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Can You Terminate An Employee Over the Phone?

February 13, 2017

Written by Complete Payroll

can a job fire you over the phone

When dealing with the task of firing an employee, there are certain things to be mindful of to ensure both sensitivity and legality. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans are now working remotely, making it logistically challenging to terminate employees in person. As a result, best practices must be adjusted accordingly to accommodate these changes in the workplace.

So the question is: Is it okay to terminate an employee over the phone or through video conference software?

From a legal standpoint, yes. Unless your employment contract specifically states how an employee will be terminated, it’s perfectly legal to terminate an employee like this. But from a company culture standpoint, you may want to consider your other options.


Why you shouldn’t terminate an employee over the phone or in a video conference

While it’s legal (and, let’s face it, easier on a lot of levels), terminating an employee on the phone or in a Zoom call is fraught with issues. Those issues include:


1. It can violate professional norms

Workplace culture can vary wildly from business to business, or even from team to team, but some things are fairly universal. One is the understanding that difficult conversations should generally take place in person. If you develop a reputation as “That manager who fires people over the phone instead of facing them in person,” you may find yourself with trouble attracting top talent or building solid networking relationships in your field.

2. You lose the power of nonverbal cues

While the old saying that 93% of communication is nonverbal has been debunked, it’s still pretty helpful in getting your point across. It’s harder to show compassion over the phone or through a webcam, and that doesn’t account for the basic misunderstandings that occur because of a poor-quality connection.

3. Important paperwork will be delayed

Terminating an employee requires a lot of necessary paperwork to include in the employee’s record. Dealing with termination in person means you can set out any required paperwork and ensure it is signed before moving forward. Terminating someone virtually usually means that you’re either relying on them to sign whatever’s necessary (which they’ll undoubtedly do on their own schedule), deputizing someone else to make sure they sign it, or putting off paperwork until you see the employee again.

Does virtual termination ever make sense?

While it isn’t necessarily best practice, using other means to terminate an employee may make more sense in the following scenarios:


1. They are a remote employee

If this person works in another office or from home somewhere close enough to an office that they can come in for a meeting, it’s still best to talk in person. But if they are truly remote and all your communication with them tends to be through a phone or screen, talking over the phone might be the best option. Consider having a video call if that’s something you’re set up for.


2. The situation can’t wait for a face-to-face meeting

In general, it’s always best to have this conversation in person. But if it turns out that the terminating offense is so egregious that you cannot in good conscience allow them to come back into the office (either because it would put employees in danger or because it would cause damage to your business's reputation to be associated with them), by all means, fire them by phone or video conference. The same goes for an employee that leaves right after doing something that would be grounds for immediate termination. You don’t need to wait for someone to come back to work just so you can terminate them.


3. The employee is unable to meet you in person

This situation may come up from time to time. The employee in question could be abroad, incarcerated, or otherwise incapable of meeting with you face to face. 


4. The employee has stopped reporting

If an employee has simply stopped showing up, it’s worth calling their emergency contact to make sure they’re okay. But if you’ve determined that they’ve dumped you and not landed in the hospital, it’s fair to leave a voice message to let them know there’s no job waiting for them should they ever decide to return.


5. The employee is on leave. 

If an employee is on approved leave, things can get a little trickier because there are strict rules about when you can terminate an employee who is on leave. But if the decision to terminate the employee was already made before they went on leave AND you have the documentation to back this up, then terminating them over the phone is a valid option.

Terminations are never fun.

Nobody likes terminating employees, but doing it in person is generally the right thing, even if that’s challenging at times. If you're expecting to have to terminate an employee, Complete Payroll has the resources needed to help. Download our free New York State Employee Termination Kit to help you through.

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For more information and insights into the laws, best practices, and complexities around terminating employees, check out our resource page, A Complete Guide to Employee Terminations. It's an all-in-one page that includes thorough insights, instructions, and plenty of links to other helpful resources.

Additionally, here are some other articles that focus on the difficult subject of terminating employees:

DISCLAIMER: The information provided herein does not constitute the provision of legal advice, tax advice, accounting services or professional consulting of any kind. The information provided herein should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional legal, tax, accounting, or other professional advisers. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should consult a professional adviser who has been provided with all pertinent facts relevant to your particular situation and for your particular state(s) of operation.

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