There are plenty of obvious reasons someone might lose their job. If a person breaks the rules, steals company property, or refuses to show up for work, they probably shouldn’t be surprised when they get fired.
But what about cases where the reason isn’t obvious—where it hardly seems like a “reason” at all? What if an employer says something along the lines of “sorry to let you go, but you’re just not a good fit?” Is the employer allowed to terminate an at-will employee simply because of “fit,” and if so, how should that concept be articulated?
Steve Roppolo, attorney and managing partner of Fisher Phillips, hears these kinds of questions all the time.
“I understand what the employer means,” he says. “They mean that there is a cultural lack of fit, that the employee perhaps doesn’t work with same diligence and attention to detail that they’re used to. The employee isn’t working together with their team members in a collaborative way, or the same way everyone else is used to working.”
According to Steve, virtually all termination decisions based on “lack of fit” have a good underlying reason.
The problem comes when employers leave the conversation at that, and don’t explain what “fit” means in the context of employment—because it’s very easy for someone to interpret things the wrong way.
Steve told us that in some cases, employers who fail to explain what they mean by “lack of fit” or “there’s just no fit” appear discriminatory in the eyes of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or members of a jury:
“Even in a probationary period or a pure at-will circumstance, the plaintiff’s lawyer will take that phrase and turn it on you to make it seem that ‘lack of fit’ means ‘they’re not the same color or gender as me.’ ‘Yeah, of course, she doesn’t fit. She’s not one of the good old boys.’ You want to do what you can to avoid that, and the way you do that by digging a little beneath the surface, trying to articulate what the actual underlying reasons that you’re concluding that the person doesn’t fit, and then articulating that as part of the termination conversation.”
You heard it from an attorney: if the reason for a termination isn’t immediately obvious, it’s up to you to make it clear.
Want more termination dos and don’ts? Join us and Fisher Phillips next week for our free Termination Best Practices webinar. Register here to reserve your spot.