Firing an employee is one of the more challenging and unpleasant responsibilities building service contractors have. They worry about the effect on staff morale, customer relations, perhaps even the potential for legal liability. Taking proper steps in advance will ensure that a difficult procedure goes as smoothly as possible.

Handbooks and documentation
The first line of defense for employers when firing employees is to be prepared. One effective tool is a company handbook, says Pat McClure, president of HLH Systems, a human resources consulting firm in Dublin, Ohio. At a minimum handbooks should contain an attendance policy, personal conduct and work performance standards, and consequences for not conforming to standards and policies, adds McClure.

In order to take action against an employee, employers must be able to document substandard performance. The handbook should state clearly what level of performance is acceptable.

Such a process acts as a constant reminder of the standards employers have set, McClure says, but also shows that everyone is being judged fairly. As infractions are noticed, make sure to document each case, and retain that in the worker’s file.

Handbooks and other documentation benefit BSCs and workers alike.

“Writing job descriptions causes employers to articulate what they want in an employee,” says John C. Patzke, employment attorney for Brigden & Petajan, S.C. in Milwaukee.

If employees don’t meet expectations, BSCs have grounds to terminate. Plus, they can show that the termination was for a cause, and not because they’re passing judgment on the employee as a person.

At Kettle Moraine Professional Cleaners Inc., in West Bend, Wis., initial violations are noted on an expectation sheet. This acts as a friendly reminder to the worker of the rules violated and the firm’s expectations, says Owner Bob Merkt. The worker signs and dates this form, and it is placed in his or her file. Repeated infractions result in warnings and eventually termination.

To help limit potential problems, education is crucial at the outset. During orientation, managers should review the handbook with each technician, says Merkt.

Employees should then sign and date the handbook confirming that they understand the material.

Red flags are as varied as the employees themselves, but BSCs say the most common ones are tardiness and absenteeism. Another sign is a good employee who suddenly begins performing poorly, says Cole Leitch, division president of GCA Services Group in Greensboro, N.C. This could be an indication that the job conditions have changed or of possible personal problems. Employers should talk frankly with the employee and offer help, Leitch adds.

If a warning is issued, it must clearly state the consequences if the behavior does not change, says Leitch. Simply stating, “I don’t want you to do that anymore,” is too vague, adds Patzke. Explain in detail what was wrong with the person’s performance and how it did not meet standards. Then, ask the employee to articulate the answer so it’s clear whether he or she understands.

A regular review process can catch many of these problems and help prevent a termination. McClure suggests that handbooks be reviewed at least once a year.

How many warnings employers give an employee depends on how many are needed to resolve the matter, Patzke says. If after two warnings it’s clear that the employee just isn’t learning the process, it may be time to terminate.

The firing process
Once employers have made their decision to terminate, they should proceed with it.

“Don’t wait,” says Patzke. “When a decision has been made, that’s when it should be done.” He adds that there’s never a good time to fire an employee.

It’s also important to remember to be honest, says Patzke. Some employers try to soften the blow by telling the workers they were laid off. Not only is that unethical, it can cause legal problems.

Initially the worker may feel that the termination was due to something other than poor performance (a drop in business, for example). However, the person may learn later that in fact he was fired. That may cause the worker to suspect other factors, such as age, race or gender, played a role. Now an employer is facing a complaint.

During the hearing, Patzke says, the judge will question an employer’s motives. If an employer admits that he or she initially lied about the reason for the firing, the judge may also question later statements.

“You create suspicion where none need exist,” he says.

BSCs should enter the discussion with clear documentation explaining why the person is being fired, says McClure. Remind the worker about the warnings provided earlier and the remedial steps you and the worker agreed upon.

It’s also a good idea to keep the meeting short, says Patzke. Five to seven minutes should be long enough. Any more, and the employee may try to talk an employer out of it. Worse, if an employer keeps talking, he or she may say things that the employee misinterprets, which could cause trouble.

“It’s important to articulate to the employee why they’re being fired,” he says.

Also, employers should be careful not to make a snap decision.

“You should terminate out of wisdom, not anger,” says Patzke. Employers may even want to consider a suspension first.

Experts agree that it’s a good idea to have a least one witness present — someone from HR is ideal — and have security available if it’s possible the employee will become agitated. Explain clearly to the employee why he or she is being fired. Ask the employee to sign and date a separation agreement. If the employee will not, have a witness do so.

Where the employee is fired varies by circumstances. Some BSCs prefer to meet at the job site so they can retrieve building keys. Leitch, whose clients include pharmaceutical firms, manufacturers, office complexes and other businesses, prefers to have the employee meet off site to minimize potential disruption to client operations.

In all cases, the employee must be treated in a dignified manner, Patzke says. If the termination is held indoors, choose a room with an exterior door. This allows the employee to be escorted without having to walk past coworkers.

Be wary about allowing employees to retrieve personal effects, says Patzke. Instead, tell the employee that items will be sent to their house. McClure adds that anyone allowed to return to his desk must be escorted to prevent sabotaging operations.

Employers shouldn’t worry about staff morale. In fact, it may actually be enhanced, Leitch says. Chances are other employees have witnessed the bad behavior. By firing the violator, employers send a message that they are firm and fair.

As difficult or necessary as the termination may be, don’t burn bridges when letting someone go, says Merkt. Employers never know where that person will end up. One of Merkt’s former employees, whom he had to dismiss, has found a new calling and has since become a good customer.

Thomas R. Fuszard is a business writer based in New Berlin, Wis.