When Is It Time to Fire an Employee?

No one likes firing an employee. It’s a difficult decision, but any HR manager will eventually have to make the choice to do what’s best for the company.

woman holding her things fired by male boss

No one likes firing an employee. It’s a difficult decision, but any HR manager or business owner will eventually have to make the choice to do what’s best for the company. While it’s important to give problem employees a chance to improve, there may eventually reach a point at which the only option is to let an employee go.

But when is it time to fire an employee?

Reasons for Firing an Employee

Depending on where your company is located, you may need a cause for firing someone. Some states are at-will employment states, which means that anyone can be fired for any reason. However, it’s not typically a good business practice to fire someone for no reason. But what is considered a good reason to fire an employee?

Poor Performance

If an employee isn’t performing up to the standards expected for their position, you may consider firing them. Poor performance can include a lack of productivity as well as poor quality work. Before deciding to fire the employee, it’s important to provide ample warnings and let them know what your expectations are so they have the opportunity to improve.

Failure to Improve

If an employee isn’t meeting your expectations, it’s important to let them know. Provide feedback and training as needed and give the employee opportunities to correct their mistakes, whether they’re producing poor-quality work or behaving badly in the workplace. It’s when no improvement is made or when the employee has no interest in improving that you may consider firing as the next step.

The Employee Is Affecting Office Morale

When an employee’s behavior or lack of work ethic affects other employees, it’s a sign that it’s time to fire that employee. If one employee can bring down the morale of the entire office, department, or even company, and the behavior hasn’t improved, then it’s time for that employee to go. The other employees will thank you for it and will be happier, less stressed, and more productive for it.

The Employee Is Affecting Coworkers’ Performance

If a poorly-performing employee isn’t improving, despite corrections and opportunities to do so, that can affect the productivity of your other employees as well. If one employee fails to complete his or her part of a project or doesn’t provide needed information to coworkers in a timely fashion, the productivity of the entire office can fall. Ridding the company of the unproductive employee will give you the opportunity to replace him or her with someone who will do the job right.


If an employee is insubordinate, that can be grounds for firing. An insubordinate employee makes a manager’s job more difficult and can affect their boss’ ability to effectively manage their team. Refusing to comply with a supervisor’s instructions, so long as the request is legal and reasonable, can be considered insubordination.

Breaking Company Policy

Company policies are there for a reason. If an employee is breaking company policy and continues to do so after warnings, that can be grounds for termination. Employees should be well aware of company policies and rules, which should be explained in an employee handbook. 


An apathetic employee is not a productive employee. Apathetic employees aren’t motivated to work well or productively for the company. Their work may suffer and may not be up to the standards required for their position.

Tardiness or Absence

If an employee is regularly late to or absent from work or takes extended breaks, that’s something that can’t be left unaddressed. Employees that are frequently absent are equally unreliable. Perhaps they call in sick too frequently or use up their allotted vacation time too early in the year. These are signs that the employee may have problems with attendance.

Your other employees will notice the behavior and at best, believe their coworker is unreliable. At worst, they may believe the company is tacitly encouraging such behavior by failing to correct it. This could cause productive and timely employees to lose productivity and morale and even consider moving to a company that didn’t allow such bad behavior.

Criminal Behavior

Theft, whether it’s from the company or from other employees, should not be tolerated. Any behavior that is against the law can be considered a fireable offense. If any employee that breaks the law is kept on the payroll, it will reflect poorly on the company, if not result in the company being held liable for that criminal behavior.


Harassment, whether it’s sexual or racial, or another type of harassment, is unacceptable in the workplace. An employee who is harassing others for any reason is affecting the morale and productivity of the whole office. In particular, those affected by the harassment may be suffering from stress or anxiety that can affect their health and productivity.

How to Terminate an Employee

Knowing when to fire an employee is difficult. Once you’ve decided to fire an employee, it’s important to do it right. Some fired employees accept the news calmly, while others may decide to sue your company for wrongful termination. These dos and don’ts for deciding to fire and the process or firing a problem employee can help you avoid any liability issues.

Do Consider the Root Cause of the Employee’s Behavior

If you’re considering firing an employee, it’s important to determine the cause behind the behavior. Perhaps the employee would be better suited to a different position. Maybe another employee is harassing them. It could be that a coworker is dumping extra work on that employee, making their own work suffer.

Depending on the cause of the employee’s behavior or performance, there may be other options than termination. Solving the problem could improve the employee’s performance or eliminate the problem behavior. It’s important to talk to the employee to find out what is going on with them. That way, you can avoid a rushed decision to fire them.

Do Get a Second Opinion

Before making the final decision to fire a problem employee, get a second opinion. Someone else may have further insights into that employee and what is causing their behavior or performance issues. Someone else may also be able to point out if you have any unconscious biases that are affecting your decision to fire that employee.

Do Have a Standard Company Policy

Having a standard policy that is followed across the organization for all employees can help you avoid discrimination or wrongful termination lawsuits. Every employee must be treated the same way when it comes to warnings and expectations. One employee should not get away with repeated tardiness when another cannot. Having a standard policy can help your company ensure that all employees are treated equally.

Do Provide Warnings Ahead of Time

Before you fire anyone, it’s important to give ample warning. Warnings not only show you care enough to help the employee improve, but they’re also opportunities to avoid the firing altogether. The warning can remind an employee of your expectations and let them know what they need to work on.

If your company has a policy on the number of opportunities to improve each employee gets before they’re let go, make sure you’ve followed that policy exactly. Once the employee has reached the requisite number of “strikes” and you don’t see any hope of improvement, you may need to make the decision to fire that employee.

Do Document Problem Behavior

It’s essential to thoroughly document all problem behavior and any warnings that are given. This documentation can help you prove that you had cause to fire the employee. In the case of a former employee taking legal action, you can more easily prove that the firing was not wrongful.

Documenting both problem behavior and the warnings will allow you to prove not only that the behavior existed but that you gave ample warnings. It’s important to be able to prove that you gave the employee opportunities to improve and explained the expectations for the improvement. Your documentation should also show that the employee didn’t improve despite the warnings and met the requisite number of strikes according to company policy.

Don’t Surprise the Employee

While getting fired may be unwelcome news, an employee shouldn’t be completely surprised by it. The warnings given for problem behavior or poor performance should let them know that they’re not meeting expectations. The employee should also understand what the full warning and firing process is so that they know when they’ve used up their warnings.

Even if your company is located in an at-will employment state, it’s still a good idea to give warnings. It may be possible to fire someone for no reason without incurring legal liability, but it’s not a good idea. You won’t attract top talent to your company if it has a reputation for firing without a just cause.

Don’t Let Emotion Get Involved

Firing someone can be an emotional process. No matter how necessary it may be, firing someone is tough. But it’s important to remain calm, even if the employee getting fired is emotional about it. Show empathy to the employee, but it’s best to avoid showing anger or using harsh words. The employee may not have met your expectations, but the process of getting fired is bad enough for them already. The person doing the firing should remain calm, empathetic, and professional.

Do Be Honest

Honesty is important. If an employee asks why they’re being fired, tell them exactly why. You can remind them of the warnings you gave about their behavior or their performance. You can show them the documentation from those warnings. 

If employees are being laid off because of budget cuts or for any other reason, it’s important to keep employees in the loop. If employees are afraid of getting laid off, they may jump ship prematurely. Rumors can be detrimental to employee satisfaction and performance. Being transparent from the beginning about layoffs can ease the worries of employees who are remaining.

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