Business Counseling and the Three-Day Rule

The right way to terminate an employee

Kelly Graves

September 12, 2017

In general, people hate confrontation and will do just about anything to distance themselves from it, but a manager owes it to her employees to overcome this fear and address problems directly and honestly. The key is knowing how to handle problems with employees, and knowing what will happen before it happens. In doing so one can be prepared ahead of time and not surprised.

Sally, the owner of DS Inc., told me she wanted to terminate an employee, Marg. I told her that she had to try something first. She had to sit with Marg and be truthful about what she was doing wrong.

Sally said she was not sure she could tell that to Marge’s face. She was fearful of the confrontation.

I told her she owed it to Marg, to be honest, and to counsel her. Sally had nothing to lose since she was planning on terminating Marg anyway, so she should use this opportunity as “practice.” Using this technique helps take the sting out of being honest, and since a “practice run” is often mired in mistakes, I was encouraging her to forget about mistakes and just go through with the counseling. Also, I told her I would walk her through the process of being empathetic yet firm while practicing mindful counseling skills.

The next day at 10 a.m. Sally called Marg into her office and invited her to sit at the corner of her desk so they would form a semi-circle rather than facing each other with a table in between them.

Sally mentioned that Marg had gone through various forms of training and coaching during the last seven months, but she didn’t seem to get the hang of the procedures the other employees at DS adhered to. Marg started to defend herself, but it was time for Sally to take charge and lead. Again, she encouraged Marge to listen for now and assured her that she would get her turn shortly. Sally outlined what was expected of Marg, and took care to list behaviors as well as skills sets. She pointed out the various dates and times that Marg’s training and coaching had taken place.

Marg was visibly upset, but she continued to listen as Sally spoke. Sally went on to say that she liked Marg, and there were times when Marg did a good job, but it was inconsistent with too much time passing between good performance and poor performance. Then Sally asked Marg if there was something she could help her with; for instance, was she facing personal problems that may be affecting her performance? Sally then asked if Marg was perhaps having difficulties with other people in the office.

After a short pause, Marg started making accusations about others’ poor performance and asked why was she being picked on. She told Sally that she hadn’t been trained as well as others and she wasn’t sure she liked working for DS. Sally acknowledged these statements and told her that, given the challenges, she would like Marg to take the rest of the day off (it was Friday) and over the weekend think about her future with DS.

Sally added that she would like Marg to become a member of the team if she wanted to do so, but her performance had to improve. For instance, pointing fingers at others would have to stop, Marg would have to take responsibility for her actions and behaviors, and she must want to work at DS and with Sally. If Marg agreed to these things, Sally would make another attempt at training and coaching Marg, but if things were not better after 45 days, Marg would be terminated. Sally then sent Marg home for the rest of the day.

The three-day rule

I spoke with Sally about what I called my Three Day-Rule, which can be broken down into three options for the employee.

Option one: Marg was going to be angry for three days. On the fourth day, she would do a “180-degree turnaround and improve.” She might still be quiet due to the “sting” of the discussion, but Sally was to sit with her and do the necessary “clean-up work” of reestablishing a relationship and acknowledging the obvious signs Marg was exhibiting.

Option two: Marg was going to be angry and quit within the three-day time frame, quite possibly the next day. (By the way, when an employee leaves it is better than termination because the employer significantly reduces the litigation issue.)

Option three: Marg was going to be angry for three days but return to work and pretend to improve but go “underground” and consciously or subconsciously sabotage herself and the organization, and create problems. In which case, we would monitor her behavior for these adverse actions, make notations in her file, and swiftly terminate her.

A variation

Another method that can often increase the likelihood of success and help the employee through this difficult time is to explain the three-day rule to the employee before he leaves the room. Go through each example. Then explain that if he chooses option three, this would quickly become obvious, and he would be terminated. It must be expressed at this point that the manager will do everything within her power to train, coach, and counsel the employee, and help him overcome any challenges. Psychologically, this short-circuits the process and puts the employee in a double-bind situation once he realizes he is going through these steps, and that the manager knows what the employee is going to do before the employee does.

