HR Administration

Essential Reading: Harvard Business Review’s Step-By-Step Guide to Fire Someone

By Jon Hyman

Feb. 18, 2016

File this under posts I wish I’d written. On Feb. 17, the Harvard Business Review published A Step-by-Step Guide to Firing Someone.

Firing an employee is the most difficult job any business owner, executive, manager or HR person has to do. I’ve been there. It absolutely sucks. (And it absolutely sucks even more when the fired employee breaks down and starts crying). HBR synthesizes the process in three essential tips to handle the decision, and five (not-so-easy) steps for the termination itself.

When I say that I wish I’d written this post, that’s only partly true. In fact, I wrote part of it many years ago.

The HBR article suggests that before you pull the termination trigger, you run the decision by a hypothetical jury:

To make sure that you’re on solid ground in terminating an employee, imagine yourself defending your action in front of a jury. Assume that you are on the witness stand and the employee’s lawyer is attempting to prove that the firing was unjust, unfair, and vindictive. Look for anything that could be twisted to suggest that the real reason for the termination is not the individual’s performance but rather a pretext or personal grudge. Isn’t that the real reason why you fired poor Smedley on his birthday, on the day before his tenth anniversary with the company, on the day before his pension vested, on the day his wife went into the hospital, on the day his mom died?

I’ve called this mock-jurying the Golden Rule of Employee Relations.

If you treat your employees as you would want to treated (or as you would want your wife, kids, parents, etc. to be treated), most employment cases would never be filed, and most that are filed would end in the employer's favor. Juries are comprised of many more employees than employers, and if jurors feel that the plaintiff was treated the same way the jurors would want to be treated, the jury will be much less likely to find in the employee's favor.

If you’re not asking yourself this question before firing someone, you are skipping the most effective risk-management tool available.

Jon Hyman is a partner in the Employment & Labor practice at Wickens Herzer Panza. Contact Hyman at

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