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Much as it may surprise many employees, letting go of staff members is one of the more difficult business owner responsibilities. While you may feel a sense of relief once you finally get rid of a “bad apple,” it probably won’t make up for the weeks, months, or even years you might have to deal with the stress and discomfort of the termination.

As any human resources professional will tell you, replacing an employee is an expensive and time-consuming proposition. Researching, recruiting, interviewing, conducting background and reference checks, and pre-employment testing all prevent you from focusing on the mission-critical tasks of running your business. Then your business has to accommodate a new employee because he or she doesn’t reach peak efficiency until fully trained. In addition, there’s the hidden cost of paying the new employee while your former employee may be collecting unemployment benefits, which essentially means you’re paying two people to do one job.

One of your business owner responsibilities is to manage risk and problem employees can certainly pose a risk to your business. You can minimize that potential risk if you remember the following:

Keep Calm & Carry On

Primary among your business owner responsibilities is to keep your head while everyone around you is losing theirs. A challenge at the best of times, it’s even more important when dealing with disciplinary problems. No matter how difficult an employee may become, it is pretty much guaranteed to get worse if you lose control. Words spoken out of anger can’t be retrieved, nor can actions taken in haste be undone. The problems caused by a difficult employee often pale in comparison to those that arise if the situation is managed poorly.


When it comes to troublesome employees, you will discover, if you haven’t already, that your business owner responsibilities include accurate and timely record keeping. Not only will documenting performance and/or behavioral issues assist you in keeping track of disciplinary matters, such information may become necessary to support your position in the event of an unemployment claim, discrimination charge, or wrongful discharge action. However, effective documentation requires more than simply recording incidents as they happen; it should also include:

  • A complete description of the event or circumstances that caused the employee to be written up
  • The names of any and all persons who were witness to the incident
  •  Even employers who record each incident fall short in regard to certain specifics. Simply calling something a performance issue or bad attitude is of little use to you unless you go into detail about it, such as:
    • What was expected?
    • What actually happened?
    • What resulted from the mistake or conduct?
    • What could the employee have done to prevent the outcome?
    • What were the disciplinary consequences to the employee?

If you are documenting a disciplinary action (such as a warning), have the employee sign that he or she received it. If the worker balks (which is common), simply state that they don’t need to sign on the front of the form but explain why they don’t wish to sign it on the back. You now have evidence that the warning was discussed with the worker.

Don’t Act Alone

The most important of your business owner responsibilities is to sustain your business. A problem employee can threaten that. This is why you should always have a witness at a disciplinary action meeting. “He said, she said” usually doesn’t end well for employers. In fact, in unemployment and discrimination matters, administrative hearing officers must construe the facts “in the light most favorable to the claimant.” If the worker refuses to sign a warning or write on the reverse side as suggested and you don’t have a witness that the meeting happened, the future of your business may ultimately rest on whether you are more credible than your employee. A witness can make all the difference.

It isn’t easy to deal with difficult employees effectively, but it is possible. More importantly, it’s necessary. And if you don’t? Expect headaches that may include an unemployment claim (which can increase your payroll taxes), a discrimination claim, and/or a very expensive wrongful termination lawsuit, not to mention morale issues among your remaining personnel.

No matter how diligently you carry out your business owner responsibilities regarding difficult employees, you won’t be able to prevent those people from taking legal action if that’s what they want to do. You can, however, increase the likelihood that you’ll come out on top and can keep taking care of business.