A reader writes:
I have wanted to fire a full-time employee for the past two weeks, but she hasn’t been in, despite telling me on numerous occasions that she will be… “I’ll definitely be in tomorrow!”
I manage a small business and need to fire her so I can start looking for her replacement as soon as possible.
Is it therefore acceptable to fire her via email or phone? I like the idea of email so I have a record of what was said.
Normally you should never fire someone by phone or email. You should do them the courtesy of having that conversation face-to-face; you are, after all, impacting their livelihood in a very big way. One exception to this would be if the person works remotely, in which case a phone conversation would be reasonable. But email should never be an option — it’s too cavalier, it doesn’t allow for an actual conversation, and you have no control over the timing of when they see it.
However, in a situation like yours where the person is making it impossible for you to have a face-to-face conversation, you can absolutely call her instead. You’re under no obligation to wait for her to decide to show up; she’s supposed to be there, she isn’t there, and you don’t need to allow that to thwart your timeline.
Now, if she had only missed a day or two, or if she was out sick or on vacation, that would be different — you don’t blindside someone with a firing phone call just because they happened to be out sick with the flu on the day you planned to fire them. You don’t do that both because it’s unkind and because one of your most important audiences for stuff like this is other people — the rest of your staff and even potential future employees. You don’t want people to hear how you handled this and assume you’ll treat them similarly cavalierly one day.
But that’s not the situation here; you’re dealing with someone who has basically forfeited her right to that kind of consideration, by repeatedly telling you she’d be in and then not showing up.
That said, you should still call her rather than emailing, because it’s a more respectful way to handle it.
If you’re unable to reach her by phone after several tries, then at that point you don’t really have any options other than to resort to email — but at that point you can say, “I wanted to have this conversation with you in-person, or at least over the phone, but I’ve tried repeatedly to reach you without success and you haven’t been coming into work.”
(As for your concern about wanting a record of what was said, you’re absolutely right that that’s useful to have — but not useful enough to justify making such a big announcement by email as long as you have other options. You can, however, create a record of the conversation immediately afterwards by writing a memo about the conversation, and can even write out what you’ll say ahead of time so that you can include the most important pieces of the conversation in that memo word-for-word. This memo can be to yourself, to HR, to her file, or whatever makes sense in your context. You can also email her a summary of your decision after you talk with her, although you should be aware that that can come across as rubbing salt in the wound so be thoughtful in your wording about why you’re sending it to her.)