- In most workplaces in the US, a boss can technically fire an employee instantly.
- But experts say that's a perfect recipe for retaliation from the employee, who could potentially sue the company.
- If the employee is underperforming, the boss should keep a paper trail in which they document the ways the employee is falling short.
- If the employee does something egregious, the boss should tell that person to go home or wait in their office while the boss speaks with human resources.
In December 2018, a Wired magazine article on Tesla reported that CEO Elon Musk often has outbursts called "rage firings." According to that report, Musk gets angry about something and subsequently fires the next employee who crosses his path.
That approach might seem familiar: On TV and in movies, fictional bosses are known to point their finger at an underperforming employee and get rid of that person immediately.
In reality, many managers do in fact have the power to fire someone on the spot. But experts told us this behavior is rarely advisable.
A boss' ability to fire someone instantly depends on their particular organization. According to Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and the author of "Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job," employment in the US is typically at will, meaning the company can get rid of an employee at any time and an employee can leave at any time.
Still, Jeffrey Adelson, a partner at Adelson, Testan, Brundo, Novell & Jimenez who specializes in employment law, said that "when an employee is terminated without any thought behind it, that's when lawsuits happen." When you destroy the person's self-esteem, Adelson added, it's "the perfect environment for retaliatory action," like a lawsuit.
If an employee is underperforming, Taylor said it's best to keep a paper trail, in which the manager informs the employee of where they're falling short and tries to work with them. That way, it makes it harder for the employee to sue the company or retaliate once they've been fired.
Even when an employee does something "egregious," Adelson said -- like threatening another employee or sharing proprietary company information -- and it's tempting to fire them, a boss' best response is, "Please have a seat in my office" or "Go home for the day." The boss should go somewhere quiet, speak with human resources and document the event, get information from any witnesses, and only then take the appropriate action.
That said, Adelson added, even if you follow your company's human-resources policy to a tee, the fired employee may still initiate a lawsuit. The idea is to know that you behaved in accordance with human-resources convention, and to keep anger and frustration out of the situation. "Emotion is really the enemy," Adelson said.