Valid Reasons to Fire an Employee

by Ruth Mayhew; Updated September 26, 2017

A manager's job includes the uncomfortable responsibility of sometimes firing an employee. Ending an employee's livelihood is difficult and stressful, yet necessary in some cases. There are times when there's no alternative to terminating an employee. If you need to do so, conduct research to establish that your reasons are valid. Some valid reasons for terminating an employee include gross misconduct, policy violation, poor performance or employee misrepresentation.

At-Will Employment Doctrine

At-will employment means the employer can terminate an employee for any reason -- or for no reason -- provided the basis for the termination is not discriminatory. Your employee handbook should contain a statement about at-will employment, and any contracts should specify employment agreements that override the at-will employment doctrine.

With the exception of circumstances in some states and special provisions for public sector employment, any U.S. employer can terminate an employee pursuant to the at-will employment doctrine. It bears repeating that firing an employee using the at-will doctrine must be for non-discriminatory reasons, however.

Gross Misconduct

Employee handbooks generally provide the organization's definition of what constitutes gross misconduct. An example of gross misconduct includes a willful and intentional act that poses a threat to the safety of the employee and others in the workplace, such as workplace violence. Nonetheless, human resources is responsible for determining if the gross misconduct is intentional. In addition, there must be documentation or witness testimony confirming the incident. Whenever the facts clearly indicate an employee is responsible for putting the work force in danger, this is a valid reason for employee termination.

Policy Violation

Employee handbooks also contain workplace policies that define which actions are considered terminable offenses, such as insubordination, on-premises drug and alcohol use, and accessing prohibited Internet websites. Employers should review employee handbooks at regular intervals to ensure they enforce these policies consistently, and to determine appropriate actions for policy violations. Employees who violate workplace policies are generally thought to be disrespectful of the workplace rules and are, therefore, asked to leave the company. Termination for policy violations is similar to termination for gross misconduct, because there must be documentation to support the manager's decision to terminate.

Poor Performance

A performance management system typically consists of regularly scheduled performance appraisals or employee evaluations. In the event your company doesn't conduct formal appraisals, continuous feedback about employee performance is a supervisory function. In either scenario, documentation is an absolute requirement.

Employees whose performance fails to meet employer expectations receive counseling, guidance or performance improvement plans designed to improve their work skills. However, these measures aren't always effective. Provided there exists documentation that describes repeated efforts to improve the employee's performance, discharging a low-performing employee is a valid reason for termination. In this case, an employer must be able to provide documentation that supports the termination.

Employee Misrepresentation

Nearly all employment applications contain a disclaimer stating the consequences for falsifying employment qualifications. The consequences for falsification of documents and qualifications is usually immediate termination. This is why you must design a selection process that prevents poor hiring decisions, through conducting extensive interviews and background investigations. However, employee misrepresentation may not come to light until after the employee is on your payroll.

When this happens, investigate the misrepresentation. Meet with the employee to discuss discrepancies between statements on the application, and your proof the employee misrepresented himself. Absent a plausible reason for the discrepancies, this is another valid reason for termination.

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.