Shooting the Rapids of Terminating an Employee

Terminating an employee is one of the most challenging and emotional tasks an employer can face. It not only affects the employee being let go, but also impacts the morale of the remaining staff (positively or negatively). A well-handled termination process reduces legal issues, preserves the dignity of the departing employee, and maintains a positive work environment for others. Documenting the process well can be a great help.

Overview of a Well-Handled Termination Process

A well-handled termination should be legal, ethical, and as positive as possible under the circumstances. This requires careful planning, clear communication, and sensitivity. Employers should document the process to create a record that can justify the termination and protect the organization in case of disputes. And in fact, it is best to document a track record long before any actual termination.

While most employers in the U.S. will have at-will termination, if the termination seems unreasonable, questions get raised about whether it was actually a termination for illegal (discriminatory) reasons. This means that having shown good reasons to terminate is important.

Key Documentation for Employee Termination

  1. Performance Records: Documented records of the employee’s performance are desired, as otherwise, a termination looks impulsive and possibly unreasonable. These should include performance reviews, reports of misconduct, attendance records, and any previous warnings issued. These documents help to establish a history of performance issues or policy violations, supporting the reason for termination.
  2. Termination Letter: A termination letter should state the specific reasons for the termination in moderate detail (a paragraph or two), the effective date, and any severance package that the employee is being offered. It should also outline ongoing obligations, such as confidentiality agreements the employee may have signed, or benefits owed to the employee. This letter serves as the formal notice of termination. If a termination letter is clear about a terminable offense or a terminable track record, it reduces assumptions that the real reason was discriminatory—both for the employee and for the employee’s attorney.
  3. Severance Agreement: If more than minimal severance is offered, the employer will want to require a formal severance agreement. This document includes compensation details and requires the employee to waive rights to legal action against the organization. There are many legal twists and turns to this document, so it’s usually best to have legal counsel involved.
  4. Checklist for Company Property: It’s important to address the return of all company property, such as keys, badges, equipment, and documents. A checklist that both the employer and employee sign can help manage this process and confirm that all items have been returned, preventing future disputes.
  5. Status of Projects and Responsibilities: Detailing the status of the employee’s current projects, ongoing responsibilities, and any important deadlines can help transition work to other team members. Having the employee agree to help with this could be a condition of the severance agreement, depending on how negative the relationship has become.
  6. Exit Interview Notes: Conducting an exit interview can provide insights into the employee’s perspective and give constructive feedback to the organization. This information can improve organizational practices and reduce future terminations. Interestingly, it often reveals other ways in which the employee is not a good fit for the organization.

Best Practices for a Termination Meeting

  • Plan Ahead: Before the termination meeting, prepare necessary documents and review the employee’s file to ensure that the decision is well-supported and justified. Make sure that the employee is set to receive all payroll, vacation time, bonuses, and other payments due. Consider how the whole situation can be structured to avoid devastating the employee’s life.
  • Consider Security Issues: Depending on the level of responsibility and access the employee has, and if the employee has engaged in bad conduct or created security concerns, it may be wise to have the employee’s access to confidential data cut off immediately. This often involves addressing multiple systems. On the other hand, an employee who is simply not the best fit but otherwise not a threat may have a longer off-ramp.
  • Have More than One Person in the Meeting: It is best for the manager to have a supporting person, who can take notes and be a witness.
  • Be Clear and Direct: During the meeting, communicate clearly and directly. Explain the reasons for the termination, referencing specific documents as needed. The employee may not be able to process all this, so the termination letter will help for later understanding.
  • Maintain Professionalism and Empathy: Deliver the news professionally and kindly. Acknowledge that it’s hard and allow the employee to express feelings, but avoid getting drawn into an argument.
  • Address Logistics: Discuss the logistics of the termination, including the final paycheck, benefits, severance details, and the process for returning company property. Either at this time or later, any ongoing insurance options (like COBRA) should be explained.
  • Provide Support: Offer support in terms of assistance in finding new employment, if possible. It may be possible to structure the departure as leave ending in resignation, for instance. This can help maintain a positive relationship and ease the transition for the employee.​​​​​​​
  • Document the Meeting: Keep a record of what was discussed during the termination meeting, including the employee’s responses and any agreements made.


Terminating an employee is never easy for either the employer or the employee. It can also have a significant impact on other employees. Thinking through issues ahead of time, documenting carefully, and considering how to make the transition as easy as possible on the employee can help to minimize difficulties for all involved. By handling the situation well, employers can reduce negative impacts and maintain a professional and supportive workplace.

Because of the generality of the information on this site, it may not apply to a given place, time, or set of facts. It is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations