12 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Letting An Employee Go

Firing an employee is never an easy task.  Even the most jaded manager can balk at the process of cutting ties with a long-term worker when the time comes.  However, pruning the company tree can be a necessary step toward improving performance, increasing efficiency, and revitalizing a workforce.  One of the most important questions you have to ask yourself before letting an employee go is:  is this the only way out?  Below you’ll find 12 questions that will help you during the employee termination process.


The HR Specialist recommends asking 7 essential questions before you terminate anyone in order to prepare yourself for any sort of legal backlash.  They can essentially be boiled down to just four:

1)    Can the Employee Claim Discrimination?

Ask yourself if the employee could possibly assume that their termination is based on age, gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, nation of origin, or political affiliation.  Of course, in your mind, you’re not letting them go for any of those reasons, but you have to be able to put yourself in their shoes and determine whether they see it that way or not.  Avoid discrimination lawsuits by:

    • Getting your legal department or lawyer involved
    • Outlining in detail (in writing and preferably with witnesses) exactly why you’re letting this person go

2)    Is the Worker Protected from Termination?

While no worker is technically exempt from termination, there are certain sticky situations in which termination is ill advised even in at-will employment states.  For instance, if your employee has been a whistle-blower, they may be protected by U.S. whistle-blower laws.  Likewise, if the employee has been injured on the job or has filed a workers’ compensation claim, you have to tread very carefully to avoid lawsuits.

3)    Is the Employee Disabled in Any Way?

Of course, there are certain jobs that disabled persons cannot be expected to perform without accommodation.  However, the Americans with Disabilities Act protects disabled workers and states that employers must make efforts to accommodate workers with disabilities.  This may mean providing wheelchair/elevator access as needed, remodeling workspaces to accommodate special needs, or allowing other employees to assist when the situation calls for it.  If you terminate an individual without attempting to accommodate their needs, you could find yourself in deep trouble.

4)    Is It Non-Work Behavior I’m Targeting?

In addition to the reasons above, firing an employee for actions outside the workplace may or may not be legal in your state.  Some states allow for termination of employees for off-the-clock offenses, but others specifically limit an employer’s right to terminate.  Be sure that you understand the applicable laws in your area before you make a costly mistake.


For a clear conscience (and to avoid sleepless nights), makes sure you’re not terminating an employee for immoral reasons.

5)    Is It Personal?

Of course, there is something to be said for weeding out bad employees—one bad apple really can ruin the whole bushel.  However, before you terminate anyone, you have to ask yourself if you’re letting your personal emotions get in the way of your professional judgment.  Does the employee in question rub you the wrong way?  Have you clashed in the past?  Do you have a history outside the workplace that makes the workday unbearable?  If you answered “yes” to any of these, you may be letting your professionalism slip.

6)    Why Did I Consider Termination?

If your first thought was to fire the individual, examine your rationale.  Did you want to open the position for another employee?  Were your frustrated enough to jump to a conclusion?  Are you getting pressure from above?  All of these can affect your judgment without you even consciously realizing it.  When you’re considering termination, it should always be for the good of the company.

7)    Am I Modeling the Right Behaviors?

Your employees look up to you.  If they see you “getting away” with certain things (long lunch breaks, personal phone conversations on company time, shirking of duties), they’re apt to think it’s okay.  Before you can terminate a worker for unacceptable behavior, make sure you’re not engaged in it as well.


8)    Were Expectations Too High?

Goals provide measurable milestones with which management can assess employee performance but the key component of effective goals is reasonability.  You don’t want to set your employees up to fail, but how do you know when a goal is reasonable or not?  Listen to employee feedback, monitor performance, and dissect failure with a fine-toothed comb.

9)    Did the Employee Have Adequate Skills and Resources?

If you give an inexperienced employee an important job and they drop the ball, the failure may be on your end, not theirs.  Likewise, if you limit your employees’ effectiveness by failing to provide necessary tools/equipment, you can’t blame them when things go pear-shaped.

10) Can This Employee Improve?

If improvement can be made, you can save an employee’s professional life while possibly uncovering a diamond in the rough.  This may include remedial training, job coaching, mentor programs, or even just counseling sessions.

11) Will Firing this Employee Affect Others?

Workplaces are webs of personal and professional relationships.  You can’t cut out one employee without having some sort of ripple effect.  You have to fully consider what firing one individual will do to the rest of your employees.  Consider the disrupted workflow, increased workload, and personal feelings of fellow employees before signing that pink slip.

12) Can They Succeed Elsewhere?

If you’re hiring process has any merit at all, the individual must have had something attractive about them else they wouldn’t have been offered a job.  Perhaps it’s the position they’re in that’s holding them back.  Consider letting them succeed in another department, another position, or even at another location before writing them off.

When All Else Fails . . .

If you’ve asked yourself all of these questions and still can’t come up with a valid reason for not terminating an employee, it may be time to let the axe fall.  However, there is a right way and a wrong way (well, multiple wrong ways really) to go about doing it.  The overall goal of termination, once you’ve decided it’s the only option, is to remove a problem employee and replace them as quickly as possible.  Here are some termination tips from Entrepreneur Magazine.

  • Have Proof In-Hand—Performance evaluations, disciplinary documentation, company policies
  • Keep it Short—Announce, explain, and show proof but don’t open it to debate
  • Get Them On Their Way—Don’t let employees linger; give them a timeframe for vacating

Letting go of an employee is never easy, but hopefully these tips helped you decide if it’s truly time to say goodbye and start hiring someone new.

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