How to avoid wrongful termination lawsuits

Sometimes you have to fire people. It happens within every company. It might be because the employee consistently causes problems, or it might be for financial reasons. Either way, it’s not a comfortable situation to be in. Emotions run high. Losing a job can be a devastating blow to an employee, and if they feel that they were wrongfully fired they could bring charges against your company.

There’s a right way and a wrong way to fire an employee, and leaving someone out in the cold with no given reason is generally not the best way to go. To avoid being on the chopping block of a wrongful termination suit, there are a few things you need to keep in mind and a few employment practices you can implement.

General best practices for a business.

Make sure you have firm company policies in place.

Your company needs to have some ground rules laid out for employees. Your policies should be very clear and promote a safe, healthy work environment. Some of the areas you’ll want to address in your policies are harassment, retaliation, and general expectations for behavior. You also need to have a system in place for performance evaluations, plus a plan for what will be done if someone’s performance isn’t up to scratch. You should also include an overview of what consequences will be faced if the policies are not followed.

Have an employee handbook.

Do not underestimate the importance of this book. It’s crucial. 

Before you start issuing your handbook, you might want to seek out some legal advice to make sure that it’s fair and, well, lawful. The purpose of an employee handbook is to write down all of the policies you created for your business. Your employees can’t follow the rules if they don’t know what they are.

When you issue your handbook, make sure that you have people sign to show that they received their copy. Hold on to the autographs that you collect.

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Some of the expectations you’ll want to include in your employee handbook are:

  • Your policy on family medical leave.
  • Required attire/dress code.
  • Hours for the job.
  • What kind of compensation you offer.
  • Your harassment policy.
  • An employment-at-will statement (stating that either the employee or the employer can terminate employment at any time).

Don’t fight the paperwork.

Keep notes and records of everything. Make sure that your employees’ files are up-to-date and include performance evaluations and reports of any incidents.

It’s important to have detailed files for all employees. You need to show that everyone is held accountable to the same rules.

If you have to discipline someone…

Termination shouldn’t be the go-to answer when an employee doesn’t meet your expectations. If an issue arises, you can take disciplinary action instead. Usually, you can help the employee fix the issue, and this is more beneficial to all involved than a termination.

There are a few things to keep in mind for disciplining employees.

1. Investigate.

You need to look into the suspected issue.

Hold an impartial investigation of the employee’s behavior so that you have the facts.

2. Set a meeting with them.

You need to discuss the issue with the employee so they’re aware that they need to address the problem. Be sure to let them have their say, too—it won’t help if you don’t let them get a word in edgewise.

3. Be upfront about future consequences.

Make sure that the employee is aware of what could happen if they don’t correct the issue. Tell them what the next steps are.

4. Have written records of what you talked about.

The disciplinary action that you’ve taken needs to be written out. Have the employee sign saying that the message has been received. Don’t forget to give them a copy, too.

5. Check in.

If you see improvements, be sure to let the employee know that their efforts haven’t gone unnoticed.

If you reach the decision to terminate the employee…

As with disciplinary action, you need to conduct an investigation before you terminate an employee. Be impartial and stick to the facts. Review the written records of witness reports and statements from the employee. After you’ve done your due diligence, you can make an informed decision about firing the employee.

When you are faced with having to terminate someone, there are a few things you need to do before you set the meeting:

  • Gather any relevant paperwork.
  • If you have any security concerns, make sure that you address them in an inconspicuous way (having burly security guards standing in the corner probably won’t help anything.)
  • Choose your location wisely—you don’t want to hold the meeting in a place that’s intimidating.
  • Don’t go it alone. Make sure you’ve got an HR rep at your meeting.

During the meeting, make sure that you give a very clear explanation for terminating the employee. If you’re firing the employee on the grounds of their performance, you’ve got to be sure that everyone in your company is being held to the same standards. If the employee can show that others who committed the same offense weren’t penalized, it could be a strike against you. If the reason for termination is financial, make sure the employee understands why they are being let go.

Your tone and attitude also make a difference. Show the employee respect. Be polite. Don’t embarrass or shame them.

After the meeting, make sure that the employee hasn’t become a source of ridicule around the office. Malicious social media postings from anyone within your company could open you up to liability, so be sure that no one is trash-talking the employee who has been fired. It could come back to bite you. You also want to make sure that you’re not doing anything to hurt the employee’s chances of employment elsewhere—if someone calls for a reference check, kindly divert the request to HR.

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Firing people is not fun. It’s awkward and uncomfortable to tell someone that you’ve decided to end their employment with your company. To avoid a major wrongful termination lawsuit, make sure that you’ve got the right policies in place to handle firing someone or letting someone go. Do the job right.

Employment practices liability insurance can help you if you’re faced with a wrongful termination lawsuit. EPLI would cover the legal costs of such a debacle. If you’re interested in learning more about EPLI, contact us today! We can even get you a free quote.