HR Advice: Five Termination Traps to Avoid

January 24, 2019

Arguably, the least welcome and most distasteful HR function for employers is firing an employee. It’s never pleasant to end the employment of someone that you’ve worked with. In addition to the stress, terminations can open your company up to legal risks. However, there are steps that employers can take to lessen the possibility of later problems that can arise from the termination.

On December 14, Commonwealth Payroll & HR sponsored a webinar on “Five Termination Traps to Avoid”. The webinar was presented by Kara Gorvo, JD SPHR and Monica Weimar, SPHR SHRM-CP. The webinar focused on HR strategies to complete terminations as painlessly as possible.

Lack of Lead Up

Terminating an employee is rarely a spur-of-the-moment business decision. Nevertheless, one of the most common mistakes employers make is not having any lead-up to the decision. Not only does this make it more difficult to explain and justify your decision if it’s called into question, it also deprives the employee of the chance to improve.

One of the most powerful tools employers have for mitigating the risks involved with termination is progressive discipline.

Progressive discipline is a series of steps that are taken to document and correct an employee’s behavior. Typically, the first step is an informal conversation with the employee. While this first step may not involve a formal write-up, a record of the conversation should be created, such as a memo or a follow-up email documenting the conversation. If the behavior continues, the next step is written documentation. If the behavior continues past this point, there may be multiple write-up. Still, if there is no improvement, their employment should be terminated. The termination shouldn’t come as a surprise to the employee.

Taking the time to meet with the employee about mistakes will create a document trail showing that you’ve done your part to advise the associate that their behavior or performance is not acceptable. Ideally, the employee will take the guidance to heart, correct their behavior, and not repeat their mistakes. However, if that doesn’t happen, you will have a history that your company can use if the termination decision is later called into question.

The idea behind progressive discipline is to give the employee ample opportunity to improve the behavior and to provide thorough documentation of the issue. However, there are issues that are so egregious that the employee should be terminated immediately. Such incidents may involve violence or threats, harassment or theft, or maybe something specific to your business. In any event, it’s important to recognize that you can shorten or even bypass the progressive discipline process if the situation calls for it.

Dangerous Reasons

Before terminating an employee, it’s important to make sure that the reason for the termination is solid. Sometimes supervisors and managers may misunderstand the employee’s situation, such as mistaking multiple medical appointments for an attendance issue; or they may want to act on a conflict or allegation raised by another employee without thoroughly reviewing the situation.

It’s important that you perform due diligence before starting the termination process. Any HR issues that are raised must be thoroughly investigated, especially ones that seem questionable or nebulous. You should talk to any witnesses, including other managers and supervisors that may have had experience with the employee, particularly when there are conflicting accounts of a situation, or if there is any potential bias or disparate impact. It’s important to remember that you may have to explain or possibly justify the decision to terminate the employee. For this reason, it’s key that you have accumulated documentation to justify the decision to terminate, should the need arise.

A Meeting without a Plan

Another serious error that can put employers at risk is lack of planning for the termination meeting. If you aren’t prepared, you can put your company at risk. Before you sit down for the termination meeting, make sure that you’ve got a plan. Schedule the meeting in a quiet room, ideally at the end of the work day, and near an exit where the employee can leave quickly and quietly in order to minimize disruption and preserve the associate’s dignity. Prior to the meeting, make sure you have notes about what will be covered and be sure that any witnesses you have are aware of their role. Talk to your payroll manager to find out when the associate will receive any unused paid time off. You should also speak with your benefits administration company so that you can let the employee know when their benefits will end.

When you walk into the meeting, be prepared to have all of the necessary documentation, including the final paycheck (if required in your state), as well as the separation form. It’s also a good idea to provide contact information for your employee benefits service so the employee can follow up about continuing benefits.

Delivering the News

There’s no pleasant way to tell someone their employment has ended. No matter how you put it, the news will be unwelcome. However, it is possible to make the experience less traumatic.

When you terminate an employee, it’s best to speak plainly. Attempting to sugarcoat such unpleasant news can cause confusion. You should be frank when discussing the situation, but don’t be brusque or insensitive. Don’t exaggerate the problems and incidents that led to the decision to terminate, but don’t minimize them either. And don’t apologize! It’s important that the employee not be left with the sense that the termination isn’t final.

The employee will likely have questions and may want to make a statement for the record. Give the employee the chance to speak, but remain professional. Don’t let the situation become emotional and don’t let it devolve into an argument. Be prepared to end the discussion when it becomes unproductive. You owe the associate the opportunity to speak for themselves and to articulate any concerns or confusion, but it’s important to remain professional.


When an employee leaves suddenly, it’s natural for their co-workers to be curious. They will want to know why their teammate left suddenly and what the implication may be for their jobs.

It’s a good idea to be as transparent as possible, while also preserving confidentiality. Decide with the department manager and/or supervisor how much will be revealed and how it should be stated. It’s important to have a consistent message, phrased professionally, without exaggeration or minimization.

The termination of an associate will never be easy or comfortable for anyone involved, including former co-workers. Make sure that the remaining team members are in the loop about plans for work distribution going forward. Let the remaining team know how the responsibilities for the former co-worker will be handled and if the position will be back filled.

For more information on how Commonwealth Payroll & HR can work with you on your strategic human resources planning, call us today at 877-245-1159

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