Fire Employees Wisely, or Pay the Price

When it's time to fire an employee

Firing an employee is never easy for anyone involved. Not only are there emotional entanglements, there is the potential for legal entanglements – small business owners need to conduct themselves wisely on both accounts.

State laws vary, so before you even hire your first employee, get legal advice on firing; as soon as you have employee number one on the payroll, the possibility of firing enters your world.

In most states, workers are employed on an “at-will” basis, meaning they can be fired at anytime. However, if you have a contract with any employees, the terms of the contract will come into play.

Tip: Be careful not to give a verbal contract when hiring, such as, “The only reason you could ever lose your job would be if we don’t get the contract from Acme Widgets.” If you’ve made any promises or commitments, then you may end up with a fight on your hands.

Small business owners also need to understand that they cannot violate a person’s rights. The Supreme Court just ruled that Abercrombie & Fitch violated a Muslim women’s religious rights when the company refused to hire her because she would wear a head scarf on the job. Other categories include age, race, sex, national origin, and disability (as long as it does not hinder job performance). Sexual orientation may also be on that list in your state.

There are other mistakes you must avoid. In order to dodge firing a worker, some small business owners make work miserable for an employee in the hopes that he or she will just quit. If the scheme works and the employee quits, the small business owner is likely to end up in the middle of an expensive wrongful termination suit. Be a straight shooter with your employees, even in difficult situations.

The fundamental guidance when firing is that it should be the final step in a process. If the day arrives when an employee must be fired, it should never come as a surprise. The process must include:

  • Documenting the problems,
  • Working with the employee on corrective measures,
  • Informing the employee of the consequences.

However, many companies have “zero-tolerance” policies that cover some behaviors, such as violence, harassment, drugs and discrimination. If you decide to implement any zero-tolerance policies, get legal advice; enforcement is not always as easy as it might seem.

When you decide it’s time to fire someone, do not act in haste or anger. Take the time you need to be sure your attitude is right and you are fully prepared for the process. Here are some tips:

  • Do it fast. As soon as you know someone isn’t right, end the employment relationship. Dragging it out doesn’t do anyone a favor.
  • Be brief, direct, straightforward and unapologetic when delivering the news. “We’re letting you go today,” is really all you have to say, along with any details regarding pay and packing up. Don’t allow the employee to start a long discussion or argument.
  • Be prepared for the logistics. Have a person ready – or it can be you – who oversees the employee when packing up. Don’t let the employee finish the day or the week. Experts advise firing at the beginning of the week and never on Fridays.
  • Although it’s optional, try to have a witness. If there’s an HR person in your business, have this person in on the session. If this person has been involved in implementing the “improvement plan” then it won’t be so uncomfortable. Having a witness to what is said is a good idea.

One of the best ways to avoid these situations, is to hire smart and have good job descriptions in place when you bring new employees on board.

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