Even during a national pandemic, sometimes you have no choice but to terminate an employee—and sometimes the termination is brought about because of it. As many offices are still making use of remote work set-ups at this time in the ongoing face of COVID-19 terminating an employee can be trickier than ever.
How should you go about the process in this time of heightened legal and emotional sensitivity, especially when face-to-face contact might not be feasible for some time?
Zoom Termination Pitfalls.
Right now there are a lot of employers who have resorted to Zoom or some other virtual format for video conferencing, and generally checking in with employees who are working remotely. This may lead them, having become used to using the platform for all kinds of things, that terminating an employee via Zoom is a good idea. However, that may not be the case.
Firing an employee is never pleasant for anyone involved. But there's a right way and a wrong way. You don't want to do or say anything that may trigger a wrongful termination lawsuit – or worse. And so as easy as these video calls are to set up you should consider something more formal.
Why? Because when you're doing something by Zoom or any other virtual face-time methods, it's unusually easy for the person on the receiving end of the discipline or discharge to be able to download and record the entire session.
Although you may not have anything to hide, it's often not a good thing to have displayed to a jury. How you perceive yourself may not be how you actually come across in a video recording of a discharge. For these reasons, an audio conference call works better right now.
One other thing to keep in mind about terminating remotely: You don't want to put yourself into a situation where technical problems could complicate the meeting. Video might be more susceptible to dropouts and freeze-ups. Keep it simple if you can.
With this in mind, here are some general tips for termination meetings that cannot be conducted face to face but cannot be delayed until such a time as your physical operations are up and running again.
- Schedule the meeting after preparing the termination letter and other related documents like COBRA notices and severance agreements. Be prepared to provide digital copies of these via email immediately, but do not forget to mail hard copies as soon after the meeting as possible and ensure that you register and certify said mail so that you have legal proof it was received. Texts and emails are not good legal proof, as you cannot prove they were received.
- Treat the employee with dignity even if they're being discharged for cause. Making the worker angry may make a bad situation worse and send them into the arms of an employment lawyer.
- Always include at least one additional company representative in the meeting who had no direct involvement in the decision. He or she should ideally be skilled in de-escalation.
- Try to end the meeting on a positive note. For example, offer transition assistance like career counseling if the discharge isn't related to performance, or offer a positive reference.
- Check to make sure you are complying with all state or local laws on last pay. You may be required to pay fired workers immediately for any work already performed, regardless of paycheck due date. Early in the pandemic, many employers gave employees laptops and other gadgets loaded with special software and peripherals so they could work from home. If you're now thinking of letting some of these employees go, don't tell them you will hold a final check hostage until they return this property to you, as this is something that you as a company representative should arrange.
- Make the meeting short and polite and end it promptly. Don't engage in a debate over the underlying discharge reasons and do emphasize that the decision is final.