When Is It Time To Fire An Employee

Our clients ask us this all the time. They've usually already thought about it for weeks/months/years, but never know if and when to do it. I've yet to meet an employer who loves terminating...
Canada Employment and HR
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Our clients ask us this all the time. They've usually already thought about it for weeks/months/years, but never know if and when to do it. I've yet to meet an employer who loves terminating employees – it's hard, painful, disruptive and most feel bad about it overall.

As a business owner, letting go of an employee is one of the toughest decisions you'll face. It's not just about the emotional weight—it's about timing, fairness, and the impact on your team and business. So, how do you know when it's time to make this call? Let's break it down.

Consistent Poor Performance

One of the clearest indicators is consistent poor performance. If an employee isn't meeting their goals, despite support and training, it's a red flag. Performance issues can stem from a lack of skills, motivation, or fit for the role. Before deciding to terminate, ensure that the employee has had a fair chance to improve. This includes clear feedback, documented performance reviews, and an opportunity to rectify their shortcomings.

Lack of Improvement Despite Feedback

Giving feedback is crucial. And doing that IN WRITING is the key! But what if there's no improvement? If you've documented the issues and provided support, but the employee isn't showing signs of progress, it might be time to consider termination. This is particularly true if their lack of improvement affects team morale or the business's overall performance.

Behavioural Issues

Behavioural issues can be detrimental to workplace harmony. This includes frequent conflicts with colleagues, insubordination, unethical behaviour or just a crusty negative tone with the team. If an employee's actions are causing a toxic work environment, it's crucial to address the issue promptly. Often, such behaviours are a sign that the employee isn't aligned with the company's values or culture, and it can spread poor morale over time over time. Sometimes the employee will simply be much happier in another workplace, so a termination of a misaligned employee can often be a win-win.

Attendance Problems

Regular attendance is fundamental to any role. If an employee consistently shows up late, misses deadlines, or takes excessive leave without valid reasons, it disrupts the workflow and puts additional pressure on other team members. Chronic attendance problems, even after discussions and warnings, indicate a lack of commitment and reliability. This is a very common issue, but I caution you – it is rarely enough to justify the cause, particularly if there are not many, many written records about it.

Impact on Team Morale

An underperforming or problematic employee doesn't just affect their output—it impacts the entire team. High-performing employees might feel frustrated or demotivated if they see a colleague not pulling their weight. This can lead to a decline in overall productivity and morale. If the team's performance is suffering due to one individual, it might be time to take action.

Misalignment with Company Values

Every company has its own set of values and culture. If an employee's behaviour or attitude consistently clashes with these values, it can create discord. For example, if your company values collaboration and the employee prefers to work in isolation, it might not be a good fit. Cultural misalignment is a subtle but powerful indicator that an employee might not belong in your organization.

Ethical or Legal Issues

Ethical breaches or legal issues are non-negotiable. Whether it's harassment, discrimination, or any form of misconduct, such behaviours can't be tolerated. These situations often require immediate action to protect your employees and the company's reputation. Ensure you follow proper procedures and consult legal counsel if necessary to handle these cases appropriately.

Inability to Adapt to Change

Business environments are dynamic, and adaptability is crucial. If an employee struggles to adapt to changes—be it new technologies, processes, or organizational shifts—it can hinder the company's progress. Resistance to change often indicates a deeper issue with flexibility and openness, which are essential traits in a rapidly evolving business landscape.

How to Handle the Termination Process

Once you've identified that it's time to let an employee go, handling the process with professionalism and empathy is key. It's not only the right thing to do, but it will strategically lower the emotional temperature, create better good-faith evidence for the company and send a positive signal in a difficult moment to the rest of the team. Everyone is watching how you handle this.


  1. Document Everything: Ensure all performance reviews, feedback sessions, and warnings are well-documented. This provides a clear record of the steps taken before termination.
  2. Follow Legal Guidelines: You can fire any non-unionized employee in Ontario if you pay sufficient termination pay. You cannot, however, legally fire an employee if that termination is even in part tainted by a discrimination issue. If in doubt, chat with your employment lawyer.
  3. Prepare for the Meeting: Plan what you will say during the termination meeting, make sure IT is informed behind the scenes and have the termination letter & release ready to give to the employee at the meeting (by email if a virtual meeting). Be clear, concise, and compassionate. Avoid lengthy explanations or getting into debates.
  4. Offer Support: Provide the employee with information about their severance package, benefits, and any outplacement services your company offers. Showing support can help ease the transition for the departing employee. But keep it short during the termination meeting – most are in a daze and will not retain much in any event.
  5. Communicate with Your Team: After the termination, communicate with your team promptly and transparently, while respecting the confidentiality and privacy of the exiting employee. Reassure them that the decision was made with the company's best interests in mind and address any concerns they might have.

Final Thoughts

Firing an employee is never easy, but sometimes it's necessary for the health and success of your business. By recognizing the signs and handling the process with care, you can make these tough decisions more manageable. Remember, the goal is to create a productive, harmonious workplace where everyone can thrive.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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