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When You can Legally Fire Employees

When can you legally fire employees? This isn't an easy question to answer, as laws and cases have become increasingly protective of employees. Although the "at will" doctrine is still prevalent in many states (meaning that you can freely fire an employee at any time), there are many exceptions. And, employees are increasingly suing managers and companies for "wrongful terminations," harassment, discrimination and other reasons.

Employment lawsuits can be nasty and expensive, and they can generate awful publicity for your company. Juries tend to be particularly partial to terminated employees.

So when can you legally fire an employee? Here is a list of some reasons that should generally stand up:

  • Consistent incompetence. If an employee just isn't able to do a competent job, and you have given the employee a reasonable opportunity to succeed, then termination will often be seen as appropriate.
  • Violation of a company policy. If you have established clear, legal and consistent policies, and the employee clearly has violated them in a meaningful way, then termination is appropriate. Violation of anti-harassment, discrimination or confidentiality policies are particularly actionable.
  • Repeated unexcused absenteeism or tardiness. Your company depends on its employees to show up for work and perform their jobs. Continual absence or tardiness jeopardizes the ability of an employee to complete important tasks. If absenteeism or tardiness is continual and unexcused, then termination may be justified.
  • Physical violence. If an employee commits or threatens physical violence, you will want to fire the person immediately. All employees are entitled to a safe work environment, and employers have a duty to take reasonable steps to provide for that.
  • Drugs and alcohol. Depending on the circumstances, being under the influence at the office may be grounds for immediate suspension or termination. Some companies now offer treatment and rehabilitation counseling as an alternative to immediate firing.
  • Illegal acts. If you find the employee committing illegal acts, such as theft or embezzlement, immediate termination is justified. Before you fire the accused employee, however, make sure you know all of the facts and have gotten the employee's side of the story.
  • Falsified information. Sometimes employees lie on their employment applications or resumes (they list fake degrees or jobs they've never held.) When you discover this, and the falsification appears deliberate and material, termination of the employee is usually warranted.

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