Before I even begin this post, let me advance the disclaimer right off the bat: Despite the title of this post, there is no sure-fire way to fire an employee without getting sued.
Indeed, the title is a bit of a misnomer. It’s often been paraphrased that anyone can sue anyone else for anything at any time in any court. While that’s not quite true, it’s not that far off the mark either.
There ARE, however, ways to fire an employee that can reduce or, in some ways, eliminate the likelihood of being sued.
In fact, I had been working on a draft of this post for sometime thinking of how I could help others make the process of firing a bit more humane. I’ve had many discussions with clients over the years about how firing an employee is one of the toughest things that they’ve had to do as a “boss”.
Yes, firing is part of the job, but I’ve yet to meet an employer that has enjoyed it. Inevitably, there is a sigh of relief when the termination meeting is over.
(And to be sure, the impact on the employee is almost always worse. There are few things worse in life than being fired, even if it ends up leading to good things later.)
Of course, before I could finish my draft post, Jon Hyman alerted me to an excellent post by the Harvard Business Review entitled “A Step-by-Step Guide to Firing Someone.”
It’s really well done and I encourage you to read that first before finishing this post up.
Among the overall tips:
- Start by creating a transition plan
- Take the termination meeting itself step-by-step
- Avoid misdirected compassion
The discussion in the article about the termination meeting itself is particularly insightful.
Here are three more things to think about too:
- Ask yourself: “Is the Termination Decision Fair?” Sometimes, I rephrase this question into the following: “If you were telling your neighbor about the firing, what would he or she think about it?” But it all comes done to the same point: Would a third person (or a jury) think the process you used to fire an employee was a fair and just decision?
For performance-related terminations, you may look to whether the employee had been put on notice that his or her performance was faulty and given an opportunity to improve.
For reorganizations or reductions-in-force, ask whether the process you are using to select employees (whether it’s seniority, overall performance, or other legitimate factors) is explainable and non-discriminatory.
- Consider A Separation Agreement: When I first started practicing law, separation agreements were the exception. Now they are the rule.
If you’re firing someone and you want to avoid being sued, consider a separation agreement where you offer some severance in exchange for a release. Of course, I’ve been talking about this since way back in 2008 – so this isn’t something new. But do yourself a favor: Use an agreement that complies with the law.
- Know the Difference Between “It’s Legal” and “It’s a Good Idea”: Over the years, I’ve had more clients ask me whether a proposed firing was “legal”. But as I’ve said in the past, just because something is “legal” doesn’t mean it is a good idea. For example, it may be “legal” to fire an employee by e-mail, but it may result in hurt feelings and the idea by the employee that the employer doesn’t value the employee as a human being.
So, when you’re seeking legal advice on a termination, be sure you’re asking the right questions and getting the best advice from your counselor about the termination itself.
There are, of course, many more aspects to a firing than just this. But if you follow a few of these items, it can help reduce the risk of a lawsuit.