Guide to Firing Employees in Hawaii for Employers

April 11th 2024

Firing an employee is a complex task, particularly in Hawaii where employee rights are rigorously protected by law. With both legal and ethical considerations to account for, it’s essential for employers to stay up-to-date with Hawaii’s employment laws, including at-will employment and protections against wrongful termination. This guide provides Hawaii employers with a detailed overview of the termination process, outlining legal obligations and best practices to reduce the likelihood of litigation.

This Guide Covers

What Does Firing an Employee Involve?
Differentiating between Firing, Layoffs, and Resignations in Hawaii
Why the Termination Process Matters in Hawaii
Termination Laws in California: What You Need to Know
Legal Implications of Wrongful Termination in Hawaii
Required Documents for Employers and Terminated Employees in Hawaii
Who Should be Responsible for Terminating in Hawaii?
How Long Should the Termination Process Last in Hawaii?
How Can You Prepare for Termination in Hawaii?
Steps for a Respectful Termination Process in Hawaii
Post-Termination: What Happens Next?
Legal Considerations During Termination in Hawaii
Bonus: Best Practices for Reducing Litigation Risks in Hawaii

What Does Firing an Employee Involve?

Firing or terminating involves permanently ending an employee’s contract of employment with your company. Employees are fired for multiple reasons, most commonly performance issues, misconduct, redundancy, or business closure.

Differentiating between Firing, Layoffs, and Resignations in Hawaii

For employers in Hawaii, understanding the differences between terminations such as firing, layoffs, and resignations is key. Each carries unique consequences for both parties involved, and handling them correctly is vital for ensuring fairness and adhering to state and federal laws. 

Firing in Hawaii

Firing is the act of dismissing an employee for specific reasons, usually misconduct or poor performance. In Hawaii, “at-will” employment allows employers to terminate workers for any legal reason at any time without needing a specific cause. However, this freedom doesn’t permit dismissal for unlawful reasons like discrimination or retaliation. Employers must avoid violating anti-discrimination laws and employment agreements. For example, the Hawaii Whistleblower Protection Act provides an exception to the at-will employment doctrine, protecting employees who report the employer for illegal actions from wrongful termination.

Layoffs in Hawaii

Unlike firing, layoffs are not related to an employee’s performance or behavior. Instead, they are business decisions to cut costs or restructure an organization. In businesses with 50 or more full-time workers, the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act comes into play, requiring employers to provide 60 days’ notice to employees in cases of mass layoffs or plant closings. 

Layoff in Hawaii involves a selection process based on efficiency ratings, including past performance appraisals and seniority. Continuous employment, barring approved absences, is also a factor. Temporary or provisional staff are the first to be laid off, with a  “bumping” process allowing higher-rated employees to displace lower-rated ones in certain situations. 

Resignations in Hawaii

Resignations happen when employees choose to leave voluntarily. Employers should manage these professionally, requesting a resignation letter and discussing departure details like the final workday. Employers are required to issue final paychecks as per state laws. Conducting exit interviews in the case of sudden resignations is advisable to uncover any workplace issues. 

In all three scenarios – firing, layoffs, and resignations – Hawaii employers must adhere to relevant laws and handle each situation with professionalism and respect for the affected employees. This not only ensures legal compliance but also maintains a positive workplace.

Why the Termination Process Matters in Hawaii

The termination process in Hawaii is particularly crucial due to the state’s stringent labor laws and the heightened focus on employee rights. Here’s why the termination process matters. 

  • Compliance with “At-Will” Employment Doctrine: Hawaii is an “at-will” employment state, allowing both employers and employees to end their working relationship at any time, for any reason or no reason, with or without notice. However, exceptions exist, such as terminations that violate public policy or the Hawaii Whistleblower Protection Act, which protects employees who report or intend to report employer violations.
  • Maintaining Workplace Morale and Reputation: Unjustified terminations can harm the morale of current employees and damage a company’s reputation. To keep the workplace positive, employers should conduct terminations respectfully and transparently, while also clearly communicating any organizational changes and redistributing workloads among the team.
  • Protecting Business Reputation: Mishandling terminations can harm a business’s reputation which risks long-term success and stability. A solid reputation is key for attracting talent, building relationships, and improving customer perception. 
  • Financial Implications: A poorly handled termination process can lead to legal expenses, including settlements or fines for breaching employment laws. Employers can reduce these costs by adhering to a thorough and lawful termination procedure. 
  • Ensuring Continuity of Operations: A successful termination process involves creating plans for the transfer of responsibilities and knowledge, and clearly communicating the reasons for the termination and any severance details. This approach keeps the team focused and maintains operational continuity.

