to give the admin a chance to improve – they just want to know if she should get a heads up that she is being let go. I wonder if her performance is so poor that the partners don’t feel she can be redeemed, why they didn’t address this sooner. I dare say they may bear some of the blame for not handling it properly.
    I’m wondering what kind of performance issue could be so bad that it warrants immediate termination with no attempt at corrective action. Was she typing up her TPS reports in comic sans font?
    That said, neither a notice or severance is required. I do think it might be proper penance in this situation due to the way they have apparently (not) handled her poor performance.

    1. Fired First, No Feedback

      Maybe she signed an email with “Thanks!” instead of “Sincerely, the Administrator,” who knows…

  25. Ad Astra

    Hiring a replacement takes time and money. It makes business sense to try to work things out with underperforming employees. This letter makes it sound like the OP’s made no attempt to address performance issues. If you’re not willing to manage your employees, it’s not likely the replacement will be much better than the person you let go.

    1. Sharona

      Ding ding ding! Sometimes I wonder why employers don’t figure this out. It looks worse when you’ve have three people within the same roles in the past years or so, instead of working with talent and keeping your staff happy.

      1. AtWill

        This assumes that they care how it looks. Their arrogance clouds their perception of the situation; they can’t do anything wrong, and if they do, obviously it was an employee’s fault and the problem can be fixed by firing someone (or several someones). They also don’t care about morale. The beatings will continue until morale improves. Now get back to work before I fire you.

  26. Bryce

    For really bad behaviors like stealing or harassment, firing on the spot, do not pass GO and do not collect $200 makes sense. Everyone, including the offender, expects it and generally it’s straightforward. Simply saying something like, “On February 31st, 2015, you took a veeblefetzer from the storage room for your personal use. This is a violation of our employee integrity policy (it also helps to show the employee where this is written down). The penalty for this violation is termination of employment with us. We (have decided/decided not to) press legal charges…(state what happens next). Do you have any questions?”

    In the case of performance and fit issues where things aren’t likely to work out, employees at least deserve to see the writing on the wall so that they can start looking for a new job. In these cases, it may make sense to “counsel out” these employees.

    Such a conversation would sound something like this:

    “Skill X, Attitude Y, or knowledge about Z are crucial requirements of your position as Q. Incidents A, B, and C show that you need to make improvements U, V, and W. If you don’t make these improvements in XX days, we’ll need to let you go. ”

    “I’m willing to work with you to make these improvements, but the pattern I’m seeing because of these incidents tells me that your position as Q might not be the right fit for you. That’s because you have a lot of Skill R, Attitude S, and knowledge about T, but not so much when it comes to Skill X, Attitude Y, or knowledge about Z. I think you’d be happier and do better in another position, such as LMNOP, or with an organization like FGHIJK.”

    “That said, would you like me to put together a plan for improvement, or would you rather I help you try to find a better-fitting position? Let me know what you’d like to do next.”

    If the employee chooses an improvement plan, you’d talk about what that would look like, and reiterate that termination is the consequence for not meeting the requirements. Yes, Virginia, your employee may indeed change, particularly after being “hit between the eyes.”

    If the employee chooses to leave, you’d say, “It sounds like you want to resign, and I’m taking this as notice of your resignation.” You’d then take the steps as you would if any employee resigned.

    Your thoughts about this approach?

    Yo

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yep, that’s pretty much what I’d recommend. The only real quibble I have here is that I wouldn’t say “It sounds like you want to resign, and I’m taking this as notice of your resignation” unless you had already made it really clear that that’s how you’d be taking it.

    2. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

      .. and you’d better have proof that the employee actually took the veeblefetzer. I’ve seen employees written up for false allegations.

      I heard of someone who was disciplined and written up for “botching” a major task – and the manager had the wrong guy. The wrong guy happened to be 2000 miles away from the office at the time, on vacation, and replied with hotel slips, gas credit card charges, phone bills — made a comedy out of his reply — and sent it to corporate HR.

      That got messy, too. They offered to expunge the write-up – no, he wanted it in his file – to prove that this particular manager was “out to get him.” I could only imagine – any contingency lawyer would take that one on, if he had been fired for it.

  27. NacSacJack

    I was once fired without warning from a dream job that turned into a nightmare the moment I joined the firm. What softened the blow was getting two weeks severance after only working there six weeks. If you want to fire someone on the spot and they havent done anything you can point to as a fireable offense I would give severance. I must have been the first person they fired without cause because I scored a return visit to speak with the CEO. How that ever happened I have no idea.

