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Dealing With Difficult Employees and Terminations

Deciding how to deal with terminations and difficult employees appropriately is a crucial aspect of running and managing your business.

In a perfect world, every member of your team would enjoy their role, exceed expectations, and represent your company gracefully – unfortunately, this is not always the case.

When dealing with difficult circumstances around employees, it’s important that your business takes a methodical approach to protect themselves from potential lawsuits that can result from terminating employees.

Here are some best practices your business should implement when dealing with difficult employees:


The first step you should take when handling difficult employee behavior is to schedule a conversation between the employee and their manager to discuss the ways that their performance is negatively impacting the organization.

These conversations should include the following:


Discuss with the employee what the expectations of their position is. Reference any job descriptions, metrics, policies or key performance indicators that have previously been communicated to the employee. If the expectations haven’t been communicated properly by the company, this is a great time to get on the same page.


Express your concerns about the employee’s behavior or performance and how those concerns relate to the expectations for their position and the organization.

Corrective Action

Propose and document a progressive/corrective discipline policy that gives employees clear and definable expectations about things they need to improve upon in the future and lay out further consequences for non-compliance. 


Employment begins and ends with documentation.

Every conversation that takes place between managers and employees about expectations and concerns should be thoroughly documented. The more detailed these documentations, the better.

You should document:

  • the dates that these conversations happen
  • the expectations that aren’t being met 
  • the concerns that the organization has with the employee
  • the corrective action that has been presented

These expectations and consequences can be documented in a Performance Improvement Plan. A Performance Improvement Plan is a place for the employee to gain clarity about how they can improve their job performance, while also communicating any support they will need as they seek to correct their performance or behavior.

Be sure to properly document both these conversations and any potential Performance Improvement Plan and date and file each conversation to create a consistent timeline.

Progressive Discipline

When dealing with difficult employees, it’s important to give the employee the opportunity to correct their behavior and to continue to seek guidance and clarity moving forward. Using a progressive disciplinary policy can help you provide that opportunity.

Progressive discipline typically involves the following steps.

Verbal Warning(s) → Written Warning(s) → Performance Improvement Plan → Termination

Every employee is different. Some employees may find themselves willing and ready to improve, they just need a wake-up call in the form of a verbal or written warning. 

Some just need more clarity about how they can improve their performance and find that a Performance Improvement Plan is the step that helps them find their feet in their position.

However, sometimes employees aren’t able to correct their behavior and performance in a way that allows them to remain in their position. 

In that case, you have no choice but to begin the termination process.


Thankfully, since you have been carefully documenting the conversations and action plans that you have been involved with during this whole process, you are already a step-ahead.

Review the documentation of conversations that have taken place between management and the employee. If you have any questions or concerns regarding the contents of the documentation, you may want to consult a human resources professional or an attorney. This is especially true if you feel that the employee may consider filing a legal claim based on their age, sex, national origin, sexual preference, etc. You also may want to consider a severance contract including an agreement to not sue the company.

When meeting with the employee you will want to keep the conversation as brief as possible to avoid getting into irrelevant arguments about the details of the separation. This is certainly an emotional situation so it’s important to keep the tone as professional as possible.

It is best to come to the meeting with the employee’s final paycheck ready, including the details of outstanding things such as paid time off or benefits (as they relate to your organization’s handbook and policies).

Be sure to withhold any potential severance pay until you have received a signed severance agreement returned to you.

Need a Checklist?

We hope that these thoughts have helped you understand the appropriate processes that come with correcting or terminating difficult employees.

It is never an easy situation when these situations arise, but it’s important to be prepared in order to avoid litigation that could do significant damage to your business.

At Axios HR, we use an Employee Separation Checklist to keep the termination process as organized and professional as possible. Following these steps can minimize the risk of litigation and damage to your small business.

If you’re interested in this checklist or have any other questions or concerns about your organization’s HR functions, click the “Contact” button below.



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