Whether your company is a large manufacturer corporation in San Jose or a small service partnership in Los Gatos, you will eventually be forced to deal with terminating an employee. Terminations can be especially daunting because they are one of the most common reasons companies are sued. Therefore, whenever possible, it is important to plan and prepare for a termination before actually firing the employee.
I recently helped an LLC in Santa Clara set up a progressive discipline plan for their company in order to set up systems to assist management and employees before someone gets to the termination stage. Before an employee is fired, many companies use a form of progressive discipline when dealing with employee problems. Under progressive discipline an employee receives greater disciplinary measures when employment continues to be unsatisfactory. It is imperative that all disciplinary actions are documented in writing. If a system of progressive discipline is used, all managers should be trained on that system. If managers are not properly trained, a disgruntled employee may have a stronger claim for wrongful discharge than if the system had not been used at all. Whether a system of progressive discipline is used or not, it is critical that all disciplinary actions be documented.
If a termination is inevitable, you should have a plan in place before firing an employee. However, there are times when you must fire an employee immediately, without any prior planning, because he has done something that poses a threat to other employees, your company or your clients. Prior to termination, you should review any termination procedures in the employee handbook, to the extent they exist, to ensure that your company is following its own procedures. If you are worried about an employee making a claim against the company upon termination and you want to request the employee release the company from all claims, you should contact an attorney to assist you in preparing a severance agreement.
On termination, you must provide the former employee with the final paycheck including any accrued but unused PTO or vacation pay, a change of status notice, and the EDD pamphlet "For Your Benefit, California's Programs for the Unemployed." If the employee is a shareholder or option holder, you should review all applicable documents prior to the termination for notices or deadlines related to termination of employment. However, do not give the employee legal or tax advice regarding those documents or their rights.
When conducting a termination, conduct it in a neutral, private place such as a conference room. Have the final paycheck and change of status notice ready for the meeting. If you are offering a severance agreement, have that agreement prepared as well. Many employees will not sign the severance agreement immediately so be sure to give them the allotted time in the agreement to sign it and don't give the employee any severance payments until the severance agreement has been signed, or 8 days later if the employee is over 40 and therefore subject to age discrimination rules.
You should always have two managers present during a firing. During the meeting, tell the employee within the first few minutes that he is being fired and tell the employee why he is being terminated. Although you do not need a reason to fire an at-will employee, you may not do so for the wrong reason (e.g. discrimination), so be careful in what you say. Also, if you say the termination is a result of restructuring, but the reason is really poor performance, the inconsistency may be used against you if the company is sued. Do not argue with the employee and do not be so complimentary that the employee wonders why he is being terminated. You are not required to give employees a written reason for termination. However, if you decide to, be sure that your legal counsel reviews those reasons. Avoid any reference to anything that could be considered evidence of discrimination, especially if you are terminating someone who is in a protected class. Always be courteous to the employee. You should also explain any benefits, such as COBRA, that the employee may receive. Have someone take notes during and after the termination to document the process and what was said at the meeting. Lastly, you should remind the employee of any continuing obligations to the company, such as confidentiality.
Once an employee has been terminated, be sure to get any company keys, cell phone or laptop that the employee had. Also be sure to change phone codes, computer passwords, alarm codes or other passwords that the employee may have had access to.