  28. Vicki

    Alison – IT surprises me that the inc article doesn’t appear to address what I thought were the most eggregious offenses I saw in the original letter:

    ‘she will be losing her job this week due to poor performance (there’s a laundry list of things!)’
    ‘we were in the middle of an unusually busy and stressful season’
    ‘we’ve let her slide without formally saying anything…”
    ‘We are firing you because you’ve been an awful employee who has taken advantage of your situation,’

    YES you need to “warn” her. What’s the matter with you people? DO you think she’s performing poorly on purpose?

    Maybe she is, but it’s all on you, the manager, that you didn’t tell her _then_ and now you plan to retroactively say “We haven’t liked your work but we didn’t bother to tell you because…”

    Because what? Because you were in the middle of a “stressful and busy season”?

    Wow, yes, you should warn her. And anyone else who you think is having problems. Or #4 on the list (One of your main audiences for firings is the rest of your staff. ) is going to be a serious issue.

    1. Artemesia

      They intend to fire her so warning her she will be fired is a terrible idea. Best they can do having totally mismanaged her is to give her severance so her transition is easier. What possible good can it do to tell someone Monday ‘we are going to fire you on Friday.’ The improving performance ship has sailed here.

      1. Petronella

        I agree that this LW is not looking for advice in how to give a warning, ie. a performance plan, but rather is wondering whether they should tell an employee on Wednesday “We’re going to fire you on Friday.” Actually I would like to suggest they do just that and be sure to update and let us know how that worked for them.

    2. Ask a Manager Post author

      My advice was that they need to slow down and warn her that her current performance issues could lead to her being fired, and then give her some time to improve, not that they should warn her today and then fire her on Monday.

      I agree they didn’t do their job by giving her feedback earlier. But that doesn’t mean they can never do it; they need to do it now.

    3. MaNona

      Mhmmmm, my comments didn’t appear! Wonder why.

      Anyhoo, I agree with you. This is the very thing I hate about companies now. They care very little about helping employees grow and rather let talent get away. Questions like these are the very reason that holding a job doesn’t determine your worth as an individual.

      1. AtWill

        That’s the problem. It does. Turn on the TV to any news channel and you’re likely to hear a story about how someone is awful because they don’t have a job, how they’re lazy, shiftless, good-for-nothing, and just take and take from the rest of us.

  29. Dawn88

    Last place I worked, I went in knowing the owner was a jerk, and figured I could tolerate it for the money. I pumped myself up days ahead, to be positive, upbeat, helpful and motivated…The first week, I stunned them by punch binding a stack of reports in minutes…then tackled one job after another, as I waited for my day of “training” in drafting actual reports. I got there early every day, and dove in. I was on my feet 4-6 hours, which was grueling. Every complaint I heard, I nixed it…(“I love this filing system!”) Second week, I was pulled aside by the owner privately for some bizarre criticism…(aka “Your Boss is a Jerk and Isn’t Going to Change”). He was annoyed because:
    1. I mentioned another admin had done a great job organizing the copy room, with his response, “I don’t need to have someone tell me what my people do!” (I was only giving a compliment);
    2. He told me (since I was organizing archive materials, and careful to ask first before moving things) “You don’t need to ask where the sh*t goes, just take some f*cking initiative and clean up the f*cking mess!” (I was appalled at his language) and my favorite:
    3. “Why are you always in your office? There’s nothing to do there.” (So you’d rather have me outside, smoking or goofing off?)
    I was speechless at this, so calmly assured the jerk,”No problem. I appreciate the feedback and I’ll get right on it.”

    That chat drained any morale left, yet I still did the work, and when payday finally came on week 3, the gal who hired me pulled me aside, saying, “This is so wrong, but I have to let you go…he said he gave you enough chances.” Huh? I had no warning I’d be tossed like the trash, after doing a huge cleanup job nobody else would have done!

    It’s cruel to just kick someone to the curb, without a legitimate reason! But that’s California “At Will” employment law for you. She hardly spoke to me the whole time, consumed by reprimanding others! She’d stop by my desk once a week, giving me a project (that I’d get done). Not a clue I was on thin ice at all.

  30. regina phalange

    As someone who was completely blindsided by a firing without being given specific reasons, I would have appreciated a chance to salvage my job. I had also never had a review, negative or otherwise, so when I was being fired was told, “I guess we are going to have to start a review process now.” Happy to be the scapegoat! Not!!

