The Danger in Hiding Behind Your ‘At-Will’ Status During a Termination Meeting

July 30, 2014

In my experience, pointing to your at-will status as your reason for letting someone go is rarely the best option.  It leaves the ex-employee confused and searching for answers.  So, while you may have let your employee go for a legitimate (and legal) reason, by not stating this during the termination you create a situation where their imagination is free to wander.  The reasons she comes up with on her own may be much worse and result in the kind of legal headaches you are hoping to avoid.  Perhaps she believes that the reason you fired her is because she was your only employee over 40 years of age (age discrimination claim) or because she had recently complained about her pay (NLRA claim).

It turns into a no-win situation.  If called into court on such a claim you will have to tell a judge and jury why you did what you did.  In my opinion it is best to just do this up front when you let the employee go.  Even though the employee may not agree with you, at least you are giving them something to grab ahold of.  The more documentation you can provide during the termination meeting to support your decision, the better off you will be.  In a perfect world, no employee would ever be surprised by a decision to terminate.  They would have been given ample feedback regarding areas of concern (performance, behavior and/or adherence to work rules), ongoing coaching/training to make the necessary changes and reasonable time to show improvement.  However, you and I both know that not every employer puts forth this kind of effort to salvage the employment relationship.

So before you resort to termination, I encourage you to do a gut-check.  Have you given this employee every opportunity to be successful?  Have you put in the time and effort to help turn a negative into a positive?  If not, then perhaps that is where you should start.  If you do all of these things and the situation does not improve, then you will have enough documentation to support your termination decision and will not need to hide behind your at-will status.    

Contributed by Jodi Schafer (SPHR), Owner of Human Resource Management Services, LLC.