Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
I have wanted to fire a full-time employee for the past two weeks, but she hasn't been in, despite telling me on numerous occasions that she would definitely be in the next day.
I manage a small business and need to fire her so I can start looking for her replacement as soon as possible. Is it therefore acceptable to fire her via email or phone? I like the idea of email so I have a record of what was said.
Normally, you should never fire someone by phone or email. You should do people the courtesy of having that conversation face-to-face; you are, after all, impacting their livelihood in a very big way.
One exception to this is if the person works remotely, in which case a phone conversation would be reasonable. But email should never be an option--it's too cavalier, it doesn't allow for an actual conversation, and you have no control over the timing of when the person sees it.
However, in a situation like yours in which the person is making it impossible for you to have a face-to-face conversation, you can absolutely call her instead. You're under no obligation to wait for her to decide to show up; she's supposed to be there, she isn't there, and you don't need to allow that to thwart your timeline.
Now, if she had missed only a day or two, or if she were out sick or on vacation, that would be different--you don't blindside someone with a firing phone call just because she happened to be out sick with the flu on the day you planned to fire her. You don't do that both because it's unkind and because one of your most important audiences for stuff like this is other people--the rest of your staff and even potential future employees. You don't want people to hear how you handled this and assume you'll also treat them cavalierly one day.
But that's not the situation here; you're dealing with someone who has basically forfeited her right to that kind of consideration, by repeatedly telling you she'd be in and then not showing up.
That said, you should still call her rather than emailing, because it's a more respectful way to handle it.
If you're unable to reach her by phone after several tries, then at that point you don't really have any option other than to resort to email--but at that point you can say, "I wanted to have this conversation with you in person, or at least over the phone, but I've tried repeatedly to reach you without success and you haven't been coming into work."
As for your concern about wanting a record of what was said, you're absolutely right that that's useful to have--but not useful enough to justify making such a big announcement by email as long as you have other options. You can, however, create a record of the conversation immediately afterward by writing a memo about the conversation, and can even write out what you'll say ahead of time so that you can include the most important pieces of the conversation in that memo word for word. This memo can be to yourself, to HR, for the employee's file, or whatever makes sense in your context. You can also email her a summary of your decision after you talk with her, although you should be aware that that can come across as rubbing salt in the wound, so be thoughtful in your wording about why you're sending it to her.
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