Firing At-Will Employees

By Guest Blogger Eric Swenson, Managing Director of RSJ/Swenson, an HR and Management Consulting firm with offices in Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

When the phone rings at an HR consulting company late on a Friday afternoon, it’s usually not good news.

A former client – the principal of a professional services firm in Henderson – was clearly exasperated.

“I want to fire my assistant right now.  She’s been late 11 times this month.  Is it OK to fire her?”

“Let’s back up.  Have you talked to her about this?”

“No.  I’ve let it go, but this is getting ridiculous.”

As an at-will employer, you have the right to fire an employee at any time, for any reason – as long as it is not illegal or discriminatory.  But the burden of that proof is on you – the employer.

So we always recommend that when an employee comes in late, you begin by talking to the employee, and if the behavior continues, issuing a written warning.  By building a file, you’re proving that the discipline or termination is based on a business decision, not a discriminatory reason.

Another benefit of addressing the issue quickly is it might correct the behavior, or you might find out there are other problems (such as medical issue).  If an employee is aware you’re displeased, then the eventual termination is less of a shock and more expected, diminishing the chances of unpleasantness (or a lawsuit) later.

A fundamental maxim of management is this:  What you allow, you encourage.  Address improper behavior immediately.  Don’t let it go too far.

I’ve worked with many managers and business owners who regret taking too long to fire a poor employee.

Very few regret firing them too soon.