Performance improvement plan

6 vital steps before terminating an employee for poor performance

Terminating an employee on a whim can be a risky move for your business. You need a practical and fair process to help reduce your liability. Moreover, it’s best to give employees plenty of time to improve while also providing the tools they need to grow.

And, because recruiting, hiring, onboarding and training a new employee can be very costly, the extra effort may prove fruitful – provided the employee transforms their behavior.

Here are a few things to try first, before resorting to termination of employment.

1. Write down everything

Documentation is key. If you don’t write something down, it can be argued that it didn’t happen. Even informal conversations written in a notebook can be helpful and count toward documentation.

I know what you’re thinking – documentation takes time. Time you don’t have. Nonetheless, it can be your friend should you have to defend your decision down the road.

Here are some examples of important documentation to collect:

  • Electronic communications
  • Phone conversations
  • One-on-one chats
  • Unprofessional or subpar behavior in group settings
  • Feedback and complaints from coworkers, managers or clients

2. Clearly communicate expectations

For every job, you should have a job description. Even if you don’t have anything formalized, you should have a solid understanding of the functions and responsibilities of each role on your team. You should also know what it takes for employees to be successful in each role.

And it’s essential that your employees know this, too.

Don’t assume. People come with their own perspectives that don’t always match what their boss has in mind. To avoid confusion, each role should be clearly defined. This makes it easier to pinpoint and correct problems.

Similarly, your progressive discipline policy should already be established and recorded, outlining how corrective action and termination would take place should you need to go there. This helps ensure every issue is handled consistently and fairly.

3. Be a good coach

Both new and existing employees should be coached. This is informal feedback and consists of what’s right, as well as what’s wrong. Think of a football coach. He gives praise for a good pass or a solid tackle, but also points out the missed catches and holes in the defense.

Your employees need this feedback to understand how they are doing well before you get to the point of considering disciplinary action or termination.

4. Initiate a performance improvement plan (PIP)

So, let’s say you’ve provided ongoing coaching, but you’re not seeing improvement, or you see some major concerns with performance that the coaching has not improved . This would be a good time to develop a performance improvement plan (PIP).

The PIP should articulate specifically what the problem areas are and give detailed goals for what the employee must do to correct it.  PIPs aren’t typically for behavior issues or policy violations, but rather to bridge a skills gap or point out where development is necessary.

Here’s an example:

Sally Brown has been submitting reports with numerous grammatical, spelling and technical errors. Within the next 30 days, Sally needs to complete Business Writing 101, as well as utilize grammar and spell-checking tools prior to submitting reports. Technical data should be reviewed by the Engineering group. We will meet again on next Tuesday to review progress.

Remember: the timeline given for improvements should be reasonable. Some deficiencies are quicker to fix than others.

Finally, be sure to have your employees sign an acknowledgement form to confirm that they understand.

5. Conduct a verbal counseling

In situations where a policy is being violated, a verbal counseling might be the better way to go. Use this option to address things like attendance, communication and other behavioral issues.

Here’s an example of the right way to word an attendance-focused counseling:

John has been late every Monday since the beginning of the year. John will arrive at work before the start of each work shift and clock in on or before his start time. He will promptly return from scheduled break times and work until the end of each shift. Improvement needs to be immediate, marked and sustained. Failure to improve punctuality issues and work all scheduled shifts in their entirety could result in discipline up to and including termination.

If you do a verbal counseling, send a follow-up email to your employee. (No signed document is needed in this option.)

6. Conduct a written counseling

If things are especially tough to handle and you feel like you need to escalate the matter, you may need to move to a written counseling.

A written counseling is similar to the PIP in that it should clearly outline areas that employees need to correct. Again, in writing, detail specifically what needs to improve and how this should be accomplished.

In addition, the written counseling document should make clear (and in no uncertain terms) that improvement needs to be immediate, marked (noticeable) and sustained.

Employees should sign this form after you’ve discussed it with them. (This doesn’t mean they have to agree with what you’ve documented.) Their signature simply indicates that they have received the counseling.

What comes next

Hold regular follow-up meetings. Don’t put them off. Make sure you document all conversations and have the employees sign to demonstrate that they attended the meeting. Give them specific feedback on how they’re doing. If results are mixed, share with them what they’re doing right as well as what they’re doing wrong.

Now – and this part is important – if you don’t see improvement, or if the employee is still making similar errors, address them. Don’t wait until your next follow-up meeting. And keep notes on what you’ve addressed and when.

When all else fails, termination may be necessary. In these cases, it’s best to follow a well-documented progressive discipline process first, to minimize problems and to demonstrate you’ve tried to make the situation work for all.

