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Teleworking arrangements can benefit employees and businesses alike by creating flexibility and reducing commuting time for workers and providing a larger talent pool and lowering overhead costs for employers. But what should employers do when the employment relationship ends—particularly if the employee is to be fired?
Here are some suggestions for how HR professionals and managers can minimize potential problems when terminating remote workers.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Flexible Work Arrangements]
1. Develop Robust Policies
As a starting point for onsite and remote work arrangements in employment-at-will states, all new employees should be informed in their offer letters that they are being hired as employees at will, said Lori Alexander, an attorney with Littler in New Haven, Conn.
Employees should know that they may resign from their employment, and similarly that the employer may terminate their employment, at any time for any reason, and that no employee of the company other than the CEO (or other designated person) is authorized to guarantee employment for any particular duration, she said.
Furthermore, telecommuting guidelines should lay out expectations for workers from the start of their employment.
When companies bring on a new hire, they should consider if that employee may become a remote worker—either right away or at some later point, said Kelly Hughes, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Charlotte, N.C.
Employers should give new hires a copy of the telework policies, and the policies should also be explained to them, she said. "Make sure there's a really robust policy on the use of social media and company equipment, too."
Employees should acknowledge receipt and their understanding of those policies, said David Kim, an attorney with FordHarrison in Berkeley Heights, N.J.
"In particular, [remote] employees should be specifically trained on the internal grievance process so that any potential issues can be brought to the company's attention before it is too late," he noted.
"To reduce potential litigation costs and exposure, employers should consider instituting arbitration agreements, and jury and class-action waivers, if appropriate under applicable state law," he added. These can be effective tools for both onsite and remote work arrangements.
Employers also need to figure out from the start who will pay for things like equipment, Internet access, ergonomic evaluations and office supplies, Hughes said. "This should be addressed in writing so that all sides know what is expected."
The written document should set very specific expectations about what equipment and property belongs to the company and needs to be returned when the working relationship ends, she added.
Furthermore, if teleworkers are nonexempt and entitled to overtime pay, employers need to figure out how those workers will record their hours, Hughes said.
2. Communicate Regularly
It is important to create a regular routine for remote workers to make them feel less isolated and a part of a team, Kim said. "Employers should consider having remote workers attend monthly or quarterly meetings with their supervisor and/or team."
In-person meetings are preferable, but telephone or Web meetings also work, he noted.
Employers benefit from regular meetings, too. They create a consistent line of communication with the remote employee to discuss performance issues and expectations and to ensure that any problems are brought to the company's attention as early as possible, Kim said.
When performance issues do arise for remote workers, they should be appropriately documented in the same manner as for onsite employees, he added. "There is often a tendency by employers to let remote workers perform their functions with minimal supervision and oversight, but proper documentation is essential so that the company can substantiate—and defend later, if necessary—the basis for the remote employee's termination."
3. Plan Ahead
Before any termination, the employer should create a checklist of matters that need to be handled with the departing employee, including final pay requirements, company property and data retrieval, benefits information, IT security and access, and other applicable issues, Kim said. "Having a checklist prepared ensures that nothing is missed during this process."
Many termination-related problems involve technology and equipment. Therefore, HR professionals should partner with IT and other relevant departments to ensure that the company has an effective termination procedure in place, Hughes said. "They need to make sure access to company information can be cut off remotely so that the worker can't delete or copy data after the termination."
The employer should already have a list of all the company equipment and data that needs to be returned. Hughes recommended sending a self-addressed, prepaid box to the employee with instructions to return all relevant equipment and to certify that all company property has been returned.
4. Consider Meeting in Person
If possible, it is preferable to conduct a termination in person. "If you can't meet at the worksite, selecting a neutral location may be a good option," Hughes said.
The biggest issue is that the person may be too far away to have an in-person conversation, both about the termination decision and potentially before that about performance problems that led to the termination decision, Alexander noted.
Alexander, Hughes and Kim all noted that terminations can be done by telephone if necessary, but firing someone via e-mail or text isn't a good idea.
"An employee who is terminated will never be happy, but terminations that are conducted in a respectful and thoughtful manner may reduce the potential for litigation," Kim said. "Doing the termination in person, rather than another medium, is more apt to convey this respect."
5. Understand Applicable State Laws
Employers will want to adhere to any final pay laws that apply to the remote worker's location.
If the remote employee works in a different state than the company's base of operations, different laws may apply. "For example, state laws differ in terms of when an employee's last paycheck must be provided, along with what should be included in final pay or can be deducted from an employee's final paycheck," Kim said.
State laws also vary on whether accrued vacation time must be paid out.
Additionally, whether certain agreements—such as severance, arbitration and noncompetition agreements—are valid may depend on applicable state law, Kim added.
Related SHRM Online Articles:
Telecommuting Cuts Across Gender, Generations, SHRM Online Technology, May 2017
When Remote Work 'Works' for Employees, but Not the C-Suite, SHRM Online Employee Relations, April 2017
Remote Workers Feel Productive but Also Guilty, SHRM Online Employee Relations, March 2017
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