How to Terminate an Employee (With Sample Scripts)

September 7, 2023・13 mins read
How to Terminate an Employee (With Sample Scripts)

This article outlines how to terminate or fire an employee and includes a short script that outlines exactly what to say.

Here's what you need to know:

  • Terminations shouldn't come as a surprise to the employee
  • Plan ahead, and schedule a termination meeting
  • Have paperwork ready, a termination letter, information about COBRA, and collect company property
  • Keep the meeting short (no longer than 20 minutes)
  • Don't waver on your decision

Ask any HR professional the best and worst parts of their job, and they’ll tell you the day they extend a job offer, and the day when they have to let someone go or fire them.

Too many employers avoid terminating bad employees altogether, because they’re so intimidated by the prospect of saying “you’re fired.” The result can be disastrous. This is when a ‘how to fire someone’ script can be helpful.

Not firing an employee who violates policies or isn’t performing sends the wrong message to employees who follow the rules and pull their weight. It tells them that management doesn’t value their efforts.

That can spread within a company to the point where employees aren’t motivated or engaged. Better to remove the person who is causing a problem quickly and effectively.

Termination meetings can be relatively painless. The trick is handling them with tact, brevity, and dignity for the employee and employer.

Employee terminations shouldn’t come as a surprise

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to an employee if the organization terminates them. They should know it’s coming and have had a chance to stop it. If they refuse to change behaviors or improve poor performance there should be a sequence of disciplinary actions that culminated in their dismissal.

Many managers shy away from having conversations about improper behavior or poor performance. They don’t want to be the bearer of bad news.

Avoiding poor performance issues doesn’t give the employee an opportunity to improve. It only makes the bad news worse — when it comes in the form of employment termination.

There should be a documented history of progressive discipline with regard to the issue. If, after the human resources department or the manager has been unable to improve the employee’s performance or stop any unwanted behavior, separation must ensue.

If actions or behavior are so egregious an employee must be terminated on the spot, they should be well aware of the policy they’ve violated. To protect your business, firing an employee for a serious policy violation, like physically assaulting a coworker, must be immediate.

Your policy manual and employee handbooks must be clear: some infractions warrant immediate termination, even for a 1st offense. The terminated employee should understand the policy that’s being cited: their termination should not come as a surprise.

Plan ahead for employee terminations

The process of firing a team member is a difficult conversation but you can conduct termination meetings quickly and professionally if you plan ahead. Prepare in advance by knowing what you’re going to say, what you need to cover, and how you’re going to conduct the process.

Begin with resolution: you’ve made your decision — it’s not negotiable. The reason for the meeting is to provide the employee with the information they need for separation and to collect any company property they may hold.

Typically these meetings last around 20 minutes. Your goal is not to drag the termination process out — it’s to give the employee the information they need. They can turn to friends and family for sympathy — that’s not your role. Plan to use a professional tone, and stick to a fact-based discussion.

Employee termination scripts are helpful tools to have

For HR departments, new managers, or business owners who don’t fire employees routinely, it can be helpful to have an employee termination script at hand.

A ‘how to fire someone’ script may seem rudimentary, but it can be a useful tool to ensure you’ve covered all the necessary topics of a separation meeting. The script can serve as a checklist. If preserved, it can also defend the company if the fired employee later brings forth a charge of wrongful discharge.

Another important tool is to have a list of all company property the employee has in their possession. During the termination meeting or immediately after, have them surrender any company property they hold, or make arrangements (for remote workers, for example) to have it returned.

Most employees have some company property — from uniforms or name tags that provide access to expensive equipment. Knowing what’s outstanding is critical to minimize company risk.

A best practice is to keep a listing of company property issued to each employee in their personnel file. In the event they are separated with little or no notice, you’ll have the information ready.

What to have prepared for a termination meeting

For the termination meeting, have a host of materials at the ready. Prepare and review the materials in advance so you’re ready for the discussion. Knowing exactly what you’re going to cover can help a difficult meeting progress smoothly and professionally.

