Handling Employee Termination Effectively
Every successful business needs to be able to let go underperforming or problem employees. It is a harsh, but necessary reality of the business world. The question even our experienced business clients ask is a simple one. If I’m an Oregon business, how do I fire an employee who is no longer working out?
Oregon and Washington courts, like most, recognize the fundamental principle of our free market system that employers need to be able to staff their businesses how they see fit. Oregon and Washington are both “at-will” employment states. That means that a Portland employer, for example, can terminate an employee for any reason or no reason at all.
What Does Employment ‘At Will’ Mean In Practice?
Simple, right? If someone needs to be shown the door, he or she can be fired “at will.” Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The fundamental “at-will” employment principle is modified by several limitations on an employer’s ability to terminate employees.
The at-will employment doctrine often doesn’t apply at all if the employee has a formal employment contract with the employer. In that scenario, the employer must follow the procedures provided for in the contract to terminate the employee. Sometimes those contracts provide limitations on the circumstances under which an employee may be fired or particular notice or grievance procedures that must be followed before a termination is complete.
Without an employment contract, the employer cannot fire the employee for a discriminatory or retaliatory purpose. Employees who blow the whistle on illegal company activities are also protected from discharge. The employer is also limited by a doctrine known as wrongful discharge in violation of public policy. An employee cannot be fired for fulfilling an important societal obligation like jury duty or other similar activities. Finally, there are several statutes, like the Family and Medical Leave Act, that curtail the right of an employer to fire an employee.
What Steps Should You Take Before Firing Someone?
In general, it is a good and safe business practice to fire employees for legitimate business reasons. This doesn’t mean an employee needs to be stealing from the till to be fired. Bad attitudes, poor work ethic and the like can be just as much of a drag on business as more blatantly inappropriate activities.
When you decide to fire someone, make sure that the performance history has been documented, have all decision-makers at the table, and be prepared to enforce post-employment obligations like noncompetes and trade secret restrictions.
Thinking through your terminations, even when they are more than called for, is the safest and best practice. If there is any question as to whether any of the limitations to the “at-will” employment doctrine might apply, contact a Portland employment lawyer who handles employer-employee termination disputes.