Can I Fire an Employee for Job Hunting?

It’s disappointing to hear about a worker who’s looking to leave, but it might be good to seek answers before jumping to termination.

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Have you ever learned through the grapevine that one of your employees was looking around for another job? How did you react to hearing this information? Perhaps you felt betrayed by someone you’ve supported for a long time and expected more loyalty in return.

I know this happens to a lot of small-business owners who can be plagued by cyclical employee turnover and retraining that puts stress on the company and crew to get all the work done. I’ve heard similar stories over and over.

And a recent example has got me to thinking about the appropriate ways to react to an employee who is exploring his or her career options, to put it in less threatening language.

You might remember my wife, Judy, who wrote a small-business column for this magazine for many years. Part of her current job includes consulting with business owners on human resources issues. Their questions run the gamut, but sometimes focus on employee accountability for mistakes or indiscretions. 

This week, a small-business owner asked her a common question about an employee rumored to be seeking employment elsewhere. Could he terminate the employee if it was confirmed that the worker was looking for another job?

Judy and I came to a similar conclusion: Yes, you can most likely fire the worker, but maybe you should take a step back and consider a few factors before making such a rash move.

EXPERT ADVICE?

First of all, this blunt question seeking an absolute yes or no answer is concerning to me.

In recent months, I have seen several such questions surface on wastewater industry-related social media pages. A business owner tells the story about how one of his drivers got the vacuum truck stuck in the mud at a customer’s property. “Should I fire him?” Or a restroom service technician generated three complaints this week from customers on his route. “Should I fire him?” Or a lead driver called in sick today and was then spotted down at the grocery store a few hours later, seemingly happy and healthy. “Should I fire him?”

My first reaction to these posts is: Who are you looking to for expert advice on serious hiring and firing issues? A bunch of folks you don’t really know who like to pontificate semi-anonymously on social media? Nothing against people in the industry who like to follow Facebook, but is this really who you want to turn to on employment law matters?   

If you really want to know whether an infraction is worthy of dismissal, it would be good to brush up on your state’s employment laws or turn to a proper legal expert for the final word. 

But I would suggest that, despite the perceived slight, you may not want to fire the employee at all … that this situation can prompt a much-needed reflection about employment conditions at your company. And you may head off a situation where more of your workers are unhappy and may also start looking around. 

THE FIRING QUESTION

First of all, let’s talk briefly about the question asked by the business owner at the top of this column. Can he fire the worker for seeking another job? Technically, almost certainly yes. In all states except Montana, employees are considered “at-will” workers. This means that unless your workers have union contracts, you can let them go for any reason or no reason at all. Discrimination is the exception.

Discrimination is covered in federal and state law. Employers are prohibited from firing an employee for reasons such as race, religion, sex, gender or age (when a worker is over 40 years old). You also cannot fire an employee for reporting illegal actions or asserting worker’s rights.

Let’s say you are in the same position as the company owner mentioned above; you hear your employee is looking for another job and you are contemplating a termination. You may have a variety of reasons to consider doing so. 

Maybe, in hindsight, the worker was a bad hire in the first place. You have kept a record of tardiness, causing damage to your property, lack of concern over doing a poor job. Or it could be that this worker doesn’t fit in the culture of your company and he has violated company policies. He never got along with others and you’ve had complaints from your crew about his attitude or performance. 

Document the issues and make a decision.

But there may be other ways to go. You may want to find out why the employee is looking to leave. Maybe the answer won’t feel like a poor reflection on you as an owner or manager, or on your company in general. And if that’s the case, you might be able to resolve any issues and not have to face a costly and time-consuming hiring process.

Sit down with the employee and tell him what you heard. Be frank and ask for an honest answer about his reasons for job hunting. They may be understandable to you. For instance, maybe he needs to earn more money than you can pay him. Or he needs to find a job with a schedule that works better with his family life. In these cases, letting him stay and keeping open lines of communication may make for a smoother transition when he eventually leaves.

MAKE IT POSITIVE

Perhaps the worker is just testing the waters to see if he can make more money somewhere else. What if he finds out he’s being paid fairly and sees your company’s work environment and management as better than what he’s found elsewhere? This might make him a more loyal employee in the long run. And your patience will pay off.

So he could tell you some things you won’t want to hear. He might point out you’re not paying a prevailing wage for similar types of work. He may let on that others are also unhappy and on the verge of leaving as well. Or that he and others have an abrasive relationship with another worker or a supervisor. If any of these things are true, you will benefit from finding out and having the chance to do something about it.

Taking action on his honest reasons for job hunting might save you a lot of headaches. 

If pay is the issue, maybe it’s time to assess your wage scale compared to what similar companies are paying. You could also sweeten the pot with company benefits, such as flexible scheduling, added vacation or holidays, or enhancing a bonus or retirement program.

If work relationships are the issue, deal with the problems directly. Meet with your crew and supervisors individually to assess the situation, find the source of discontent and take measures to get the team working well together. Poor morale in the workplace can lead to a lot of turnover issues, and getting it straightened out can save you a lot of money in the long run.

WRAPPING IT UP

I hope you never have to hear through the rumor mill about a job-hunting employee. But if you do, it might pay to stop, meet and listen before doing something drastic. And whatever you do, it’s probably a good policy not to air your grievances about employees on social media.  



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