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How to Address Disciplinary Problems and Legally Fire Employees

Disciplining employees, conducting an employee performance review, and making termination decisions are difficult for most managers. The good news is, by following the right steps, knowing and complying with the law and company policies, and being respectful, honest and consistent, supervisors can take control of any employee discipline problem.

Why is documentation of employee disciplinary action so important?
How progressive employee discipline works
Legal termination tips

Why is documentation of employee disciplinary action so important?

A proper employee disciplinary action policy not only gives poor performers a chance to improve, but also creates a paper trail of due process. Documentation is critical because in the eyes of the law, if it’s not in writing, it didn’t happen.

Proper employee disciplinary action at work and documentation work hand in hand to:

  • Improve employee performance– The right documentation makes it clear to employees what your expectations are and gives them an opportunity to correct problems.
  • Boost employee morale– Employees expect that incompetent or poor performers will be subject to disciplinary action – failing to do so creates an atmosphere of discouragement.
  • Create consistent management– Without documentation, managers may be unable to determine how a particular employee discipline problem has been handled in the past.
  • Protect you and the company from legal liability– Judges rely heavily on documentation, like employee written warning forms or other disciplinary action forms and letters in employment disputes.


Documentation should always include:

  • A clear statement of the problem. A copy of any employee warning letter sent should be a part of this first step. Using a standard employee warning notice for these events will help to protect your company from charges of discrimination.
  • A statement of your expectations, with goals and dates. Again, a standard corrective action form may be useful in guiding this process.
  • The consequences of not meeting your expectations
  • A follow-up schedule
  • Employee sign-off acknowledging he/she understands the content of your meeting


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How progressive employee discipline works

Many companies embrace progressive discipline because it gives them a chance to “save” great employees who may simply be going through a rough patch. It also helps protect against legal claims by providing ample documentation.

In progressive discipline, each step in the process more strongly encourages change and is accompanied by greater consequences. These steps typically include a verbal warning, a first and second written warning letter to employee (or letters of reprimand), and finally, if no improvement has been made, termination.

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Legal employee termination tips

Fear of legal reprisals has hamstrung more than one manager confronted with an employee termination. Here are a few pointers that tell you how to fire an employee legally. If performance weakness or serious infraction is the cause for an employee’s termination, employers should ask themselves a few questions before making the final decision, such as:

  • Has the employee had the opportunity to tell his or her side of the story?
  • Is there documentation to support termination, such as poor performance reviews or written warnings?
  • How have employees in similar situations been treated in the past?
  • Have you discussed your decision with an HR professional?
  • Does the termination violate any federal or state laws (i.e., discrimination)


In short, make sure you know all the facts of an employee discipline problem and that you consider the possible outcomes of a decision to fire. Taking care now improves the possibility that you’ll avoid a day in court.

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