Firing employees is never an easy or comfortable undertaking for managers. It requires careful thought and actions to avoid complications and the risk of lawsuits.
Among the difficult firing scenarios, some pose greater challenges than others. Let’s consider five possible situations and how you can navigate them to stay within the limits of the law (while also minimizing discomfort for everyone involved):
- Firing a family member
This scenario can be more emotionally charged because of the family dynamic, but the reality is this: Business is business. If the issue has been addressed — whether it’s a lack of skills, poor performance, a bad attitude or something else — and the individual hasn’t stepped up, the decision to fire is warranted.
Depending on the type of family bond, you can certainly come from a place of caring and concern, but still be clear that the working relationship is ending. In the future, if you continue to hire family members, strive to always separate business matters from family conversations and gatherings.
- Firing a remote worker
The biggest issue here is how to handle the actual firing conversation, since the person isn’t onsite. If possible, arrange a video chat vs. delivering the news via phone or, worst, email. (Obviously, this will be less “suspicious” if you already interact with the worker through video calls). This way, the person can see your face and read your body language, which can go a long way toward conveying sensitivity.
Also, a best practice is to have someone else in the business (IT, for example) remove the worker’s login and company credentials during the firing conversation. This coordination ensures access to company networks and databases is shut off by the time the discussion is complete.
- Firing a tenured employee
Parting ways with a long-time employee is another sensitive situation. From the perspective of the employee, they’ll most likely feel a sense of betrayal — that their years with the company could be so easily dismissed. But again, business is business — and if an employee, whether one year in or 10, isn’t working out, the decision to fire may be necessary.
As it is, the employee’s longevity with the company may cause them to resist change or overestimate their worth, all of which can contribute to a less-than-ideal working relationship. As with any firing scenario, approach the final conversation with respect and sensitivity. And if it’s warranted, stress the fact that you’ll be happy to give a good reference and support the employee in their job search.
- Firing an employee about to retire
Ideally, a long-time employee will be a strong contributor up until retirement. But again, when performance is poor and the impact on the business is obvious, it’s within your rights to terminate, no matter how close to retirement they are.
You do need to be aware of two federal laws that could come into play in this scenario. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) prohibits you from terminating an employee based on age (protecting anyone age 40 or older). And the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) bans you from discharging an employee simply to avoid paying retirement benefits. Be certain the reason for firing is legitimate and performance-based – and doesn’t trigger either of these laws. Then handle the conversation with the same tact as any other firing scenario.
- Firing an employee due to the government ordering the temporary closing of business
If your business is ever forced to close because of a government order or other national emergency, you may feel like you have no choice but to terminate employees. A smarter move, however, is to temporarily lay off employees and provide resources to help them collect unemployment insurance (UI). This information is driven by state and local laws, so it will vary depending on where you operate. Extending healthcare coverage — a vital benefit for most employees — will also depend on state and local legislation and the terms of your employer healthcare plan. Another factor to consider is the federal Worker Adjustment Retraining and Notification (WARN) Act and similar state laws that impose specific time limits and notice requirements for employers with 100 or more full-time employees. A covered employer is typically required to give 60 days’ written notice of a “plant closing” or “mass layoff”, but this may not be necessary if employees are laid off for less than six months in response to a national emergency.
Understand the Basics for Fair, Legal Firings
Although you may encounter different scenarios such as these, it’s important to understand that specific disciplinary measures lay the groundwork for fair and legal firings. Progressive discipline puts the employee on notice of the severity of the problem, as well as the consequences for not correcting it. If the problem persists and terminating the employee becomes necessary, you’ll have proper documentation of the issue and the actions you took to address it.
Build a consistent documentation process with paper or electronic employee discipline and warning forms.