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Updated Jan 30, 2024

How to Terminate an Employee Remotely

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Jane Genova, Contributing Writer

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Terminating employees remotely is becoming more common as remote work increases. Like any termination, the process isn’t easy. To protect your business from legal backlash, thoroughly considering the process and understanding remote termination best practices are critical.

The process of terminating a remote employee involves thorough preparation, a well-conducted termination meeting and a post-termination follow-up. 

TipTip

You’ll use many of the same best practices listed here when you must communicate layoffs to a remote workforce.

How to prepare for a remote employee termination

Once you’ve decided to fire a remote worker, you must thoroughly prepare for the termination process and its aftermath. Here are some essential steps to take.

1. Ensure the termination is legally sound. 

Theoretically, with at-will employment, you can fire an employee at any time. However, the process is more nuanced. To avoid a wrongful termination lawsuit, work with your human resources department and legal team to ensure all the proper steps are being followed.

Consider the following legal issues you and your team must thoroughly research:

  • State laws: Your state might not permit termination at will, or it may require prior warning or severance pay. Or you may live in a state that requires a Covenant of Good Faith – that is, the firing decision must demonstrate just cause, not malice. Additionally, New York, California, Colorado, North Dakota and Louisiana passed laws barring firing for what employees do when they’re off duty (as long as it’s legal). Some situations are clear-cut; others can be tricky.
  • Special protections: Does the employee have special protections to consider? For example, do they have a disability they say you haven’t accommodated?
  • Proper documentation: Ensure you have legally sound documentation related to the termination. For example, do you have all disciplinary action procedures and remediation attempts documented?
  • Benefits owed: What compensation must be paid to the employee? Will they be eligible for unemployment insurance?
  • Job security issues: Is there a written, oral or implied job-security employment contract? For example, a supervisor might have said an employee has a job as long as they “arrive on time.” Or the “job security” wording in the employee manual is unclear and open to interpretation. The courts may interpret these circumstances in favor of the terminated employee.
  • Union issues: Is the employee a union member, and are there issues you must address before termination?
  • Public policy protections: What are your state’s public policy protections? They can include prohibiting firing based on discrimination, whistleblowing, filing workers’ compensation claims or refusing to engage in the company’s request to perform an illegal activity.
  • Issues about working conditions: The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 bans firings because employees participated in concerted (more than one) activities to improve working conditions. 

Do your due diligence to ensure you’re on solid legal footing when terminating an employee, whether remotely or in person.

2. Determine when to shut down the employee’s tech access.

Work with your IT department to schedule a day and time to shut down the employee’s online access to applications and accounts, including their email, Microsoft 365 or Google Workspace account, and other remote work tools. Ensure your IT or administrative team is ready to remove the person’s profile from your business website, and sever all official online ties between your company and the employee.

3. Decide who will be present for the actual firing.

You’ll need to appoint a spokesperson for the remote meeting in which you’ll fire the employee. Typically, the employee’s direct supervisor is the most appropriate spokesperson. You must also decide who else will attend the meeting. For example, you should include an HR rep and perhaps a lawyer to ensure HR compliance

Having more than one person at the termination meeting is a good idea for a few reasons. First, you’ll send the message that firing the employee was a collective decision. Additionally, you’ll have witnesses who can attest to the termination’s processes and procedures. 

4. Start drafting your official termination letter.

Your termination letter should explicitly state that the employee is being terminated and outline any compensation or employee benefits they may receive. It must convey that the decision is irreversible.

This letter is a critical document for several reasons:

  • Its tone and content reinforce the message that the employment relationship is over. 
  • It can become evidence in litigation. 
  • If written incorrectly, the terminated employee can post excerpts out of context on social networks, damaging your company’s reputation.

You must word your termination letter carefully, depending on why you’re terminating the employee (see below). For example, stating a specific cause for the termination, such as absenteeism, can cause the employee to become defensive and potentially issue public statements about unfairness. Additionally, avoid citing employee performance reviews to support your decision to terminate the employee. 

Instead, it’s usually best to keep things general and vague unless there was a clear breach of the employee’s contract. For example, you can say, “Terminating employment is in the best interest of the business.” This statement is authentic, diplomatic and succinct. It spares you and the employee from engaging in a drawn-out and potentially exasperating conversation that might spread to your other employees or social media.

Key TakeawayKey takeaway

You should also draft a separate termination of benefits letter to explain precisely which benefits an employee is losing.

5. Finalize your termination letter script. 

For legal and logistical reasons, your termination letter must follow a set script; you’ll also need to prepare stock responses to what the employee might say. 

Your termination letter script will differ depending on the circumstances under which you’re terminating the employee: 

Termination-for-cause script

A termination-for-cause script should outline the specific cause leading to the termination. This cause will be tied to the employee’s original employment contract, which specifies what can and can’t be done within the scope of the job. In this instance, the script should identify how the employee violated the contract.

Termination-at-will script

A termination-at-will script does not require citing a specific cause. It may be prudent to explain the reasoning for termination, but this is fundamentally different from highlighting a breach of contract.

