As a SHRM HR Knowledge Advisor, I am frequently asked by members if they must provide employees with a reason for termination. Employers often hope that they are protected under the at-will employment doctrine.
Providing a reason for termination is solely at an employer’s discretion based on their policies, past practices, and, for some employers, state law. Aside from the at-will doctrine, some states have service letter requirements by which employees must receive a document upon separation that includes information such as the reason for separation, date of separation, unemployment insurance benefits information, and more.
Absent state law, employers are not required to provide a reason or documentation supporting a termination. Employment at will enables the employer to end their employment relationship at any time, for any reason, as long as the reason for termination is not based on a protected class under Title VII. These protected categories include age (40 years old and over), national origin, religious beliefs, race, color, pregnancy, disability, genetic information, sexual orientation, gender identity, and any other protections that fall under state laws. The at-will doctrine also provides employees with the same right to voluntarily terminate employment at any time, for any reason.
One concern with using the at-will employment doctrine as the sole reason for termination is that it allows an employee to apply their own interpretation to the employment action. If an employee feels their termination is based on discrimination or retaliation, it may lead to a claim being filed against the employer. If a claim is filed against an employer, the burden of proof lies with the employer. Disputing these claims can result in costly legal fees and hours of work spent gathering documentation to defend against the allegation.
In my professional experience, I have found that following good HR practices is more effective than terminating under the at-will doctrine. The use of progressive disciplinary action, along with training managers on the best way to document and deliver notices, may be the best line of defense in reducing liability for the employer. Employers are more likely to avoid costly legal fees because termination can be clearly justified. Therefore, it is prudent for employers to provide a documented reason for termination. This step will likely avoid future HR headaches should a claim be filed against the employer.
If you want to know more about terminations or have other HR questions, we’d love to help! Give us a call or send an e-mail. We’re also available by chat. It’s one of the most valued benefits of SHRM membership!
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