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Firing an employee for violating company rules


If you manage people long enough, there’s a good chance you’ll have to make a difficult employment decision because an employee breaks a company rule.

Since you may be put on the spot and need to take immediate action, it’s a good idea to be prepared for the inevitable.

4 things you should do right now

Wrongful termination suits are becoming more common every year. In the event the employee files a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), you want to have all of your ducks in a row.

1. Be consistent

Consider recent precedents in similar situations. People should be treated the same regardless of race, gender, age, disability or national origin.

2. Make sure everyone’s on the same page

Be sure you have a best-practices employee handbook outlining rules of conduct and disciplinary procedures. Employees should sign an acknowledgement form when they come on board and whenever a significant policy is revised.

The handbook should spell out your company’s progressive discipline procedure. Many companies follow a format of verbal warning(s), written warning, final warning and termination.

3. Document everything 

Record the facts of what happened, including date, details of incident and what actions were taken. Keep emotion out of it. Maintain a written record, which can be as simple as sending yourself an email that you put into the employee’s electronic file, or a handwritten and dated note in a physical file.

While it may be time consuming to document an incident, it’s well worth it. The last thing you want is to get to the end of your rope with an employee but not have the supporting documentation for termination.

In cases of progressive discipline, record all written and final warnings. Be sure the employee signs the completed form or report. If an employee refuses to sign it, ask the employee to note that he refused to sign it. This way you have documentation showing the employee received a copy.

4. Be a Boy Scout 

Be prepared. Have a plan in place before you need it for what you will do if an employee needs to be terminated immediately.

 If you don’t have a security person in the building, it might be a good idea to contract with a service you can call if you need assistance – especially when terminating an employee you suspect may become violent.

3 levels of action

When an employee breaks a company rule, your actions should depend on the severity of the infraction and the particular situation.

1. Proceed with the normal disciplinary process

This step is appropriate when the rule is minor and performance-based, such as violating attendance, dress code or work duty rules.

2. Place the alleged bad actor on administrative leave and investigate

In some cases, such as suspected theft or alleged harassment, you may need to place the employee on administrative leave with pay until you’re able to uncover the whole story.

That conversation might go something like this: “We are looking into a complaint regarding the use of company property (or other problem). In order to investigate, we’re going to ask you to stay home and not perform work until we get more information. We’ll continue paying you while we investigate.”

When there are allegations of blatant harassment, or actual or threatened violence or physical contact – but you did not witness the event – you should interview both employees separately as soon as possible.

In certain circumstances, you may need to place both employees on paid administrative leave until cooler heads prevail and you’re able interview them.

Without provoking the alleged offender, you might say, “In order for us to conduct a complete investigation, please leave the premises and refrain from working until you receive a call from us.” The last thing you want is for the accused to become violent in the workplace.

3. Terminate immediately 

If you witness the incident, the perpetrator admits wrongdoing or both employees acted inappropriately, you’ll need to terminate one or both of them immediately.
Use these steps to avoid a potentially hot-tempered situation:

  • Call the person into your office. Try to be logical and keep emotion out of it. You might say: “This meeting is to address events that happened today between you and (the other person). As you know, we have a zero tolerance policy for violence in the workplace. Several individuals witnessed you threatening to harm another employee. Due to this, we’re ending your employment immediately.”
  • It’s a good idea to have another person in the meeting.
  • Be sure all network access is cut off before the terminated employee leaves the building. Take all company laptops, cell phones, etc.
  • Ask the employee what personal items they need immediately from their desk, and send another employee to bring those items into your office. Tell the terminated employee you will send any other personal items to their home. Do not let them go back to their desk or use the computer.
  • If the employee has company property, such as electronic devices, at home, tell him you need those back within 24 hours. If you don’t want the employee to return to the premises, send a courier to his home to retrieve the items.
  • Someone should escort the terminated employee out of the building and watch until the employee is off the property. In certain cases, you may want to have a security guard in close proximity to the termination meeting. If the employee becomes belligerent or violent, you may need the security guard‘s assistance.
  • In some situations, you may decide for safety reasons that it is best to terminate an employee over the phone.

Find out more about your rights and responsibilities as an employer. Download our free e-book, Employment Law: Are You Putting Your Business at Risk?