When all else fails, here’s how to terminate an employee

Despite your efforts, you still may not see the type or quality of improvement needed. More than likely, the only remaining option is to sever the relationship. By now, having clearly documented what you did to help the under-performing employee improve – and discussed it with them – they’ll be less surprised by your decision.

So, prior to terminating your employee, be sure to review all associated documentation. Also, contact your legal counsel or HR representative to ensure your case is supported, justified and sound. Confirm that you’re following all state-specific wage and hour regulations. And if you use employment contracts or non-compete/non-solicitation agreements, you should ask your legal counsel to provide you with validity and enforcement guidance.

In releasing employees, honesty is the best policy.

While your goal is not to make anyone feel bad, you should also not disguise a performance-based termination as a “layoff” or request the person to resign. Employees who are asked to resign may later claim that they felt they were under duress to do so, pointing to something possibly untoward involved.

Additionally, employees who resign are typically not eligible for unemployment. If you choose to terminate the employee, own that decision.

For example, you can say, “John, as you know, we’ve talked a few times about your attendance, and we haven’t seen this improve as we would have liked. That said, we have made the decision to terminate your employment effective immediately.”

When to have the termination conversation

Honestly, there really is no “good” time to break the news that you’re terminating an employee, and it’s never an easy conversation to have. However, there are some times that are less desirable than others.

Opinions on when to terminate can vary widely, but ultimately, earlier in the week is preferable, as well as earlier in the day. And, as tempting as a Friday may be, you don’t want your employee stewing all weekend, either.

Regardless of what day or time you choose, generally it’s best for the employee to leave promptly. You can provide them some time to gather their personal belongings, or you can box them up and mail them, if they prefer. If it makes sense to have someone escorted out, do so, just make sure this is your consistent practice.

Summing it all up

There are many steps and factors to consider before terminating an employee for poor performance, and it’s not an easy process for any of the parties involved. But with a clear, thoughtful plan of action, good follow-up and patience, you’ll rest a little easier knowing you’ve taken the rights steps.

Perhaps the only thing worse for your business than a bad employee may be bad HR documentation. Why? Because it can expose your business to potential risks. For more advice on avoiding common HR errors, download our free e-book, 7 most frequent HR mistakes and how to avoid them.


7 most frequent HR mistakes and how to avoid them
Download your free e-book

20 responses to “6 vital steps before terminating an employee for poor performance

Diana C

Should the employee receive a copy of the signed PIP or written counseling?

Insperity Blog

Hi Diana, Thanks for your question. It is best practice that the employee receive a copy of the signed PIP or written counseling. This provides a source of reference for the employee as to the outlined expectations and time frame. In the event an employee refuses to sign a PIP or counseling, that’s OK, the supervisor or manager can add “refused to sign” to the document and provide a copy to the employee regardless.

Patricia Moore

What about firing for actions but theres documented proof in multiple forms and places that states those actions are following policies& procedures?

Insperity Blog

Hi Patricia, Thanks for your question. Would you mind sharing a hypothetical example to provide further clarification? Thank you.


Great post. Thanks for sharing such an effective post.

Insperity Blog

Thanks for reading! We appreciate your feedback.

Caroline Hernandez

Great article and very valid points to consider. Interviewing is not an exact science, but there are some definite techniques to follow to make good hiring decisions.

Insperity Blog

Thanks for sharing your insights, Caroline. Glad you enjoyed the article!


I believe that i may be a victim us age discrimination. I was with a company for a year. I asked during the interview process what the learning curve would be. I interacted constantly with my supervisor during my time there expressing my strong desire to do a good job. She asked me to be patient and that it take well over a year to learn all of the processes, After we completed our business time of year, I was in my regular meeting with my manager where he indicated that i should be working at a higher level. (7 mos later) . He gave me some items to focus on. I took the list, meanwhile they assigned me to a brand new consultant to work with as I took on the challenges before me. Almost two mos later, same type of meeting i was told that I was better, but not enough., i asked for examples, but he didn’t have any. three days later he had the supervisor to draw up some reasoning that had never been discussed with me prior. They kept pushing until i was dismissed with no overview as to where I hadn’t satisfied the PIP.

This is very bias as we had no performance measures. Can they hold one person to a particular standard?

Insperity Blog

Hello BJones, Were you able to speak with your manager or HR contact with regard to the official reason for your termination? You also mentioned that you believe you may be a victim of age discrimination – what details around your termination have led you to believe so?

