Terminating an Employee: Should HR Be Honest or Vague?

Jul 13, 2022

Terminating an Employee: Should #hr be HONEST or VAGUE in the termination meeting?

There are typically two paths management can take when terminating an employee- (1) they can give an honest and truthful reason for the termination (poor performance, bad attitude, inability to get along with others, etc); OR (2) they can give a vague and confusing reason, such as “its just not working out.”

As a Florida employment lawyer, I have seen how both options play out in litigation many times. Here are the pros and cons to both approaches:

Option 1- Honest and Truthful

In order to defend discrimination and retaliation cases, the employer must show a “legitimate non-discriminatory/retaliatory reason” for the decision to terminate. If you are honest with the employee and give the real reason for the termination- this is the legitimate non-discriminatory reason, which can be a defense if the employee sues you. For example, the employee was violating policy, not getting along with others, not meeting job standards, etc. Plus, from the employee's perspective, this is typically the "right" thing to do.

Seems easy enough- right?

If it’s that simple and clear cut, then why would someone choose option 2 and choose to be vague? Some reasons are that the conversation will be uncomfortable, the manager isn’t sure how to articulate the reason, or they don’t want the confrontation. However, if the manager has met you have met with the employee to try and correct the poor performance previously, then the discussion won’t be such a surprise.

Option 2 - Vague and Confusing

In general, HR and managers might be vague when terminating employees because its easier. However, when an employer terminates an employee and doesn’t give a reason, or if they are vague, or say “we are restructuring” when that’s not necessarily the case, then you might expose your company to additional liability.

In a recent podcast episode on The Employment Experience Podcast, I discussed whether employers must give a reason to terminate an at-will employee, and the answer is no.

I also discussed the various reasons employers get sued by their emplpyees, and one of the top reasons is when the employer fails to give a reason.

When employers are vague, it allows the employee to decide internally that the real reason must have been an improper or illegal reason. Therefore, while being vague might be “easier” it typically increases your chances a lawsuit will be filed.

HR and management- Are you typically honest or vague when terminating employees and what are your experiences?

For Informational Purposes only. This does not constitute legal advice or create an attorney client relationship. Karly Wannos is licensed to practice law in Florida only. Please consult with an attorney before making any legal decisions. 


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