  31. Bend & Snap

    I can’t believe how many of us have been fired without any warning or clue why.

  32. Golden Yeti

    Just want to throw in that even though it may not be technically required, please give notice to contractual employees, too! I was let go once (at the end of my contract, so technically it wasn’t a firing, just a lack of renewal), and had been given no warning that my performance was putting my contract renewal in danger.

    I was absolutely shocked and devastated (it didn’t help that this was around the holiday season). So yes, if only for the sake of principle, give people fair warning and a fair chance to correct the issues.

  33. Kira

    Ok, question for the comment section. My boss, Sue, is getting increasingly frustrated with my coworker, Tammy. One of the issues is that Tammy leans on others a lot for her work–asking for a lot of advice, about everything. If she’s asked to write up a plan, she might ask me, “What is Sue looking for? What does she mean? Do you think this should be an email or a document? What do you think about this idea…” etc. So, while Sue is working with me on how to set boundaries, I also know that she’s getting close to firing Tammy.

    I don’t think Tammy knows that she needs to improve, and quickly, to keep her job. Sue isn’t big on telling people that they could get fired if they don’t improve. When I’m trying to fend off Tammy’s brainstorming sessions, how clear should I get with her that this is exactly what Sue wants to see her changing?

    1. Evan Þ

      Very clear.

      What’s more, if I were in that situation, I would very much appreciate someone telling me, “Make guesses; try your best; take risks; even if you get them wrong, it’ll be better than if you do nothing.” Then, if there are previous examples she can use to pattern them off, point her to them. I was in that boat once in a class, asking dozens of questions about tiny details for fear of taking initiative and running afoul of some small rule; what solved the problem was when I finally realized no such rules existed and the professor was just waiting for me to take initiative.

      1. Kira

        Thanks Evan. I’m trying to communicate essentially those lessons: “Pick one way and be able to describe why you thought it was good.” Maybe I could also try being direct that she doesn’t need to run these ideas past me – it’s her project and her ideas that we all want to see.

    2. neverjaunty

      “I don’t know. You should probably ask Sue.” Repeat, endlessly.

      But isn’t the bigger problem that Sue doesn’t want to manager her effectively?

    3. Observer

      I think you need to be pretty clear with her, unless you believe that Sue would handle that badly. Something like “I think Sue is very unhappy with this, to the point that it could affect your job.” If she presses for more information “This is not an official warning. Sue has not asked me to tell you this and she has not told me this explicitly. But, that’s my very strong impression and I wanted to give you a heads up since I wouldn’t want to be blindsided myself.”

      If she presses for more information, just keep repeating this.

      She needs to be warned, but you don’t want to get in the middle of a drama.

  34. ComputerGeek

    At my company, we use the phrase “your job is in jeopardy unless…”

    If you don’t hear that phrase, you don’t have to worry about job security.

    If you hear that phrase, you should be concerned. We’ve had people who have down a 180 degree turnaround. We’ve also had people who didn’t.

    We’re getting the results we want. We have staff that are either performing now, or we have new staff members that have replaced those that didn’t meet the bar.

    We don’t give notice that “you’ll be fired next week,” but everybody who has been fired has heard the “magic” phrase at least several months before being terminated. It works for us.

  35. Courtney

    Honestly, I find the OP’s rationale for not giving her any feedback because of a busy season is lame. If you’re a manager and one of your employees is performing poorly to the detriment of the team, you make time to speak with her.

  36. AnonAcademic

    I will add to the chorus of people who were fired with no warning and ended up feeling humiliated, demoralized, and distrustful for YEARS afterwards. In my case, it was a crappy dysfunctional job but also my first out of college so I didn’t know better. I was given what I thought was an evaluation/status update of sorts (a list of tasks/projects that needed to be completed on a deadline). I completed the list ahead of deadline and was told I was doing “much better” on a Wednesday. I was let go that Friday, and when I asked why, Big Boss listed off incidents *that had never happened* like “skipping a meeting with Other Big Boss.”

  37. ArtsNerd

    Off topic, but the image a few articles down on Inc., “How to Wow Them in a Web Meeting,” is most DEFINITELY of Edward Snowden. I wonder if the web editor understands the subtext that adds to the piece.

  38. Francisco

    I was let go without warning last year after 3.5 years with a smaller company, with 8 months in management position. I’m reasonably sure my work was fine. But I wasn’t happy with the office politics and was waiting to work for 18 solid months in that management role before looking for a new employer.

