Ten Commandments of Employee Discharge

By Dr. Larry Pfaff

Discharging an employee for any reason is always a difficult matter. Emotionally it is difficult for all parties concerned. Even when the discharge is justified, it is not easy. The discharge can be made easier by observing Ten Commandments of Employee Discharge.

Commandment 1 - Thou shalt have as many facts in writing as possible! Has all critical information been reduced to writing and placed in the personnel file? Make sure that relevant information has been collected over the entire discipline process, and it was collected at the time of its occurrence. You cannot reconstruct what happens at a later date.

Commandment 2 - Thou shalt state exactly what the employee did wrong! Is the nature of the employee's misconduct or underperformance clearly described in a specific, factual manner? This means that it must be described as an employee performance issue, not a personality issue. Is it clear exactly what behavior the employee engaged in? Too often the employee does not understand the misconduct and that not only is a problem during discipline but also at termination.

Commandment 3 - Thou shalt prove there was a rule or standard! Was the employee clearly informed of required standards of behavior and performance? Again this can often fall back on your recordkeeping. Make sure that it is documented that there is a standard of performance that is clearly described for all involved. It is also clear that the employee fell below that standard.

Commandment 4 - Thou shalt give the employee a chance to improve! Does the record progress from mild, early warnings to more serious, comprehensive documents? Make sure the employee was given the opportunity to improve. If the employee was truly given the chance to improve and has not, then the employee has chosen his/her own path to discharge.

Commandment 5 - Thou shalt be fair with the employee! Was the employee given adequate assistance and direction by management? Make sure that during the progressive discipline process the employee had any needed help. Fairness is important not only to the employee being discharged, but to all employees. Discharge handled in a fair manner is less likely to have a negative impact on the morale of other employees.

Commandment 6 - Thou shalt not act too fast or too slow! Has the employee had reasonable time and a fair opportunity to improve? Reasonable time is the key. Make sure that any person outside your organization would view your time line as fair. If so, you are in a more defensible position. Again, poor timing often has a negative affect on other employees. Acting too fast will appear as unfair. Acting too slowly will appear as though you are letting the employee get away with poor performance.

Commandment 7 - Thou shalt be sure the violation is serious enough to justify discharge! Is the underperformance or misconduct sufficiently persistent and serious to warrant the proposed disciplinary action? Yes, in order to justify termination, it is best if it is a serious and persistent matter. In other words, it is a continuous problem that has required ongoing attention. Trivial and one-time misconduct do not typically fall under the area of discharge.

Commandment 8 - Thou shalt follow all the procedural requirements! Have all the procedural requirements been met? If you have procedures in place, such as an employee handbook, be sure that they have been followed to the letter. You don't want a discharge overturned because you didn't follow your own rules and procedures.

Commandment 9 - Thou shalt be sure the employee knew the risk of penalty he/she faced in connection with his/her conduct! Has the employee been given fair warning of the consequences of his continued underperformance or misbehavior? Your documentation should show that not only was the employee's improper behavior confronted, but also the employee was told of the potential consequences of continuing misconduct.

Commandment 10 - Thou shalt be consistent! Is the treatment of this employee consistent with the manner in which the company has treated other employees in similar circumstances? This is a key one, especially from a legal perspective. Treating employees differently for the same, or similar, behavior is a potential legal "red flag." In addition, treating employees inconsistently can have a serious negative affect on employee morale and productivity.

Use these "commandments" as a guide whenever you have employees in any type of corrective action. They will help you to be more effective in your discipline. As always, check with your legal counsel if you have any questions about the legality of an employee discharge.

Please send any comments, questions or suggestions to Dr. Pfaff at [email protected].

Back to List of Articles