Letter of termination

For most companies, a formal letter of termination is presented to the employee. It outlines the reason (if any) the organization is letting the employee go. It needn’t be lengthy or detailed.

If an employee is being separated due to poor performance or a policy violation, describe the infraction briefly. You don’t need more than a sentence to outline consistent tardiness, for example. Simply name the violation as the reason for dismissal and include the effective date.

In some cases the employee is terminated without cause. This is an at-will termination. Unless there are employment laws governing employee terminations where you do business, most employers are free to dismiss staff without reason. Verify with your local Department of Labor whether workers are employed ‘at-will’ where you do business.

Many companies notify terminated workers that unless a policy violation was significant (theft, threatening others, violence) they will provide a neutral reference — offering only dates of employment and title to future employers.

Depending on the type of infraction that triggers the separation, a best practice may be to seek legal advice before committing to neutral references.

You don’t have to provide a written letter of termination, but be prepared to discuss all the elements that would have been included when you meet with the employee.

A best practice is to have a letter to document the meeting. It can guide you and the employee through the process and support an affirmative defense in the event of an accusation of wrongful termination.

COBRA notification

A COBRA notification is mandatory if the employee and/or their dependents were covered under any health plans. A template may be available from your healthcare carrier. The notice must include:

  • Detailed information on when coverage under the employee plan will cease
  • When they must begin making payments if they wish to continue coverage
  • The cost
  • Where to submit payments and the length of time they will be eligible to continue their benefits under COBRA
  • The right to continue coverage includes all members currently under the employee’s plan

Company property checklist

A company property checklist is critically important to ensure the employee returns all materials before they leave the premises. For remote workers, you may need to make arrangements for them to surrender any property. A standardized checklist should include any:

  • Tools
  • Equipment
  • Materials issued
  • Keys
  • Uniforms
  • Computer equipment
  • Passwords
  • Other employee-issued property

Prepare a property checklist for each staff member as you issue them company property, and keep it current. As equipment is surrendered or upgraded, you’ll want to make sure you know exactly what is outstanding.

Severance pay

Severance pay is occasionally offered to employees being relieved of their duties. If you are providing a severance package, do so in writing. Outline what will be paid, and when and if there are any terms required to qualify for the payment.

Many companies ask employees to sign a waiver against future lawsuits or claims in return for the severance package/payout. These contracts can be complex and may be subject to legislation in your area. It’s wise to seek legal advice about severance package contracts to make sure you are protecting the rights of the company and the employee.

Standard payouts

Some companies prepare a final paycheck for employees, provided at the termination meeting, others stick to standard pay cycles. If your organization uses direct deposit or pays only at pre-arranged intervals, let the staff member know when the payment will be made.

If the staff member has any unused accrued vacation time, it will need to be paid. Personal and/or sick time accrued but not used is generally not earned or payable on separation, unless there are paid sick leave laws mandating payment where you do business. Seek legal advice to verify if any sick time earned is payable in your area.

Scheduling a termination meeting

Nothing strikes fear in employees more than hearing at 9 am they have a meeting with HR at the end of the day. While this is common practice among employers, it’s highly unprofessional and the fallout can be severe.

Not only will you have a nervous, non-productive staffer all day, the likelihood they’ll be complaining to and disrupting others is high. Scheduling a meeting well in advance, particularly if you’re not planning to tell the employee what will be discussed, is unnecessarily unpleasant.

Whether you need the employee off premises immediately or plan to terminate at the end of the day, do so without notice. Have their manager bring them to HR or collect them without warning.

A termination meeting should have as little anticipation as possible. Not having an employee worry all day is the most professional (and kindest) way to manage a difficult situation.

What to say in a termination meeting

With your materials at the ready and the employee in a private area (it should go without saying that employers should never terminate someone publicly), it’s time to get through the meeting.

Your tone and demeanor should be professional: terminating an employee is a business decision — not a crying session or an opportunity to unload grievances. The object is to remove the employee as quickly and efficiently as possible without stripping them of their dignity.