    Maybe upper management knew I wasn’t happy, and that made the politics even worse. I was terminated without severance and without real reason (Your services are no longer required). Luckily I found a new job within a week, but I’ve been in this role here for 6 months and it’s NOT what I was told it would be (another story).

    QUESTION: When interviewing with potential employers, how does one explain the “terminated without warning” scenario?

  39. I've been fired unfairly

    I dont think you need to give them notice. BUT it shouldnt come as a surprise as in…there have been warnings.. verbal.. written

    I dont think its right to just out of the blue let someone go.. which I had happen to me with no explanation

  40. moodygirl86

    Being busy was no excuse, OP. Your employee is not a mind reader and if you weren’t happy with her performance, you should have MADE time to tell her, as others have said. Yes, she may not be the best fit for your company but she’s still a human being who needs to survive, and if anything I’d say severance is the least you can do for her, since she’s about to lose her livelihood with no warning at all! I feel terrible for her.

  41. 2horseygirls

    Sorry, OP, but having been in this woman’s shoes, I’m going to be a bit snarky here . . .

    Sooooo, her performance was acceptable enough to not terminate her when it would have been *inconvenient* to lose her during “an unusually busy and stressful season that we are still trying to recover from.”

    But now that it’s convenient for YOU, you’re going to terminate her after she got you through this “unusually busy and stressful season that we are still trying to recover from.”

    I get it. I truly do. My predecessor apparently did nothing but shop online and look for garage sale announcements all day. When she left, it took 3 people weeks to go through her drawers, in which she just dropped anything she was given to do — work, student timecards to be submitted to payroll, invoices to be paid, expense sheets, reports, etc. — before returning to her online surfing. She was on a PIP for 9+ months and made zero effort to change things. That’s on her.

    But as the admin who found out that she was being terminated when she had to sign for the new keys when the office locks were changed*, but was told not to take one, what you’re doing is just . . . . well, I can’t say it because Allison will ban me, but “unprofessional and spineless” spring to mind.

    If you are hellbent on terminating her, then YES, two weeks’ severance is the very least you can do for the complete and utter failure to do YOUR job during the aforementioned “unusually busy and stressful season that we are still trying to recover from.”

    And I find it equally interesting and disturbing that you are (I think) the first OP that has not come back to weigh in on the comments, or how your situation unfolded.

    * Interesting that in my tenure in this particular office, we lost our sales director, 4 area managers, a regional vice president, and regional HR person, and never changed the locks. But the admin isn’t even gone yet, and the locks had to be changed……

    OP, you might want to do that too, since you never know what an admin will do . . . . ;)

  42. Tess

    This is a really great answer, Alison! To be suddenly blindsided — especially when you believe you’re doing a good job in the position — is not only confidence-breaking but just plain cruel. Thank you for such a compassionate view.

  43. Jasmine

    Ugh, this happened to me recently. It’s comforting to know others have been in my situation. I had been at my new job a very short time before I was fired with NO warning. I had no idea they were thinking of firing me. Everyone was nice and positive to me, to my face. I was not aware that there was a problem. I didn’t make any major mistakes. I’m so confused about what happened. I really don’t get it. I can’t figure out why they’d get rid of me so quickly.

    It was a position through a staffing agency. I got home one evening after work and the staffing agency guy called me to tell me that my job ended. My company didn’t even have courage to tell me directly– they made the staffing guy tell me! Needless to say I left a bad review of the company on glassdoor and will look for other places to share a bad review. The people who fired me are such snakes. Completely dishonest, untrustworthy, and cowardly too. I hope they feel guilty. But who knows. They’re doing fine. They still have a job unlike me.

    1. Crystal

      Ugh thanks for your post I am in the same boat. When I started I was warned the company and my supervisor makes decisions on a whim and often irrationally. I have no idea. I had issues with so many things I suppose I should have seen the tiny red flags. No ergonomic considerations were made. I was given filthy dusty office equipment, a seat that didn’t work, and my replacement chair options were all torn up. Oh and no computer for a week and a half.
      I know there are people out there thinking we are hiding something, but we aren’t. I was enjoying a new job, humming right along, even doing overtime and tasks on my own. Boom, fired with out warning or reason. It bothers me to no end because I don’t like mysteries and the prior place I left begged me to stay so I know I am not a crap employee.

  44. Crystal

    On this topic don’t you managers feel its wrong to terminate someone without warning or opportunity for improvement?

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