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Why it is never a good idea to dismiss an employee by email

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Recently, a human resource person in one of the largest insurance companies in the United Kingdom mistakenly fired 1,300 global employees in its investment unit by email. The email asked them to turn over their security credentials and company property on their way out and to remember their contractual obligation pertaining to confidential information. Oops! The email was only meant to go to one employee.

Suffice it to say, several emails were sent after to the same recipients to correct and explain the technical error, apologize and inform these employees that they still had a job! However, I am amazed to hear that HR is still using email to dismiss employees.

What can I say? Dismissing an employee by email is a bad idea and a bad termination technique. It is also a practice that should be explicitly banned, or at least severely restricted, in your organization’s termination policy.

Although at times necessary, terminating an employee is already the most difficult tasks an employer or HR professional faces. It is a very unpleasant and stressful aspect of human resources management. It is filled with emotion, both for the employee and the employer.

Therefore, it is important that the employer remain calm, objective, methodical and rational throughout the termination process.

Dismissing employees by email makes the process harder, harsher and colder.

It is not illegal to fire employees by email, just inappropriate. In my opinion, use a bit of courtesy by not firing an employee using any electronic method: no emails, instant messages, voicemails or phone calls. It is better to do it face-to-face even when providing a termination letter to meet your requirement of a written notice.

In addition, involuntary terminations may result in a claim for wrongful dismissal being filed by the terminated employee. If the risk of such a claim is to be lessened, it is important to keep the emotional level associated with terminations under control.

I know a lot of HR professionals and employers try to avoid such termination meeting to avoid having to answer the question why? Don’t try to rationalize the situation to death. Have an answer prepared that is honest and correctly summarizes the situation without detail or placing blame. Most importantly, treat employees with dignity and fairly at times of termination.

This said, it may be difficult during a restructuring to meet each person face-to-face to conduct the termination process when performing a mass termination. However, during a restructuring, you will have already informed employees that permanent layoffs could occur and which departments will be effected. I still would not use email to send the final termination notice but would distribute a notice (through immediate managers and supervisors) in the form of a letter or package to each employee concerned with detailed information of how and when their exit from the company will occur during the restructuring.

Some other tips to ensure termination is done properly:

  • Prepare for a termination by ensuring that the reasons for termination have been both properly documented and brought to the employee’s attention (for corrective action), and he or she has been given a reasonable opportunity to correct any shortcomings, prior to the termination proceeding.
  • Properly inform employees of problems when they occur and state that, if continued, they could lead to more severe disciplinary measures or termination. This is referred to as counselling. The counselling session should be documented and include: the date, a record of what was said by both the employer and the employee, and the possible consequence if the undesirable behaviour or performance issue is not corrected. Most employees want to do a good job and will respond positively to gentle and consistent counselling. Usually, no further discipline will be required if counselling is done properly.
  • Use corrective or progressive discipline, such that the employee clearly understands the seriousness of the situation. Discipline should be used for offences such as excessive absence, tardiness and harassment, among others.
  • Before considering termination, the employer may wish to place the employee on a probationary period. This action will certainly bring home the seriousness of the situation to the employee and is a step that may be substituted for a disciplinary suspension.
  • If the employee has been adequately warned and failed within a reasonable time to correct any shortcomings, then it is reasonable to proceed to termination. As noted earlier, the warning must be written and unequivocal regarding the likelihood of termination.
  • The termination interview itself should be brief, it should include a statement of the facts leading to the termination decision and should state that the decision is final. There is little point in becoming involved in a discussion of the facts during the termination interview as this will only raise emotions on both sides. Any termination and severance arrangements should then be outlined to the employee. When this is done, the interview should be concluded.
  • Before proceeding with a termination, check out the timing of the termination interview. Try to ensure that there are no significant events occurring in the employee’s personal life that will coincide with the termination. The timing of the termination would not be appropriate if events such as the employee’s birthday, a death in the family, the employee’s employment anniversary, etc., are coincidental. Remaining employees may view the termination as harsh and cruel treatment if the timing is not correct.
  • The time of day for a termination interview is important. If the employee is terminated late in the day and/or on a Friday, there may be fewer outside resources available to which the employee can turn for help. An employee who has overnight and/or the weekend to review the action that has just occurred may become angry or frustrated. Try to minimize this frustration by conducting the termination interview in the early afternoon during the week (except Friday).
  • An employer should consider engaging a relocation counselling service for the terminated employee. Many specialized firms provide assistance in finding new work opportunities for terminated employees. Relocation or outplacement firms are commonly engaged by the employer to help the terminated employee. The employer normally pays the fees on behalf of the terminated employee.
  • Unless circumstances dictate otherwise, the terminated employee should be given an opportunity to clear any personal effects and then leave the premises. We suggest to do this in a way that minimizes any disruptions in the workplace and does not embarass the employee concerned.
  • Before proceeding to the termination step, an employer should consider reviewing the actions taken and or proposed with a person who is qualified in matters of employment law. The purpose of the review is to ensure that the employee has been properly treated throughout the discipline process and will have no recourse against the employer.

Yosie Saint-Cyr
First Reference Human Resources and Compliance Managing Editor

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Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B. Managing Editor

Managing Editor at First Reference Inc.
Yosie Saint-Cyr, LL.B., is a trained lawyer called to the Quebec bar in 1988 and is still a member in good standing. She practiced business, employment and labour law until 1999. For over 18 years, Yosie has been the Managing Editor of the following publications, Human Resources Advisor, Human Resources PolicyPro, HRinfodesk and Accessibility Standards PolicyPro from First Reference. Yosie is one of Canada’s best known and most respected HR authors, with an extensive background in employment and labour across the country. Read more
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