Terminations are a sensitive subject. Even if you have strong reasons for letting an employee go, sitting them down to explain they are out of a job can be an awkward conversation.
Some employers might be tempted to fire an employee using an impersonal method — like a phone call, email, or text — just to avoid that discomfort. But that is a very bad idea. We strongly recommend that employers should only fire staff during a face-to-face termination meeting.
How do you fire an employee legally?
Most jobs in the United States are classified as “at will employment.” This means that the employer can terminate any employee at any time for (almost) any reason. The employer only violates the law if she chooses to fire someone for one of several illegal reasons, including:
- Refusal to take a lie detector test
- Alien status
- Complaining about OSHA violations
- Violation of public policy.
However, the law makes no mention of method of termination. If an employer chooses to fire an employee via text, phone, or email, there is nothing in the law to stop them from doing so.
Nevertheless, firing an employee in such a manner can set you up for legal problems for a number of reasons. First, it might be against your own company policy.
Most employers create their own policies for terminating staff. Usually, the policy stipulates that firings must be conducted through a face-to-face termination meeting. During the meeting, the employee sits down with an HR representative, and perhaps their supervisor as well.
All parties should discuss the reasons for termination and any prior disciplinary actions, such as warnings given to the employee. Again, this is not a legal requirement unless the employer has stipulated it in their own policy or in an employee or union contract. But it is a good idea.
How to fire an employee kindly
As we mentioned above, firing an employee can be awkward for the employer. But it might be devastating for the employee. Not only does losing a job means losing income, fired employees often feel shame, lack of appreciation, apprehension about future career prospects, and many other negative emotions.
This is why we believe that employers should try their best to terminate employment with as much compassion and kindness as possible. No matter how kindly you word a termination email or a text, it’s going to feel cruel to your employee.
That kind of negative treatment will reverberate through the rest of your staff, who will probably wonder why you didn’t have the decency to sit down and fire their coworker face-to-face. Even if you had excellent reasons for firing someone, your staff will see your impersonal firing actions as cruel. This can cause low morale, reduced productivity, and possibly resignations from your top performers.
No matter how kindly you word a termination email or a text, it’s going to feel cruel to your employee.
Instead, the best way to fire an employee is through a face-to-face meeting during which you present the employee with a written notice of termination. This meeting should include an HR or management representative.
All parties should discuss:
- The reasons for termination
- Any prior documentation of disciplinary actions, such as warnings given to the employee
- The terms of the termination, all of which should be documented
- Return of company property
- Notifications about how to access benefits, such as COBRA and retirement savings
- Information about how the employee can collect his final paycheck, and instructions on how to update the employee’s address should he move before you send out his final W2
- Reminders about any signed employee agreements, such as non-competes or non-disclosures
Start the meeting by making clear that your decision to terminate is irreversible. It is not kind to let the employee hope that they might change your mind when that is not possible.
Be sure to give the employee an opportunity to express their own thoughts about the termination. They may also have feedback to give you about the company, their coworkers, or their job.
If the employee mentions discrimination of any kind, be sure to take detailed notes and investigate all claims. If they are legitimate, you might need to talk to a legal representative because a lawsuit could materialize.
Remember, terminations can be very difficult. Some employers might be tempted to fire people via phone, email, or text just to avoid that discomfort. But it is of the utmost importance that you choose a kind and compassionate method of firing.
If you sit down with your employees in a face-to-face meeting, you will be showing respect to them and the rest of your staff. We hope that these tips help.