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Each year thousands of business owners and managers face the unpleasant task of firing an employee.

It's not comfortable, but firings are a part of business life. Knowing how to properly fire an employee can reduce angst and help both parties move on.

We asked several human resources and employment law pros about "best practices" when letting a worker go. The first step, they said, is to contact your human resources department and perhaps your company attorney as soon a problem with a worker arises.

Beyond company downsizings, most firings stem from poor work performance or when a staffer violates company policy such as stealing, violent incidents, watching porn on the job or other egregious ethics breaches.

If poor performance is the issue, the firing should never come as a surprise," said Yvette Lee, an HR adviser with the Society of Human Resource Management.

Drafting a performance plan

As a manager, you should document the problems in detail and then analyze whether you have provided enough training and leadership. If you need to correct something on your end, figure out what you can offer. And then talk to the worker about where he or she has fallen short and how to improve.

That "how to improve" piece should be a formal plan, known as a "performance improvement plan" (PIP) or "progressive discipline plan." The document should state clearly that if the worker does not meet goals, he or she will be terminated.

With the exception of retailers, restaurants and hotels, most employers give the person 60 to 90 days to turn things around, with lots of meetings and well-documented record-keeping during this time. That documentation will be crucial should the termination end up in court.

If the decision is to terminate, don't drag your feet, Lee said. Procrastinating can sink credibility, mold grudges and even embolden some team members to act out.

"Employers want to be cautious about setting a precedent. Sometimes the longer the situation goes on, other employees will say if that person can do this, 'So can I,'" Lee said.

Termination day

So the decision has been made. If you are like most people, you'll be on edge.

As a manager or business owner, be sensitive and smart. Consider letting the person go in the morning (with pay), not after a hard day of work. Don't fire anyone in public.

"You want to be thoughtful about where you are," said Leanne Fuith, an employment attorney and law professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.. "You don't want to humiliate them."

If you use your office, then the person would need to walk by colleagues on the way out, and if he or she is upset or crying, that would add extra discomfort, she said.

Find an out-of-the-way conference room or human resources office that is far from co-worker eyeballs. Consider bringing in your HR manager or another upper-level manager.

"A lot of organizations want a third-party witness to terminations" so there can be little question about what took place should a lawsuit or complaint arise later, noted Lee from SHRM.

Difficult conversations

Once everyone's in the room, what do you say?

If the firing is performance related, cut to the chase. "You can say, 'As we discussed over the last several months or weeks, your performance has not been up to par, so unfortunately we have made this decision that this working relationship is not going to continue,'" Lee said.

If a worker violated company policy, the business owner should explain how the behavior violated the company's standards, is unacceptable and that the company determined it is time to sever employment.

Firing someone is a dance between "sugar coating and being transparent. I do appreciate that can be challenging," Lee said. "That is why human resource managers can assist with those communications."

Your tone should be nice, but firm.

"Remember that employees are people, too. And think about if the shoe were on the other foot. Use the language you would prefer," said Lee, who at SHRM regularly counsels HR managers around the country.

Have documentation in hand

When firing someone, have two sets of paperwork at the ready.

Bring the performance-improvement plan and supporting documents to the meeting. Minnesota doesn't require it, but experts insist the "best practice" is to give them their notice in writing.

Use the termination meeting to impart information such as when the last paycheck will come, and when health care coverage ceases and how COBRA might work to extend it.

Depending on the state, the employee may need to sign certain documents. There is a lot "of information that the employer should be communicating during that termination meeting," Lee said.

As an employer, you may decide to soften the blow of departure by offering a severance package. But that comes with strings, Fuith said.

Severance pay "usually comes with some type of legally binding contract that says, 'In exchange for this $10,000 or four months of pay that I'm giving you, you agree not to sue me for any legal claims' such as discrimination," Fuith said. "There is usually a whole long list of provisions in there."

Sharyn Tejani, associate legal counsel for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, notes that severance agreements can be so "long and complicated" that employees sometimes want extra time to review the contract and meet with legal counsel before signing. So don't expect a slam-dunk resolution.

In cases of corporate downsizings, Fuith has seen some companies offer more than a severance check. Some also wrote letters of recommendations for affected workers. With severe worker shortages, the risk of high turnover and the prevalence of social media, some clients went the extra mile to bolster their reputation as a fair and decent employer, she said.

Leaving the premises

Employers often let fired workers gather their personal belongings before leaving. That can fend off later allegations that the company stole employee property.

If your worker has company equipment off site, schedule a time, date, place and conditions to return the items. If there is a policy to dock a final paycheck if items aren't returned, put that policy in writing.

"Other things employers have to think about when you're terminating employment is what is an appropriate time to get their keys and their IDs from them and to cut off access to e-mail," Fuith said.

There's no right or wrong answer here. But employers would do well to balance the goal of maintaining a worker's dignity with the company's need to protect assets.

Fuith, who teaches law students how to write severance contracts, noted that many firms wonder whether an angry worker will seek revenge. If the soon-to-be fired worker has access to sensitive client files, data, information on projects in progress or servers, then you might need to cut off access.

"It's one reason why you will sometimes see a guard or security hanging around so they can escort the worker out of the building," Fuith said.

How to communicate firing

However you handle terminations, workers left behind will feel the sting. Company officials can use a meeting, e-mail or phone to communicate to the rest of the staff that Carl is no longer with the company and that Lucy will assume his duties.

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