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Don Burleson Blog 







Cleaning House - Expert Tips for Firing IT personnel

May 16, 2002 - Donald Burleson



 In my 23 years as an IT management professional I have assisted in the firing of dozens of IT professionals and I have seen some remarkable abuses of IT management authority. I once witnessed an IT manager terminate an employee in a public work area, publicly declaring that they had been peeking into the company salary records.  The IT manager was quite angry at the time and tried to humiliate the ex-employee as punishment for their transgressions and also warn other employees about the consequences to unauthorized system access.  In another case, I witnessed an IT employee arrested at work by the police for allegedly threatening to withhold critical code unless they received a bonus. This employee was taken from work in handcuffs never to been seen again.

 While all IT managers have their own style, there are some proven techniques for the proper firing of unwanted IT professionals.  The termination of unwanted IT employees is one of the most stressful tasks for the IT manager, and one that warrants careful planning and execution (pun intended).  IT firings should be conducted professionally, privately and above all, quickly.

 Above all, the IT manager should be intimately knowledgeable about the law regarding employee terminations.  In many states, laws exist for "at will" employment, and an employee may be terminated at any time for any reason, or no reason at all.  In other situations, employee union rules and companies policies can be a factor. 

 Termination for cause

 Termination for cause is a surprisingly common event in the IT industry.  IT employees will misuse computer systems to invade the privacy of others, sell confidential data to third parties, and abuse company resources by using the Internet for personal business. When firing an IT person for cause, it is critical to have incontrovertible evidence prior to termination.   

Theft - In some cases, employees who are suspected of theft or misuse of company assets can be terminated more easily by charging them with misuse of company assets, such as inappropriate use of the Internet at work. In the companies I have worked for, over 80% of the IT staff occasionally surf the Internet for personal reasons, and this fact is easily documented with unobtrusive sniffer programs such as PC-Anywhere.  Courts have widely upheld that the misuse of company assets for personal purposes is a terminable offense, and catching the IT professional making a purchase on eBay or reading a non work-related message board constitutes abuse of company property.

 Drugs & alcohol abuse The best approach to terminating an employee with a substance abuse problem is to base the termination on their poor performance and not the substance abuse issue.  For example, an alcoholic C++ programmer can be terminated for tardiness, mistakes at work, and unavailability for off-hours support, all without mentioning the substance abuse problem.  Drug and alcohol abusers will vehemently deny their addiction, especially UNIX systems administrators, and it is seldom worth the effort of accusing an employee of substance abuse unless there is tangible evidence.

 Common mistakes in termination

Many inexperienced IT managers fall prey to several common mistakes when conducting the exit interview.  These mistakes almost always involve administration errors or emotional errors, and include the following:

Too much empathy Many IT managers are genuinely sorry to fire an employee and empathize with the serious problems unemployment will cause for them.  The best terminations are conducted quickly and professionally, without any expression of empathy, sadness, aggression or outrage.  These actions only encourage the ex-employee to bargain to keep their job.

Failure to cut-off all computer access IT professionals have numerous gateways into corporate systems, and careful measures must be taken to disconnect dial-in access, network access, server access, and database access. A failure at any one of these components can lead to ex-employee retribution.

"Leaks" prior to termination Many IT managers fail to realize that their IT staff is a tight-knit community, and the necessary cut-off of computer access must be performed by an IT employee, who may be tempted to tip-off the new ex-employee.  The best approach is only to share prior termination on a need-to-know basis, and only at the last possible minute.

Punitive terminations Terminations for employee misconduct are the toughest to handle because of the possible legal ramifications.  Also, the IT manager is often outraged at the betrayal from the trusted employee, and the IT manager is often tempted to make an example of the employee. 

Engaging ex-employee Accusations Upon notification of firing, many new ex-employees will immediately claim that they are being terminated for unjust reasons, and cite poor management, age or sex discrimination, or other unlawful reasons for their termination.  In these cases, the IT manager should not engage the ex-employee in any way other than politely acknowledging that they have made accusations.

Proper termination techniques

 While entire books have been written about firing an unwanted employee, savvy IT managers will generally follow these simple guidelines.  The termination of IT employees are unique because of their tight coupling with the company infrastructure.


Make it very final Make it very clear during the termination interview that the decision to terminate the employee has been made, approved by HR and not negotiable. During the initial shock phase of termination, many new ex-employees will try to bargain, begging for a second chance, offering to take a decrease in pay, and so on.  The manager must make it very clear at the outset of the exit interview that the ex-employee no longer works for the company.  Many start with the phrase "I'm sad to report that your job was terminated as of eight AM this morning".

Apply golden handcuffs Many IT shops will deliberately exceed the corporate obligation for severance pay in return for a promise not to sue their former employer.  This is generally done by presenting the new ex-employee with a document presented as a reward for faithful service.  The document specifies the exact amount of the additional severance bonus and requires the ex-employee to return the signed document within seven days of termination.  As consideration for the bonus, the employee forever relinquishes any and all claims against their former employer.

Lie when necessary If your company resides in an "employment at will" State, it may be a good idea to omit the real reason for the termination.  In many cases, the new ex-employee will be so shocked that they do not ask the reason for termination, but ex-employees who are terminated for theft or misconduct will often insist that they be told the reason for their termination.  Legally, it is far easier to refuse to give a reason or cite an impersonal layoff than have to justify a termination for theft or misconduct.

Don't get emotional The stoic posture is always best when making a termination.  The exit interview is stressful for both the IT manager and the ex-employee.  When firing without cause (e.g. a downsizing) it is often difficult for the IT manager not to convey feeling of sadness and empathy. When firing for cause, the IT manager is challenged not to express any outrage or anger toward the ex-employee.

Have security and HR intimately involved in the exit interview Many new ex-employees will make accusations of improper conduct against the firing manager, and witnesses are always the best protection.  A representative from HR should be present, and security personnel should be right outside the office to immediately escort the ex-employee out the door at the conclusion of the interview. 

Watch what they take home - In many IT shops, the ex-employee is not allowed to gather their personal effects from their office and all personal effects are mailed at a later time. In other shops, the IT employee is allowed 15 minutes to pack their personal effects and leave.  Always inspect the contents of what IT employees pack to take home on their last day.  New ex-employees will often attempt to gather non-personal effects such as customer contact lists.

Send them packing fast Sad goodbyes, threats and emotional outbursts demoralize the entire IT shop, and it is always best to give an employee no more than 15 minutes to pack their personal effects.  The packing should always be done in the presence of a security guard who has instructions not to allow the ex-employee to take any corporate correspondence or property.  Packing boxes should be readily available, along with grocery carts to aid in fast transport of the ex-employee and their personal property off of the company premises.

 Managing the survivors

 Dealing with the survivors is a critical follow-up task for the IT manager.  With many IT personnel in high demand, it can be a disaster for the IT shop if critical employees leave the company because of fear of losing their jobs.  Hence, the IT manager should always have a department meeting immediately following the termination and reassure the survivors that their skills are still valued by the company.

 In sum, firing IT employees is the single most stress provoking task of the IT manager.  This stress is compounded by the access to critical systems that are possessed by IT employees, and careful planning is required to ensure that the firing is done quickly, professionally and without emotional outbursts.




Burleson is the American Team

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