It is also important to note that termination at will is legal only in specific states. States that do not have at-will employment can create legal barriers to termination that you must address in the script.

6. Decide how you’ll share the news of the termination. 

Depending on the individual and their role in your company, you may need to issue an internal statement to your team. Avoid getting into specifics about why you fired the employee. Instead, let your staff know the individual no longer works for the business and that you appreciate their contributions. 

You may want to schedule follow-up virtual meetings with those who worked closely with the departed employee to discuss project reassignments and other issues. 

7. Gather all the materials necessary for the remote termination.

Have the following documents, materials and information ready to share with the employee you’re terminating: 

  • COBRA packets: Employees with health insurance are entitled to continue coverage after termination via COBRA, a federal law that provides a safety net for health insurance coverage. Have the necessary information about COBRA insurance ready for the employee. 
  • Company property checklist: You must note what devices and property belong to the company and what belongs to the individual. A company property checklist will prevent confusion and resolve disputes. You may have already included this checklist in your employee handbook, and you can also cite it in your termination letter.
  • Severance pay: Not all terminations merit severance pay. However, when appropriate, you should be ready to process severance immediately or following the terms of the employment contract.
  • Formal acknowledgment of termination: Typically, an employee will sign a form acknowledging the end of employment and the fulfillment of all related contracts. When termination occurs remotely, a digital form of this acknowledgment is necessary.

How to conduct the remote termination

After thoroughly preparing for the remote termination, you must conduct the remote termination meeting. Here are some best practices for conducting the online termination meeting: 

  • Set the right atmosphere. To create a professional atmosphere, ensure there’s proper lighting for each speaker and that everyone is dressed in professional attire.  
  • Deliver your message with empathy. Terminating someone’s employment calls for empathy, even if you’re letting them go for good reasons. It’s easy to communicate empathy and emotion in in-person meetings. However, remote meetings are much less personal. To ensure you deliver your message with empathy, strive to create a serious yet caring and respectful atmosphere. Instruct everyone involved in the termination meeting to emphasize neutral body language and hand gestures and use appropriate facial expressions to convey empathy.
  • Strike the right conversational tone. Importantly, strike the right conversational tone by instructing all speakers to speak slowly, calmly and professionally. Understand that being fired may come as a shock to the individual; when your spokesperson speaks slowly and calmly, the employee has a chance to collect themselves.
  • Get to the point. The meeting should begin with the spokesperson thanking the employee for being at the meeting. Next, they should explain that the company has found it necessary to terminate the individual’s employment. The spokesperson’s words and tone should convey that the decision has been made and is irreversible. You don’t need to provide any justification if the employee was hired at will.
  • Cover the items in the termination letter. The script should cover all the items in the termination letter. The spokesperson should inform the employee that a letter is also being mailed following the meeting. If the employee asks questions or raises objections, only preapproved responses should be read to the employee. Do not stray from the termination letter that was drafted.
  • Discuss severance issues. Once the employee accepts the termination decision, the matter of severance can be introduced.
TipTip

Ensure your business has a clear termination policy that officially lays out the grounds and process for firing in-office and remote employees.

How to follow up after the remote termination

Once the termination meeting has concluded, use the following checklist to verify that equipment has been returned, access to company resources has been revoked and your company is in a secure position in the event a disgruntled employee chooses to retaliate against your business:

  • Funds due to the former employer have been paid.
  • The termination letter has been mailed.
  • All electronic connections have been disabled.
  • All company equipment on loan to the employee during their hiring has been returned.
  • The employee’s profile has been removed from the website and any company documents.
  • You’ve distributed an internal statement or conducted virtual meetings to notify other employees of the termination.
  • You’ve provided contact info for human resources representatives so they can respond to any questions and concerns your remaining employees have.
  • You’ve revoked access to your business premises (key fobs, security system access codes, etc.) and all software (including social media accounts, if the employee had login access to your company’s social media accounts) the employee had access to.
  • You’re monitoring public comments made by the former employee.
  • You’ve crafted a response for release to the media and to post on social networks if you receive negative publicity related to the termination of the employee.

Getting ready to say goodbye

A virtual meeting space with the right people in attendance makes for better remote terminations, as do a legally sound termination letter and key legal materials. None of this, though, makes terminating an employee any easier. You and the employee being terminated will both experience harsh emotions amid the termination, but it’s best to power ahead. If it’s indeed best (and legal) to terminate the employee, stick to your guns – eventually, this too shall pass.

Max Freedman contributed to this article.

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Jane Genova, Contributing Writer
Jane Genova grew up on the pre-gentrified mean streets of Jersey City, New Jersey. Her sanctuary was a fascination with language, especially how people spoke. She went on to earn an MA/Ph.D. Candidacy in linguistics at the University of Michigan, teach as an adjunct professor, write curriculum for English as a Second Language, and wear many hats in the front lines of communications: journalist, syndicated legal blogger, ghostwriter, scriptwriter and digital marketing content-provider. Pro-bono, she provides job-search guidance to the unemployed over-50.
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