You are here


11 May, 2016 - 11:25

The termination of an employee is an uncomfortable event for all parties involved. Obviously, the employee losing his or her job will be distraught for many reasons, and in many cases the manager responsible for making the termination decision and the employee have formed a personal relationship during the employee’s tenure, thereby making the manager’s responsibility of “letting someone go” an undesirable one. However, there are ways that a manager can lessen the unpleasantness of the termination process.

There are many factors to take into consideration when terminating an employee. First and foremost, an employer must take into account the nature of the relationship that exists between the organization and the employee in order to assess the legality of the termination. In the United States, approximately 70 per cent of employers and employees maintain an “at will” relationship with one another, that is, an employee may quit their job for any reason, at any time, or an employer may fire an employee for any reason, at any time. The other 30 per cent of the workforce is employed under individual employment contracts or union contracts that specify the “length of an employment relationship, how the relationship can be severed, and how the relationship can be extended” (Kulik, 2004).

An “at will” relationship may give the impression that a termination decision may never be challenged. Indeed, firing an employee “for cause” is made even easier when an “at will” relationship is present. Broadly speaking, an employer can typically fire an employee “for cause” when their behavior falls under the following categories (Falcone, 2002):

  1. Policy and procedure violations
  2. Substandard job performance
  3. Inappropriate workplace conduct
  4. Attendance/tardiness problems

However, there are some instances in which employees can be wrongfully discharged or fired for reasons that are not legitimate, typically either because they are unlawful or because they violate the terms of an employment contract (Lectric Law Library). Some of the illegitimate reasons for terminating employees include, among many others, discrimination and violations of public policy. For a more complete list of illegitimate reasons for terminating employees in the US, visit:

There are several laws that have been enacted in the United States in order to protect employees from unfair termination in the workplace based on discrimination, the most prevalent of which are Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination and Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). Title VII, the broadest of these statutes, protects employees, applicants, and union members from termination and discrimination in the workplace based on race, color, religion, gender, and national origin, regardless of the nature of the employment relationship (at will, union, etc.) (Clarkson, 2004). For instance, if an African American or Muslim individual can prove in a court of law that he or she was fired because of race or religious preferences, that employee is entitled to both compensatory and punitive damages under Title VII. Organizations that employ 100 people or less are liable for USD 50,000 and organizations that employ 100 or more employees are liable for USD 300,000 in punitive and compensatory damages under Title VII (Clarkson, 2004). For more information on Title VII, including the claims process, bona fide occupational qualification defense, and who is protected, visit the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) website at:

According to West’s Business Law, it is quite possible that discrimination based on age is the most widespread form of discrimination, being that anyone, regardless of gender, national origin, etc. may find themselves a victim at some point in their life (Clarkson, 2004). The practice of “laying-off” older employees and hiring younger, less expensive ones in order to cut costs is a common occurrence amongst organizations that operate in the United States. Sec. 621 (Section 2) of the ADEA states, “in the face of rising productivity and affluence, older workers find themselves disadvantaged in their efforts to retain employment, and especially to regain employment when displaced from jobs”. In an effort to promote employment of older persons based on their ability rather than age, Congress enacted the ADEA, which “prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of age against individuals forty years of age or older” (The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). In order for the ADEA to apply to a specific employer (under federal law), that employer must employ twenty or more people, and the employer must engage in interstate commerce.

Should a plaintiff successfully prove that age discrimination has occurred, the remedies under the ADA stipulate that the employee may be awarded back pay, attorney’s fees, liquidated damages (when a willful violation has been proven), front pay (which is designed to compensate the victim for future losses), and injunctive relief (which may include reinstatement). Unlike Title VII, punitive and compensatory damages are not awarded under the ADEA (Clarkson, 2004). To view the ADEA in its entirety, visit the EEOC’s website at:

According to the US Congress, 43,000,000 Americans have one or more mental or physical disabilities. In 1990, Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act, which made it illegal for private employers, state and local governments, employment agencies, labor organizations, and labor-management committees to discriminate against individuals based on a disability (The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). Furthermore, the ADA was specifically enacted in order to “(1) provide a clear and comprehensive mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities, (2) provide clear, strong, consistent, enforceable standards addressing discrimination against individuals with disabilities, (3) to ensure that the Federal Government plays a central role in enforcing the standards established in this Act on behalf of individuals with disabilities, and (4) to invoke the sweep of congressional authority, including the power to enforce the fourteenth amendment and to regulate commerce, in order to address the major areas of discrimination faced day-to-day by people with disabilities” (US Department of Labor).

