Sometimes a single word says it all. Example:

Boss: Joe, I’m afraid I’m going to have to let you go because of your poor performance.

Joe: What?!

The single word that says it all is “what.” And what it says is that you, the Boss, really, REALLY screwed up.

We’ve said before that employees don’t sue for wrongful termination because they’re right. They sue because they’re angry. And the number-one thing that makes a fired employee absolutely furious is having the bad news come as a complete surprise. They’ll be dialing their lawyer before they hit the parking lot.

Here’s a simple blueprint for avoiding lawsuits when you need to fire someone over performance issues:

Ask yourself the night before, “Is this news going to surprise the employee?”

If the answer is yes, by definition you did something wrong and you need to right it. So draft a PIP, a performance improvement plan. Include specific goals and deadlines the person must hit.

Meet with the employee and say, “Joe, your performance hasn’t been up to par and I want to help you. I’ve drafted a PIP that has some clear goals over the next six weeks. If you hit them, you’ll be fine. If you don’t, I’ll have to take fire you.”

Hand Joe the document, let him read it, and ask him to repeat the goals back to you.

If Joe argues about the goals, listen to him carefully. If he has a legitimate point that a particular goal is too onerous or otherwise off-the-mark, change it. You want buy-in. If he wants to change reasonable goals just to save his job, stand firm and explain why you can’t change the goal.

Follow up regularly over the next six weeks, keeping score on Joe’s progress. If he’s struggling, do whatever you can to help. Make it clear you’re on his side.

At the end of the six weeks, if Joe hasn’t hit the goals, fire him. He won’t be happy, but he certainly won’t be surprised. And he’s far less likely to call in the lawyers.

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