You’re Fired

Q. A few months ago I hired a woman who is a very nice, very good person, but just hasn’t mastered the work. She costs me more than she is worth. Now that business has slowed, can I take this opportunity to “trim the workforce” and lay her off?

A. It is generally ethical to fire someone for any reason related to their ongoing job performance. It’s not necessary to wait for a slowdown; on the contrary, then it may be more difficult for her to find another position. What is important is that performance evaluations are fair and that workers whose performance is unsatisfactory are given a reasonable opportunity to improve it. The obligation to give workers fair warning of their deficiencies is mentioned in the Talmud.

While the decision to fire is a business decision, it is very important on a human level how you let someone go. This is not a question of ethics but rather of etiquette. There are certain basics of thoughtful behavior in firing. Here are a few:

  • A person should be given an “exit interview”, and not merely a pink slip. This will help the employee be psychologically prepared for the possibility of bad news. Just putting a pink slip in the paycheck is an evasion of responsibility.
  • The meeting should be private. This will prevent embarrassment, enable the worker to express emotion, and if necessary enable her to defend her performance.
  • The worker shouldn’t be notified on Friday because then her weekend is ruined.
  • Whenever possible, notice should be given.
  • It is easier on the employer to avoid criticizing the worker, saying for example that you are “trimming the workforce.” But it is really better for your employee if you can gently indicate what her deficiencies were, so that she is able to learn from her experience and seek work that is better suited to her talents. This is a fulfillment of the Torah’s directive, “Reprove your fellow man.” (Leviticus 19:17). While this may be difficult, omit it only if you are afraid that this will greatly offend her, or that it may harm you by provoking hostility or even litigation.

Workers not only have rights, they also have feelings which need to be respected.

SOURCES: Talmud Bava Metzia 109a.