Silicon Valley Professional

A well-established construction company hired me for a position in which I am experienced in. I completed the onboarding process and began working with accounting project team on a very large project. During the interview, I was promised training on the software they were currently using, which I had no prior exposure to. It was also discussed that as with anyone stepping into a new job with a new company, learning the company’s procedures, document control, etc. that was proprietary to that company would also be covered in the promised training and that everyone understood that time would be permitted to me until I got the hang of things. The project was huge and from day one, it appeared that any training I was to receive, was going to have to wait. I was told to hang in there and that my team would be able to answer any questions, and I could ask my immediate supervisor for help and direction if needed. After one week, it was apparent that my team had no time to assist me and only offered ambiguous or vague information, incorrect information, or was only willing to just do it themselves because it would take too long to explain it correctly to me because they too had a large workload and had to meet a deadline on the project themselves. asking my immediate supervisor was no help and her answer to me most of the time was that she herself did not know the answer because she was still quite new herself and had not been shown how to do that yet. It was a sink or swim situation for me at about three weeks into the position and I had to have my report completed, accurate, and turned in by its deadline. I understood what the report was and what it entailed. What I did not understand was where exactly the data I needed for the report was coming from. I was missing a crucial piece to the puzzle and it seemed no one from my team could tell me how to or where to get this information or even where this information originates from. The day before the deadline, I finally overheard a guy in the cubicle next to me mention some words that pertained to the date I needed for my report. I asked him for help and he stayed late that evening informing me that he was the person I needed to get this information from every month for my report. He was not made aware that I was the new contact to send the information to. And no one told me that my missing link was sitting in the cubicle right next to me. It was bittersweet. While I was victorious about discovering the new found source of data for my report to be completed, I was, unfortunately; out of time. The next morning came and I had no choice but to inform my supervisor that the report was not finished. She responded with she kinda figured since she was aware of the difficulties trying to gather the information for the report and that it was ok since it hadn’t even been a month since I was hired, and that I’d get the hang of things soon enough, and to hang in there. at 11:00 am that same day, I was terminated from my position by the executive project accountant, who does not even work in the same office as me. She was so frustrated with me inside the meeting room they had me step into, that when I ask if I could say something in my defense and that I hadn’t received any training on procedures yet, she cut me off, threw her hands up in the air, and stated “It doesn’t matter, I have already made my decision”! and got up and walked out of the room. The HR manager that was present informed me of having to get my purse and leave the building. I could not shut down my laptop and I was not allowed to speak to anyone from my team. She handed me my last paycheck that was dated for the day prior, and I left. I never received a warning, written or verbal. Was I wrongfully terminated?

Insperity Blog

Hello Silicon Valley Professional – Thank you for sharing your story. Did your supervisor, HR manager or the executive project accountant inform you of the reason for your being terminated?

C Remington

I hired a p/t employee who, after 3 months, is clearly not able to perform at the level promised during the interview process. Is it legal and sound to move her to another position that is a better fit for her skills? Both positions are very part-time and the new position will cause her to lose both hours and dollars in her hourly rate. She was hired after she negotiated an hourly rate that is beyond a trainee level and she has proven to be a true trainee and a great disappointment. No time to train her. Suggestions? Thanks!

Insperity Blog

Hello C, Many companies have documented policies that outline the requirements as to how long full and/or part time employees must be in certain positions before they can be placed into other positions, as well as additional details on hiring and rehiring employees. Your company may have these in place for your reference via your employee handbook.

Mr Bong

I failed to call a patient regarding a diagnosis. I was stopped from my regular duties for the day and was called to office where the clinic manager and clinic lead nurse served me a written reprimand for my failure to call the patient. Instead of being served the letter, I quit. I later learned that I was terminated for poor performance. Do I have a case to pursue why my record is termination instead of me quitting? Thank you.

Insperity Blog

Hello Mr. Bong, You may want to contact your former company’s HR department to confirm all details regarding your termination/resignation prior to pursuing a case on the subject.


company has transferred my service from one HQ to another HQ 3 months back, now company is giving termination letter based on my previous HQ performance, is it possible legeally

Insperity Blog

Hi Uma, It’s difficult to provide you with an answer without more details regarding your situation. You may want to contact your company’s HR department to gain a better understanding of the reason behind your termination letter.

Thea Ambrose

Was dismissed with no reason and no cause; and told not to return to work via text. Went to a lawyer for assistance, but it’s six week and no settlement. A month later, I got a letter stating I would be terminated one day after the letter was recieved. However, was not paid during the time. I have a three year contract, almost two years not fulfilled. What is my right?

Insperity Blog

Hi Thea, It sounds like you’ve been through a lot. Your best option would likely be to contact a legal representative you can trust to help you sort out these situations and decide how to move forward.

This site uses cookies to store information on your computer. Some are essential to make our site work; others help us improve the user experience. By using the site, you consent to the placement of these cookies. Read our privacy policy to learn more.