How to Let an Unstable Employee Go

Dear Evil HR Lady,

I am a small business owner (20 full-time employees). I have an employee whose skills were critical to us when she was hired in 2003, however, they have become largely irrelevant in our current business and are now used in less than 20 percent of her work on a weekly basis. Over the last few years, we have re-purposed her with a variety of administrative tasks which she did well.  Further retraining in the skills we need is not possible due to the highly technical nature of our work.

On a purely economic basis, my decision should be an easy one.  However, this employee also suffers from mental illness.  I am aware of her illness. We have been accommodating in terms of her work environment and hours.

I need to let her go because a) we really need to free up the cash to hire the person we need, b) she’s barely contributing, and c) her behavior lately has been distressing other employees.  But I truly fear that if I terminate her she will finally go over the edge in bad ways I don’t want to even contemplate.  I wish I could offer her more, but at this point we would only be able to offer a month’s severance and perhaps three months of healthcare.  Do you have any other suggestions as to how we can make this a positive transition for both parties?

–Compassionate and fiscally responsible boss

To read the answer click here: How to Let an Unstable Employee Go

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9 thoughts on “How to Let an Unstable Employee Go

  1. Dear Evil HR Lady, You’ve left a valuable piece of advice. Discuss this with your Employee Assistance Program. They can even be on site when you have to terminate the employee’s employment. They will also make referrals to competent mental health professionals that will help the employee in an on going fashion. Not only does this help protect your company legally, it’s the right thing to do. Finally, if you don’t have an EAP, get one! In the overall scheme of things, they’re not much of a hit to the budget.

    1. Sally,

      That’s a very good piece of advice! Do many small (under 20) companies have EAPs? I don’t know the statistics.

  2. This is one of my favorite of your posts. So very tough to go through, and I think you captured it as well as anyone could. Good luck to the writer.

    1. It is so, so, so, hard to terminate someone in a position like this.

      Another time it’s really difficult to terminate someone is when they’ve been on disability leave and they aren’t going to get better, and they turned down the super cheap long term disability insurance when they were hired.

      Heartbreaking, but you’ve got to do it.

        1. In my state, short-term disability insurance is a requirement, and it’s deducted from gross pay, just like SSI is. But long-term disability is not a state requirement, any more than health insurance is, or sick time, or vacation time. So an employee can choose not to buy that coverage, and if they’re in their first or 2nd job, they’re probably more interested in maximizing their take-home pay.

  3. Ouch, this is a hard one. But Suzanne pointed out what I was thinking throughout the entire question–her position is changing to the point that it’s being eliminated. It’s unfortunate that the employee has this health issue–it complicates things. That does not change the fact that her skills don’t fit the new job.

    I think Suzanne’s suggestions will be very helpful both to the boss and the employee, especially the one re drawing up the new job posting beforehand, so that the new position’s responsibilities are clearly illustrated.

    1. Yes. And there’s no question that it’s the responsibilities that are going away, not that you’re trying to get rid of the person.

      It’s all very sad.

  4. Wow. This is a very touchy situation. But, I’ve been there. All Suzanne’s suggestions are on target, but there are a few more to keep in mind. The ADA protects the person with the mental illness if she is able to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without accommodation. If she’s not capable of performing those duties, the protections do not apply. Also, the ADA does not protect inappropriate or violent/threatening behavior (you did say her behavior of late has been concerning). As Suzanne notes, an attorney can guide you in these detailed areas.

    If severance is possible, it will indeed help her and also show your other employees that you are not being heartless. I will caution you on the health insurance continuance. SInce you have 20 employees, you are covered by COBRA and must offer the continuance coverage. If you want to be generous and you can afford it, you can certainly reimburse her for the cost of the COBRA coverage; do not leave her on the health insurance as an active employee. Insurance companies require covered employees to be actively at work; so handle it via reimbursement.

    You probably do not have an EAP (employee assistance program) however, you may still have resources to help both this employee and you, during the termination process. Contact the business/employer resources function at your local community college, college or even the county government; they may have free/low cost resources for employers (our county resource is called Business and Employer Resource Center).

    Lastly, and I’m sure you know this, do not have this conversation with her alone. Have another staff person (preferably female) with you during this conversation. Be your compassionate self, but maintain control of the conversation.

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