Terminating an Employee Legally and Safely
Terminating an employee is one of the most difficult steps an employer or supervisor can take, and it should not be taken lightly. A firing may engender feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability in others. Also, a firing may result in a wrongful discharge claim which, even if not legitimate, is costly, unsettling, and a distraction to the workplace. For practical reasons, it might be prudent to terminate an employee only for substantial business reasons, such as demonstrating a continued inability to meet performance standards; consistently violating company policy; exhibiting violent behavior against another in the workplace; or engaging in criminal activity. As with every personnel action, careful documentation of the events and actions leading up to termination is critical.
The Termination Meeting
Every termination meeting should be planned carefully, and executed quickly and competently. To achieve this, an employer may want to incorporate the following practices as part of its overall termination practice and policy:
- Conduct the meeting as privately as possible, at either the start or end of the workday. By doing so, an employee’s potential embarrassment when later retrieving personal belongings from the work area may be reduced (e.g., fewer employees may be in the work area).
- At least one other member of management should attend the meeting as a witness.
- Keep the meeting brief. Discourage any further or potentially volatile discussion regarding the reason for the termination. The purpose of the meeting is to communicate the message, not to discuss the reasons, or rights and wrongs, behind the decision. Stay focused.
- Remain compassionate, but do not compromise the company’s position by “siding with” the employee.
- Arrange for security if an employee has a history of violence or could react violently.
- Prepare a final paycheck, including all outstanding vacation, sick time, etc., when applicable. Full payment for the day of the termination meeting should be made, regardless of the time of day that it occurs. Provide information and forms regarding the continuation of group health insurance, unemployment insurance, etc., in order to reduce the need for a former employee to return to the workplace and possibly cause disruption.
At the conclusion of the meeting, have the employee retrieve his or her personal belongings and immediately leave the premises. In some cases, it may be wise to escort the employee to and from the work area physically.
If you believe the former employee might damage company property or cause some other disruption in the workplace, have someone escort the former employee to his or her desk to pack up and then escort him or her out. But do this only under extraordinary circumstances.
Finally, all documentation associated with a termination should be filed in the employee’s personnel file. If departmental personnel files are also maintained, they should be kept in a confidential and secure place. Some states have laws that specifically govern the maintenance and retention of all employee personnel files.