Is it legal? Yes. Unless your employee has a documented disability that means speaking on the phone with them is not a reasonable form of communication, there are no laws prohibiting this. For that matter, you can terminate an employee by email, text message, or writing “You’re fired!” in icing on a birthday cake.
That being said, it’s usually a terrible idea. (And that last one is always a bad idea.)
Why shouldn’t you terminate an employee over the phone?
- Professional norms. Workplace culture can vary wildly from business to business, or even from team to team, but some things are fairly universal. One is the understanding that difficult conversations should generally take place in person. If you develop a reputation as “That manager who fires people over the phone instead of facing them in person,” you may find yourself with trouble attracting top talent or building solid networking relationships in your field.
- Nonverbal cues. While the old saying that 93% of communication is nonverbal has been debunked, it’s still pretty helpful in getting your point across. It’s harder to show compassion over the phone, and that doesn’t even account for the basic misunderstandings that occur because of a poor-quality connection.
- It’s best to have paperwork signed immediately. Dealing with a termination in person means you can set out any required paperwork and ensure that it is signed before moving forward with anything else. Firing someone by phone usually means that you’re either relying on them to sign whatever’s necessary (which they’ll undoubtedly do on their own schedule), deputizing someone else to make sure they sign it, or putting off paperwork until you see the employee again.
When might it make sense to terminate an employee over the phone?
- The employee in question is a remote employee. If this person works in another office or from home somewhere close enough to an office that they can come in for a meeting, it’s still best to talk in person. But if they are truly remote and all your communication with them tends to be through a phone or screen, talking over the phone might be the best option. Consider having a video call if that’s something you’re set up for.
- The employee is at home when you find out they’ve done something horrendous. In general, it’s still best to have this conversation in person. But if it turns out they’ve done something so horrible that you cannot in good conscience allow them to come back into the office (either because it would put employees in danger or because it would cause damage to your business’ reputation to be associated with them), by all means, fire them by phone. The same goes for an employee that leaves right after doing something that would be grounds for immediate termination. You don’t need to wait for someone to come back to work just so you can terminate them.
- The employee is unable to meet you in person. They’re abroad, in jail, or incapacitated, for example.
- The employee has vanished. If an employee has simply stopped showing up, it’s worth calling their emergency contact to make sure they’re okay. But if you’ve determined that they’ve dumped you and not landed in the hospital, it’s fair to leave a voice message to let them know there’s no job waiting for them should they ever decide to return.
- The employee is on leave. This gets tricky, because there are strict rules about when you can terminate an employee who is on leave. But if the decision to terminate the employee was already made before they went on leave AND you have the documentation to back this up, then terminating them over the phone is a valid option.
Terminations are never fun.
Nobody likes terminating employees, but doing it in person is generally the right thing, even if that’s challenging at times. If you're expecting to have to terminate an employee, download our free New York State Employee Termination Kit to help you through.
For more information and insights into the laws, best practices and complexities around terminating employees, check out our resource page, A Complete Guide to Employee Terminations. It's an all-in-one page that includes thorough insights, instructions and plenty of links to other helpful resources.
Additionally, here are some other articles that focus on the difficult subject of terminating employees:
- How to Script Your Termination Meeting
- Can You Fire An Employee For Something They Did Outside of Work?
- Paying a Terminated Employee Their Last Paycheck
- About Leave of Absence Employee Terminations
- How to Address Alcohol in the Workplace
- How to Measure and Minimize Employee Turnover
- How to Handle an Employee That's Abusing Your Sick Leave Policy
- How to Terminate an Employee in New York State
- Can You Terminate An Employee On Leave?
- The Difference Between a Severance Package and a Severance Agreement
- 3 Exceptions to At-Will Employment
- How to Handle an Immediate Employee Termination
- Termination Meetings: Where and When to Conduct the Most Difficult Conversation
- Alternatives to Employee Terminations
- Can You Fire An Employee For Something They Said Online?
- How to Inform Your Staff About a Terminated Employee
- When Should You Fire An Intern?
- Can You Fire An Independent Contractor?