Supervisory Leadership

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Fair and Final Firing: How to Make it Happen

Lots of managers will tell you that you just can't fire people anymore. They think that every time you try to fire someone, you risk getting sued.

Fortunately, you can still get rid of non-performers, even in today's lawsuit-happy world. Start by doing a good job as the boss. If you do your job right you'll only fire people when it's necessary and you'll be able to defend your actions if you have to. Here's how.

Tell people what you want them to do and not do. Clear expectations are necessary to good performance.

Check for understanding. Don't trust communication to chance. Make sure that people understand what you tell them in the same way that you do.

Make small corrections along the way. An awful lot of good supervision happens in the cracks in the system. Most people who work for you will change their behavior if you suggest they do so.

If they don't change their behavior, make sure you understand the problem. What looks like a behavior problem might be a resource problem or a training problem. Make sure your people can do what you want before you hold them accountable for performance.

If your subordinate can do the job, but isn't, let him or her know that you're going to start documenting their behavior. That's not particularly difficult, but it takes time and diligence.

Make sure you document the behavior of anyone you might have to fire. Follow the basics of good documentation.

You document so that you can explain your decisions to other people at some time in the future. If your subordinate challenges your actions, that questioning can be aggressive and adversarial.

Document behavior. Behavior is what people say and what people do. Nothing else.

Describe the behavior using objective language. I call this the "Joe Friday Rule," just the facts. Leave out the adjectives.

Write up your documentation as soon after the behavior or counseling session as you can. Within 24 hours is good. Before you go home is better. Right away is best.

The closer you do your documentation to the behavior or incident you're describing, the more likely you are to remember details and get things right. And, the more likely you are to be able to defend your actions and descriptions later.

Include the important information. Who was involved? What happened? Include dates and times.

It's easier to do good documentation if you do it the same way every time. I recommend that you use a simple form to help you remember everything and develop good habits.

If you have to fire someone, take the time to review your reasons and the actions that led up to the firing. Refer to your documentation.

In today's world, no one can guarantee that you won't be sued if you fire someone. But if you do a good job as a boss, set clear and reasonable expectations, treat people fairly, and document behavior well you're more likely to avoid legal action and better able to defend yourself if you're hauled into court.


Wally Bock helps leaders improve the performance and morale of their teams. This material is adapted from Wally's latest book, Performance Talk: The One-on-One Part of Leadership. You can request a free master form to guide your documentation on the Three Star Leadership site.


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