There’s no point in sugar-coating it: let the employee know they’re being let go at the onset. If you’re firing the employee for cause, you may want to briefly cover the policy violation or infractions that led to their dismissal. If you’re relieving the employee of their duties “at-will” let them know there is no specific reason they’re being terminated.

The employee will likely have questions, and it’s a good idea to answer 1 or 2. But don’t get into a lengthy discussion. Let them know the decision has been made and it’s not negotiable. The meeting is to inform them of the decision and provide the paperwork necessary to sever employment.

If the worker was covered under your health plans, move next to inform them of their rights under COBRA, and provide the needed paperwork.

Next discuss the company property checklist and retrieval of any materials. Conclude the meeting informing the employee that if they have any questions later, they’re free to contact you.

Sample scripts: Termination for cause

“John, today will be your last day at XYZ Company. We’ve provided ongoing warnings about getting to work on time and you were notified continued tardiness would lead to your dismissal. Here is your COBRA notification. It outlines your ability to continue any healthcare benefits you have (if applicable). Please take a moment to read through it. Next we’ll need you to surrender any company property or equipment. If you have any questions later, please feel free to contact me.”

“Sandra, today will be your last day at XYZ Company. As you are aware, we have a zero-tolerance policy for theft in the company and we’ve found unauthorized company property in your possession. Here is your COBRA notification. It outlines your ability to continue any healthcare benefits you have (if applicable). Please take a moment to read through it. Next we’ll need you to surrender any company property or equipment. If you have any questions later, please feel free to contact me.”

Sample script: Termination at-will

“James, today will be your last day at XYZ Company. We’re severing your employment at-will. Here is your COBRA notification. It outlines your ability to continue any healthcare benefits you have (if applicable). Please take a moment to read through it. Next we’ll need you to surrender any company property or equipment. If you have any questions later, please feel free to contact me.

What not to say in a termination meeting

As with all difficult employee interactions, the setting should be private and your tone should be professional and courteous. Avoid small talk — this isn’t a social call.

Avoid apologizing, assuming blame, or making the meeting about yourself. Comments like “This is really hard for me” not only provides no comfort to the employee, but implies the situation is as bad for you as it is for them.

Don’t discuss — direct. The topic is not open for discussion. The organization has made the decision — it’s not negotiable.

Occasionally employees will promise to do better or offer alternatives to losing their job. Don’t let an employee humiliate themselves when there is no chance they’ll keep their job. Let them know your decision is final and move on with the rest of the meeting.

Don’t discuss personalities or make comparisons. Avoid any discussion that touches on an individual’s character or qualities.

If the employee is being separated for cause, keep the discussion to the poor performance issue or policy infraction. Don’t compare their work or actions to the work of others: compare it to the rules and standards set for all employees.

“I’m sorry” is only appropriate if the company is laying off employees or downsizing. If you’re letting the employee go for reasons the business or employee couldn’t control feel free to sympathize briefly.

Finalize the termination meeting

After the paperwork has been issued, and company property is returned, it’s time employees collect their personal belongings and leave the premises.

Many businesses accompany all employees through the process of collecting their effects, whether they think there will be a problem or not. Standardizing is a best practice: it demonstrates that whether they were upper management or entry-level, the company treats all employees the same.

Most employers hold termination meetings at the end of the day so employees can collect their personal belongings with some level of privacy. This courtesy is welcome and professional.

If it’s not possible to time the employee cleaning out their desk without gawkers, try to schedule the meeting at a time when as few coworkers as possible are nearby. If the employee is unable to manage the task on their own, prepare to offer to clear their personal belongings and have them sent or arrange a time for a discreet pickup at a later date.

Employee termination is unpleasant: the situation makes for a difficult meeting no matter who is involved. But it is a necessary part of doing business.

The goal is to get through the meeting professionally and with as little fallout as possible. If you complete the termination correctly, most employees will leave the organization without incident and with their dignity intact.

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