As of 1994, the ADA is applicable to companies that employ 15 or more employees and prohibits such companies from discriminating based on a disability in all employment practices such as recruitment, pay, hiring, firing, promotion, benefits, etc. For more information on the ADA including remedies under the act and the plaintiff’s burden of proof, visit the US Department of Labor’s website at:

Most states in the US prohibit employers from “firing an employee in violation of public policy, that is, for reasons that most people would find morally or ethically wrong such as terminating an employee for (1) refusing to commit an illegal act such as refusing to falsify insurance claims or lie to government auditors (2) complaining about an employer’s illegal conduct such as the employer’s failure to pay minimum wage, or (3) exercising a legal right such as voting or taking family leave” (

The manner in which an organization terminates an employee can send a powerful message to the organization’s remaining staff (Heathfield, How to Fire an Employee). Managers must be aware that seemingly unfair or harsh terminations may cause some of the organizations best workers to become less effective or seek new employment for fear of the same treatment. In some cases, it is appropriate for managers to engage in progressive discipline before terminating an under performing employee. Progressive discipline is “a process for dealing with job-related behavior that does not meet expected and communicated performance standards. The primary purpose for progressive discipline is to assist the employee to understand that a performance problem or opportunity for improvement exists” (Heathfield, Discipline (Progressive Discipline)). By attempting to assist an employee in fixing any problems that they are experiencing in the workplace before terminating them, the organization communicates a strong commitment to its employees, which can go a long way in regards to retention, turnover, and other areas of concern.

Should the decision be made to move forward with the termination process after all other options have been exhausted, it is important for managers to know how, when, and where to break the news to the employee. Supervising managers should generally be responsible for terminating an employee, and it is generally improper to pass this responsibility off to upper management or to the human resources department. Most managers postpone telling an employee about their termination until the end of the week. However, this may be a grave mistake, as the employee will have the entire weekend to complain about their treatment to their coworkers and friends, thereby tarnishing the reputation of the organization. An alternative is for managers to break the news of termination to employees at the beginning of the week. This will give the employee time to “cool off” and think about their next move before they have the opportunity to socially interact with former coworkers during the weekend (Kulik, 2004).

The termination interview is an important aspect of the exit process. The following are guidelines for the termination interview provided by the experts at Hay Associates as seen in Framework for Human Resource Management.

  • Plan the interview carefully.
    • Make sure the employee keeps the appointment time.
    • Never inform an employee over the phone.
    • Allow 10 minutes as sufficient time for the interview.
    • Use a neutral site, never your own office.
    • Have employee agreements, the human resources file, and a release announcement (internal and external) prepared in advance.
    • Be available at a time after the interview in case questions or problems arise.
    • Have phone numbers ready for medical or security emergencies.
  • Get to the point. As soon as the employee enters the meeting, give the person a moment to get comfortable and then inform him or her of your decision.
  • Describe the situation. Briefly explain why the person is being fired. Remember to describe the situation rather than attack the employee personally.
  • Listen. Continue the interview until the person appears to be talking freely and reasonably calmly about the reasons for termination.
  • Review all elements of the severance package. Describe severance payments, benefits, access to office support people, and the way references will be handled. However, under no conditions should any promises or benefits beyond those already in the support package be implied.
  • Identify the next step. The terminated employee may be disoriented and unsure of what to do next. Explain where the employee should go next, upon leaving the interview.
Note: The above is a brief summary of some of the issues surrounding the termination process in the United States and, due to space constraints, in no way takes into account all of the factors that managers should consider while terminating an employee. Readers are encouraged to explore the outside reference material noted above as well as other literature that will provide more insight into the termination process, as well as consulting with appropriate legal counsel.