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Can You Fire an Employee Over the Phone? (or by email?)

One of the worst parts about being in a supervisory position is having to let an employee go. But sometimes newer managers wonder can you fire an employee over the phone?

As a general rule, legally, a manager can fire an employee over the phone or by email. But unless they are not showing up for work or answering calls, it is always considered more professional to let them go face to face.

But that’s just the beginning of how to handle letting go of an employee.

Believe me, no one likes firing someone; even the most hardened and cynical managers. But sometimes it’s just necessary. You’ve given them a fair amount of feedback, but they are still coming in late and their performance is lacking.

You’ve decided to fire them. But how do you go about it? Is it okay to do it by phone or email?

Keep reading to find out!

How do you fire an employee legally?

A manager can fire employees in-person, over the phone, via email, or via a letter that is mailed to an address, for anything that is not protected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (think gender, race, pregnancy, and disability), particularly if they are an at-will employee. 

An at-will employee can be fired at any time, for any reason, with a few exceptions that would violate federal employment law, like discrimination.


In turn, at-will employees can quit at any time, without notice.

I go into a lot more details about what an at-will state is, including a state-by-state guide, in a recent article geared towards how to fire an employee with a bad attitude.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

Now, having said that, I firmly believe that employers have a moral obligation to be firm, fair, and consistent. And an obligation to make expectations and consequences crystal clear.

If you fire an employee and they are genuinely surprised, you failed as a leader.

First, you need to have a company policy guidebook in place which spells out all your company policies, including your attendance policy and expected workplace conduct.

The company policy guidebook should also include a disciplinary outline, so employees know what to expect if they violate any rules.

I discuss company policy guidebooks and go into more detail about how to handle disciplinary issues in this recent article about firing the office gossiper and this recent article about firing someone that calls in sick all the time.

Just click either link to read it on my site.

Can you fire someone over email?

Unless a company has an employment contract in place that stipulates policies and procedures for terminating an employee, or state law, there is no Federal restriction on emailing an employee to notify them of termination.

Almost all companies have some sort of termination policy in place.

So for most mid-level managers, you’ll be following your company’s HR directives. In most cases, that’s likely going to require you to at least attempt to meet with the employee face to face.

However, if you don’t have an HR department, or a policy when it comes to firing an employee, it can be tricky to know how to fire an employee.

Being on the receiving end of termination is painful. But finding out from something as impersonal as an email is even worse.

It’s also bad for morale.

Word will get around that you didn’t even have the decency to call John in before you fired him. This will have an impact on productivity and the ability to retain employees.

It shows that you don’t really care about your employees. And even if it’s just 1 person, all the other employees will be left thinking that if you didn’t care about John, then maybe you don’t care about them either.

Once that sinks into your team, productivity will drop as will their opinion of you. Not to mention the impact it’ll have on the reputation of the business.

When you fire someone over email, it’s there forever. Chances are, that employee will screenshot it and put it all over social media.

Are you ready to withstand that kind of backlash? As being the company that fires people over email?

Social media backlash can ruin a small business.

When is it OK to fire someone over the phone or via email?

It is legally on a Federal level to fire an employee over the phone or via email. But morally, the only time this is acceptable is if the employee works remotely several hours away, or if they haven’t been showing up for work repeatedly.

Seriously, don’t do this.

Your employees are human beings that deserve respect. Even if they were a terrible employee, you should always treat them with respect. They deserve the courtesy of being fired face-to-face.

An exception to this is if your employee is making it impossible to have that face-to-face meeting, as I mentioned above.

But even in this case, make a phone call. Ideally, they will answer as leaving on a voicemail isn’t great either. But don’t do it by email.

Email is too cavalier. There is no dialogue, and you have no control over when the employee will actually see the email.

If they won’t return calls and haven’t shown up repeatedly for scheduled shifts, at that point in most states it would be considered job abandonment. When that happens, there’s no longer really a need to fire them as they have essentially quit without notice.

So just document the attempts to contact them, the missed shifts and copies of the printed schedules for their shifts. Attach that to the paperwork for their job abandonment, and nothing further is really necessary.

But what if you want to email so there is a record of what was said?

They still deserve a phone call.

But you can certainly have someone else present for the call who can sign a witness statement as to what was said. Immediately after the call, just write a memo to their file, including the witness statement.

You could email it to the now-former employee if you wish, but leave out any personal feelings in it. You don’t want to come off as being unkind or rubbing salt in the wound.

Of course, if you are unable to reach them by phone, then email may be your only option.

Make it clear in your email that you tried reaching them several times, but you were unsuccessful. Just remember to keep it as kind as possible, professional, and on point.

How do you fire someone over the phone?

If firing an employee over the phone, have HR or another manager as a verbal witness to the call. Place the call on speakerphone so the witness can hear both sides of the conversation. Stick to the facts, making it clear why they are being fired, and avoid drama or allowing them to debate.

Ultimately by the time you decide to fire someone, assuming you’ve done your job correctly, the time for back-and-forth discussion has passed.

So the conversation needs to be short and sweet and just stick to the facts.

Here are the above steps in greater detail:

1. Keep HR in the loop

If you have an HR department, contact them and let them know what’s happening.

They can get with IT to make sure access to company systems is cut off, calculate severance pay and/or final pay, and get together any necessary paperwork.

2. Set a specific time with the employee for the call

Schedule a phone call or ideally, video conference, with the employee and make sure HR or at least 1 witness (someone in a leadership role) is present.

3. Let them know they are being fired at the start of the call

Lead with the bad news and be clear about your intentions.

The very first thing you say to the employee is that the company has decided to part ways. Chatting too much before the actual firing can be misleading and confusing.

You want it to be crystal clear that they are being fired.

4. Give a clear reason and site the violation as it pertains to your employee handbook or policies

Reference the reasoning behind the firing.

Whether they are being fired for excessive absences, violating company policy or any other reason, there should be documentation. While they will be disappointed and hurt, your employee should not be surprised that they are being let go.

There should be clear documentation both of the firing, but also for all the previous violations.

5. Don’t get bogged down in the details

Yes, you should give clear reasons for firing your employee, but the goal is not to make them feel worse. Be concise.

6. Be clear, but be quick

Don’t argue or give a long list of failures.

Answer questions, but don’t engage in any arguing. Repeat your reasoning and make it clear that their services are no longer needed.

After all, by the time you reach this stage the decision is made and the time for discussion has passed. Firing should be 10 minutes tops in most cases.

7. Do listen to feedback

Your employee is probably going to have some things to say. A certain amount of that is OK as long as it’s not just excuses or venting.

Listen to what they are saying and take heed, just not at great length. Maybe there is something you could’ve done differently throughout their employment. If there is, implement the appropriate changes.

8. Provide them with any necessary paperwork

There may be some COBRA paperwork or termination paperwork they need to sign. Email this to them as soon as the meeting concludes.

9. Be polite and gracious, even if they aren’t

Finally, thank them for their service. Don’t apologize, but provide some sort of indication that you would’ve liked for things to turn out differently. If they get ugly, avoid the urge to give it back to them.

Stay cool, professional, and polite and end the call quickly once everything has been said.

Final Thoughts

Firing people is one of the hardest parts of being a manager. It can be tricky to deliver the news.  You may want to do it via email or phone.

If at all possible, it’s best to deliver this kind of news in person.

However, sometimes is simply not possible. I’ve provided you with some tips on how to fire someone over the phone, if absolutely necessary.

An email should be used only in extreme situations when your employee simply isn’t responsive to your requests for a meeting.

With these tips, the process of firing an employee should be a relatively quick and painless, but respectful, experience.


Jeff Campbell