Termination is devastating for a department or organization due to the ripple effect. In essence, it can stir up concerns about job security among employees. Termination reverberates throughout an organization, and if some employees don’t know the reasons behind why a certain employee was dismissed or quit, then all they understand is what they are told by the very efficient grapevine. Therefore, it’s imperative to create an organization of trust and communication. Even though management cannot discuss the termination, if employees have built trust with management, and if communication channels are secure through regular dialogue, then the little bit of negative gossip should not hurt, and most employees will say, “What took you so long?”

Employees are very observant, and even though they may like someone, it doesn’t mean they don’t know that person is a slacker or causes friction in other ways. Often employees will have tried to coach their underperforming friends, telling them, “You better be careful how far you push Susan; you have already been written up two times in the last eight weeks.” Therefore, counseling must be done with the full intent of helping the employee and the relationship improve.

In this instance, Marg was angry for three days, and on day four when she returned, she spun 180 degrees and worked on becoming a model employee. Three years later she was still employed by Sally and DS. This tactic saved Marge’s job, even though it was initially tough for her.
• Sally saved an employee who was able to accept counseling.
• Sally learned to face her fears of conflict sooner and address issues with more confidence.
• Each time Sally met conflicts, faced her fears, and addressed those issues quickly, she became a better manager. Also, Sally was able to retain more employees and reduce training costs.

After the three days

After the third day, the employee should be in a better spot and able to move in one of the three ways. Therefore, it is the manager’s job to address this trust issue between days five and seven, after the initial punishment and including the three days of the three-day rule. The person must have time to acclimate, but not so long as to allow her to feel permanently ridiculed, which will erode trust.

Here’s how you do it. Sit with the employee and explain that the conversation was tough for you as well as him. The manager must be sincere and communicate her desire to help the employee succeed. Encourage him to express his feelings or frustrations. This will lead to new issues that are problematic, such as, “Why didn’t you tell me this sooner?” or “You didn’t train me properly,” or “I thought I was doing it the way you wanted.” These must be addressed and worked through; they are real concerns and often true because most managers don’t address training and coaching issues soon enough, so poor habits are developed early on and become the norm. Thus, any criticism comes across as extreme, can often be taken personally, and cause finger-pointing back and forth. Be aware of these very real concerns.

The manager also must have the awareness and the strength of ego to accept the issues and express that, “Yes, I am learning how to become better at managing, just as you are becoming better at your job.” This leads to a dialogue about how the employee and manager can communicate sooner and more efficiently.

Back to the issue between Sally and Marge. The symptom was Marg’s poor performance, but the underlying problem was that Sally the manager didn’t address the issues soon enough due to fear of conflict. Unfortunately, by trying to avoid conflict, she made it more debilitating and cumbersome to deal with. The solution to this is proper counseling and addressing these issues sooner.

Excerpts taken from Kelly Graves’ book, The Management and Employee Development Review (Productivity Press, 2017).

About The Author

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Kelly Graves

Kelly Graves is the CEO of Internal Business Solutions, which exists to help organizations overcome their most daunting challenges. The Internal Business Solutions team understands that most, if not all, organizational problems—whether technical, financial, structural, etc.—hinge on improving human communication and processes. Contact Graves at or call (530) 321-5309. Click here to sign up for his free newsletter.


It is usually a good idea to wait before taking action.

It is generally a good idea to take some time before acting, unless it is an absolute emergency. The Imperial German Army had a rule that I read about to the effect that a soldier who complained about something within 24 hours of the offense would be punished--not for complaining, but for not waiting 24 hours. The idea was that, after most people thought matters over, they decided to not complain. If they did, the issue was probably serious.

Ireland's Code Duello prescribed similarly, "Challenges are never to be delivered at night, unless the party to be challenged intend leaving the place of offence before morning; for it is desirable to avoid all hot-headed proceedings." This made sense because, once the people involved thought matters through, they might decide that no duel was necessary, and might work matters out peacefully instead.

In this situation, of course, confronting the employee with the performance issues as opposed to firing her without notice resulted in the desired modification of the employee's behavior (to the benefit of the employee as well as the organization) rather than a lose-lose outcome for everybody involved.