Red Flags Raised: How to Terminate Employment Legally in Your Eye Care Practice
By Practice Growth June 04, 2021
Every ECP hopes that each employee they hire will be a star, capable of helping patients with their needs or selling eyewear products without issues. But from time to time, an employee might just not work out. Whether it’s because they can’t show up on time, they don’t want to learn how to do things correctly, or other reasons entirely, you may eventually be required to terminate an employee.
But while it may be tempting to fire a frustrating employee immediately, you have to follow specific legal procedures to avoid getting fined or into other trouble. Let’s break down how you can terminate employment legally if it ever becomes necessary.
Why Might You Need to Terminate an Employee Anyway?
Firing an employee is always uncomfortable, but it's a necessary part of running any business or eye care practice. Not every new hire works out, and sometimes even experienced employees can start to give subpar performance and need to be replaced.
Common Red Flags
There are lots of potential “red flags” that employees might demonstrate, which could signal that you’ll need to terminate their employment in the near future. These include:
● Excessive tardiness;
● Being sloppy or lazy in job performance;
● Disrespecting fellow employees or supervisors; and
● Not fulfilling job responsibilities repeatedly (i.e. not locking up your eyewear store properly, exposing the property within to theft).
Even though one or more of these red flags could be obvious to you and other employees at your practice, you have to remember to take the termination process slowly and carefully. Otherwise, you could be held legally liable for improper termination or other employment or contract law violations.
How to Terminate an Employee Legally
There are ways to terminate the employment of an employee legally and safely. Here’s how to make sure you have all your bases covered.
Outline Your Practice’s Policies
Whenever you hire a new employee for your optometry practice or optical store, you should present them with an employee handbook that outlines all applicable policies and expectations for their job. At the end of the handbook, there should be a receipt page that they have to sign, indicating that they read through the handbook and understand what it says.
If you’ve put your handbook together correctly, you’ll also include a statement mentioning that you reserve the right to terminate the employment of any at-will employees at any time. This is called an at-will employment disclaimer, and it prevents employee handbooks from being misconstrued as legally binding documents.
This can be more important than you might think. For instance, if you need to prove to a court that an employee knowingly disregarded the responsibilities or otherwise broke the rules of your practice, you can point to your employee handbook as evidence.
Behavior Correction Policies
You should also have some behavioral correction policies, especially listed in the aforementioned handbook. It’s generally difficult to prove bad behavior on the part of an employee if they can claim that you fired them without any attempts at correcting the behavior.
For example, you might have a write-up system where you provide written warnings to employees who make mistakes multiple times in a row, perhaps with a "three strikes" rule (i.e. three mistakes of the same nature without improvement is grounds for termination).
The point is to have some correction policies in place, both so you can try to work with the employee before termination and so you can prove in a court, if necessary, that you did what you could to resolve the situation without termination.
Document Any Performance Issues
Any legal event like letting an employee go has to have a paper trail. Be sure to carefully document any performance issues with a problematic employee. Be as detailed as possible, again so that you can provide evidence to a court if necessary later down the road.
In some cases, any disciplinary write-ups or reports you make can serve as documentation of performance issues in your eye care practice.
Be Wary of Discriminatory Practices, Especially Regarding Health
No matter who you plan to terminate, you have to be careful of discriminatory firings. Antidiscrimination laws in the US are very robust, and you aren’t allowed to discriminate against employees on the basis of sex, race, or disability (provided the disability doesn’t interfere with job performance).
As a result, you must take care that your termination proceedings aren’t seen as terminating an employee with, for instance, a slight disability that causes them to complete work slightly more slowly than other employees. Documenting the entire process can help alleviate this risk.
Double-Check Your Contract
Before terminating an employee, double-check your contract and make sure that you aren't violating any clauses in the contract. Odds are that you and your optometry employees have at-will relationships. This means that both parties are only employed or employing at-will, and so can terminate the relationship whenever they like.
If, on the other hand, you have a contract that specifies different terms of employment, note that those terms might control whether you can terminate the employee when you want. This is important so you cover yourself if the employee sues you after termination.
Have Their Last Paycheck Ready to Go
It’s often quicker and easier to finish everything if you have a to-be terminated employee’s last paycheck ready to go before you call them into your office. This isn’t required in most states, but if you deliver the final paycheck immediately, your ex-employee will have fewer potential claims to bring against your behavior to any prospective court.
Consider All Other Legal Requirements
Lastly, be certain that you have fulfilled any other legal requirements before terminating your employee. This includes information about benefits (such as free eye examinations or other perks), unemployment options, and so on.
If you plan to deny unemployment benefits, be sure that you have documented the reasons for which the employee deserves that response – they may very well contest it in court.
In the end, terminating an employee in your practice or in any business can be nerve-wracking and tough to decide. But termination might be the best overall decision for your business and your patients, particularly if the employee in question is jeopardizing their health or the reputation of your practice.
Cover your bases, make sure you document all necessary paperwork, and your termination will likely go off without a hitch.
You might be able to handle some of these employment matters on your own. However, employment laws are tricky and change often. You should consult with an employment attorney to review all your options; otherwise, you may find a rash termination decision can have costly and time-consuming legal consequences, even when the termination seems justified.
All materials have been prepared for general information purposes only to permit you to learn about legal considerations for your practice. The information presented is not legal advice, is not to be acted on as such, may not be current and is subject to change without notice.