Some Dos and Don’ts When Hiring & Firing Employees

by Brian Sodoma


As the past president of the Springfield Area Human Resources Association in southwest Missouri, Parker McKenna fielded a lot of questions from small business owners. Getting it right legally and professionally when it came to hiring or firing employees was one of the big issues that came up.

With more than a decade of experience in the field, the HR professional understands small-business owners like contractors, painters and property managers probably have plenty on their minds on any given day. But making mistakes on the personnel side of a business can be costly, and could even shut a company down if a wrongful termination claim is filed by a former employee.

“For small businesses, I wouldn’t say [wrongful termination] claims are common. But I do think a small business has a greater possibility of feeling a big impact. There’s less wherewithal to respond and less money in the bank,” he said.

McKenna and other HR professionals offered some hiring and firing insights for today’s small or large painting contractor.


For any small business owner, interviewing is a skill often learned on the fly, with little guidance. But interviewing can go badly if a business owner doesn’t know what he or she can and can’t ask.

Questions about race, color, sex (even pregnancy), religious beliefs, disability, age, national origin, genetic information, and other protected classes outlined by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are a no-no in a job interview, says Vanessa Reinhart, a certified professional in Human Resources and southern-Nevada-based human resources consultant.

These protected classes often become the core of a wrongful termination claim. A contractor may fire an employee for nonperformance, but if the employee sees it another way, he or she can point to inappropriate questions in the interview as the place where the relationship got off to a bad start.

McKenna, who is also a member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), also says interviewers sometimes get sidetracked by a pleasant personality.

“Often, what I find is that interviewers make decisions based on things other than the job description or the core focus of the job,” he said. “Sometimes they develop a connection with a person during the interview process and that person rises to the top of the application pool. Anytime an interviewer makes a selection based on anything other than the core competency of the job, there’s a potential for liability.”

Alison Green, a management consultant and author of the Ask a Manager blog, worked as a chief of staff in the nonprofit world and has seen plenty of good and bad hiring practices in her day. She also advises that attitude and soft skills shouldn’t be overlooked.

“You have to think about what is and isn’t teachable. You can’t teach work ethic, pleasantness, professionalism, or openness to feedback,” she added.


In her consulting work, Green is surprised to find many employers who don’t check references, instead running with the assumption that a person on a reference list wouldn’t have anything negative to say about the applicant anyway.

“I’m continually amazed when calling references for a candidate. You will hear all sorts of things that can influence your decision,” she said. “‘He does great work, but has a terrible attitude,’ things like that. That five-minute phone call can save many months of hassle.”

A paint business is only as good as the crews it assembles. And great crews are a collection of people with unique skills and personalities. So be clear about the skills and qualities you are looking for in an applicant when you place the advertisement. That description can also be used to measure performance after the hire is made.

Once an employee is chosen, take the time to do what Reinhart calls ‘on-boarding,’ or letting him or her know about company policies, safety procedures, benefits, employment paperwork and training. Take it slow, get the person acclimated, and help them fully understand their responsibilities in the big picture of the company.

“Utilize this time to connect with a new hire and make them feel like part of the team,” she said.


Firing an employee is inherently touchy. Hurt feelings can get in the way of logic, potentially causing a scene for a boss. The HR professionals agree that having documentation of past poor performance is a necessity in these situations.

“The biggest mistake is failure to demonstrate or document a pattern of behavior. Often, that can be the result of a manager who says they’ve had enough. They’re fed up. It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back,” McKenna added.

With documentation, you are showing not only an employee’s inability to perform, but also an employer’s attempts to help improve an employee’s performance. And if a wrongful termination claim is filed, McKenna says it’s not a case of innocent until proven guilty. Documentation is the first thing a judge or arbitrator will seek.

“You really want to avoid saying you have nothing when asked for proof,” McKenna said. Ideally, paperwork with both employee and employer signatures is the best evidence. A simple log by the employer documenting corrective actions is helpful too, McKenna added.

But Green also said getting an employee signature on performance documentation could create unneeded hostility.

“It’s a pretty adversarial move. It lets them know you’re building a paper trail. It really changes the nature of the interaction,” she said.


Joseph Ganley, senior partner with Hutchison & Steffen Attorneys, based in Las Vegas, Nevada, practices employment law. Ganley says on the day of a termination, an employer’s biggest mistake is saying too much.

“The number one thing people get wrong is giving a reason for termination,” he said. “It’s the toughest thing because it’s human instinct to want to explain why someone is getting fired.”

Ganley explains that if an employee is oblivious to why he or she is being fired, emotions can run high and there’s a better likelihood the employee will misinterpret an explanation and try to create a legal case against the employer. Ganley also said it’s important to have the employee’s final check ready at that moment.

“Do not withhold that last check. That’s a big mistake,” he adds.

After the firing, know what you are going to say, or not say, to your employees, Green added.

Some may be concerned they are next on the chopping block, so to speak. And employers must be careful not to bad-mouth a former employee either.

“Your employees are watching, and if you’re not careful, there could be some bad PR around it,” she added.

For more information about hiring and firing practices, as well as links to federal and state laws regarding hiring and firing, visit

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