Legal Reasons to Terminate an Employee

by Ruth Mayhew; Updated September 26, 2017

Terminating employees is often an awkward, uncomfortable task; however, there are several valid--and, legal--reasons to do so. In organizations that have fully-staffed human resources departments, supervisors and managers should seek advice from a human resources expert before discharging an employee. In smaller companies where department managers are solely responsible for hiring and firing, the decision to terminate an employee is one that must be carefully researched. Legal reasons for terminating an employee include insubordination, at-will employment, policy violations and gross misconduct.

Insubordination

Insubordination that rises to the level of direct impact on the department or company is unacceptable. The occasional difference of opinions between a supervisor and employee are inevitable; however, repeated insubordination must be resolved. One way to resolve insubordination is through progressive disciplinary action which includes steps such as verbal warnings, written warnings and termination.

Documentation is extremely important, however. If you are ever required to justify your company's employment practices or give a reason for terminating an employee for insubordination, it will serve you well to have documentation. Documentation includes disciplinary records and supervisor, manager or coworkers' statements. Annual performance reviews also support an employer's decision to terminate an employee for insubordination or other performance-related issues.

Termination of At-Will Employees

With the exception of contractual employment and public sector employment, an employer may terminate an employee based on the at-will employment doctrine. The at-will employment doctrine means an employer can terminate employment for any reason or for no reason, with or without notice, provided the termination is not for discriminatory reasons.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as other laws the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforces, contains what constitutes employment discrimination. State and local laws have similar structure to federal laws that prohibit unfair employment practices. Employment contracts and collective bargaining agreements generally have certain conditions to which an employer must adhere concerning termination.

Policy Violations

Some employers consider policy violations and gross misconduct one in the same; however, there is clear line between the two. Your workplace policies provide guidelines, processes and procedures that are important for your company's seamless operation. Employees need the structure that workplace policies provide.

Terminating an employee for workplace violations is legal--an example of a policy violation would be using drugs or alcohol in the workplace, or accessing inappropriate websites on workplace computers. Documenting employee policy violations is an essential step for basing your termination on a policy violation, however. The employee must have received and have an understanding of the policy. In addition, the policy should be reasonable and justifiable.

Gross Misconduct

Gross misconduct in the workplace is a terminable offense. Employees who engage in gross misconduct are generally fired for posing a threat to the safety of the work force. Workplace violence is considered an act of gross misconduct, for which the consequences should be immediate termination. Provided there are workplace policies that prohibit actions that fall under the definition of gross misconduct, terminating an employee for such actions is legal. You must be able to justify your reasons for termination under these circumstances, therefore, documentation is a key component of termination for reasons related to gross misconduct.

About the Author

Ruth Mayhew has been writing since the mid-1980s, and she has been an HR subject matter expert since 1995. Her work appears in "The Multi-Generational Workforce in the Health Care Industry," and she has been cited in numerous publications, including journals and textbooks that focus on human resources management practices. She holds a Master of Arts in sociology from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Ruth resides in the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.

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