Over the course of my career in Human Resources, I have had the displeasure of terminating the employment of a number of employees. In other words: I have fired people. I have processed what is known as a Reduction-in-Force (RIF); conducted a group lay-off and have ended the employment of individuals who knowingly broke a policy or acted in such an egregious manner they had started to pack up their offices before I had ever walked in the room. While these types of terminations are a bit more obvious; on occasion, there have been terminations that were not quite as black and white.
Recently, I was involved in a termination discussion involving an employee (hereafter known as “employee X”) who had allegedly verbally harassed a co-worker (hereafter known as “employee Y”) on multiple occasions. Knowing that employee X had already been counseled on multiple occasions regarding their aggressive tone and short-temper, the initial request from that of employee X’s Manager was to proceed with terminating his employment effective immediately. However; as the HR Director, it was now my obligation to remind the Manager that things are not always as they seem. Before allowing a Manager to rush to judgment, I encourage them to consider the following questions:
6 Questions to Consider Before You Terminate an Employee:
1. Is there a history of prior disciplinary action or counseling for employee X?
· Has employee X been put on notice of the unacceptable conduct or performance, and told what they must do to improve?
2. Are there performance evaluations on file that support or contradict the current position that their performance and conduct have not been acceptable?
· Has the company terminated the employment of other employees who engaged in similar behavior? If not, why not?
3. Is employee X considered a protected class as defined by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964?
· Has employee X made any complaints about being treated unfairly in the workplace or brought medical issues to attention of Human Resources or their Manager?
4. Have we spoken to employee X and obtained their version of the events in question?
· (Special Note: It is highly recommended that employers obtain this information before making the final decision to terminate employment.)
5. Were there any witnesses to the interaction between employee X and employee Y?
· If so, and employee X has not otherwise admitted to the behavior; have the witnesses been interviewed?
6. How has employee X created an uncomfortable work environment not just for employee Y, but others at within the company as well?
· Has employee X been counseled already about such conduct?
· (Special Note: The term “hostile work environment” has a specific legal meaning under Title VII, so it’s best not to label conduct that way – particularly in writing – since the factors for determining what constitute an unlawful hostile work environment are so varied and fact specific.)
While it is always recommended that human resources work as expeditiously as possible to conduct an investigation, the reality is that obtaining thorough answers to all of the questions listed above can take time. At the same time, we want to encourage a safe and productive environment for employee Y and others who may or may not have had similar interactions with employee X. In these cases, a temporary suspension may also be warranted.
With temporary suspensions, the question of paid or unpaid almost always comes up. As with all human resources related decisions, it is important to remember to act consistently and fairly regardless of circumstance. The first option is to allow for the employee to be fully paid while on suspension. Knowing that they (the employee) will not have a loss of income due to the suspension can reduce the chances of the employee becoming significantly argumentative or, even worse, potentially filing a lawsuit. The other option would be to designate the suspension as unpaid until the investigation is completed. Using the example above, if the investigation results in evidence that employee X engaged in misconduct, then employee X is not paid for the duration of his suspension. If the investigation results in evidence that the incident was not as originally presented or, as in some cases, completely false, then the company would retroactively pay employee X for any missed time.
I am often told by friends that they do not envy my job when they hear that I had to let someone go, or conduct a mass layoff. The most frequent questions I hear are “Don’t you feel badly?”; “Did they get really mad?” and “How do you do it when you know they have family members at home who depend on them?” While the answer to the second question varies, the answer to the first question is almost always a resounding YES! I have never and will never enjoy delivering the news of the decision to terminate employment, warranted or not. With that said, I rest easier at night knowing I have done so in both an objective and legal manner. In the end, terminating someone’s employment is part of my job; a job for which I am very passionate. For me, this passion stems from the knowledge that I can use what I learned from this experience to help other employees avoid the same fate.