Termination Laws in Hawaii: What You Need to Know

Laws Regarding Termination of On-Site Employees in Hawaii

  • Hawaii’s “At-Will” Employment Doctrine: Under Hawaii’s “at-will” employment doctrine, both employers and employees may terminate the employment relationship at any time for any lawful reason, even without specifying one. While this provides flexibility, it also requires employers to ensure terminations are not based on discrimination or retaliation.
  • The Hawaii Employment Practices Act: Hawaii’s anti-discrimination laws, some of the most comprehensive in the US, forbid termination based on protected characteristics, such as race, gender, age, and credit history. 
  • The Hawaii Whistleblower Protection Act: Another protection against wrongful termination, the Hawaii Whistleblower Protection Act prohibits retaliation for reporting illegal activities. 
  • Hawaii Labor Laws Regarding Final Pay: Following a termination, employers in Hawaii must issue the final paycheck no later than the next regular payday. If the employee gives at least one pay period’s notice of resignation, the employer must pay all wages earned at the time of resignation. 

Laws Regarding Termination of Remote Employees in Hawaii

  • Application of “At-Will” Employment to Remote Workers: The same “at-will” employment principles also apply to remote workers, but employers need to address additional considerations like company property retrieval and secure data transfer.
  • Hawaii Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act: For businesses with 50 or more full-time workers, this WARN Act requires employers to provide a 60-day notice period in cases of mass layoffs or plant closings, similar to on-site employees.
  • The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA): This law sets federal guidelines for minimum wage, overtime pay, and record-keeping for employees, applicable to both on-site and remote workers. Remote employees are responsible for accurately tracking their hours to ensure proper payment. When terminating an employee, it’s crucial for employers to pay all owed compensation in full. 
  • Data Security and Privacy Concerns: When terminating remote employees, Hawaii employers should secure company data according to regulatory standards. This includes protocols for data deletion and the return of company-owned devices and information. 

In Hawaii, the legal implications of wrongful termination can be extensive and complex, given the state’s robust employment laws and protections. Here’s a detailed look at these implications:

  • Violation of Anti-Discrimination Laws: Hawaii’s anti-discrimination laws, some of the most comprehensive in the US, prohibit termination on the grounds of race, gender, age, religion, national origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation, pregnancy, marital status, physical or mental disability, genetic information, and credit history. Employers who do not adhere to the Hawaii Employment Practices Act may face penalties, including compensatory damages for lost wages and benefits, punitive damages, and the payment of the plaintiff’s legal fees.
  • Retaliation Claims: In Hawaii, it’s illegal for an employer to terminate an employee for engaging in legally protected activities. The Hawaii Whistleblower Protection Act protects employees who report illegal activities from retaliation. Legal outcomes for such cases may involve the employee’s reinstatement, compensation for lost wages, and possibly greater damages for deliberate violations.
  • Constructive Discharge: Constructive discharge occurs when intolerable work conditions force an employee to resign, potentially leading to wrongful termination lawsuits. These cases are legitimate if the work environment breaches legal or employee rights standards, with possible remedies including compensation for lost income and emotional distress.
  • Financial and Reputational Impact: Wrongful termination lawsuits can carry heavy financial costs for Hawaii businesses, including payments for damages and legal defense fees. Beyond financial impacts, these lawsuits can also harm a company’s reputation, affecting its ability to attract and retain talent, and may also affect relationships with business partners.
  • Impact on Employee Morale: Wrongful termination lawsuits may affect morale and productivity, creating feelings of instability and perceived unfairness. This could lead to reduced job satisfaction and employee loyalty.

Required Documents for Employers and Terminated Employees in Hawaii

Employers’ Requirements 

  • Termination Letter: Employers should provide a written termination letter to the employee, clearly stating the reasons for their dismissal and the effective date of termination. This letter acts as a formal record and should include any final pay and benefits due to the employee. 
  • Final Paycheck Documentation: Hawaii employers are legally required to issue a final paycheck no later than the next regular payday. Additionally, if an employee resigns with at least one pay period’s notice, the employer must pay all wages due at the time of resignation. Documentation of this payment, including any accrued vacation or bonuses, is crucial for legal compliance.
  • Benefits Information: Employers are responsible for informing departing employees about their benefits continuation options, including healthcare coverage under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) if it applies. This ensures that employees are aware of their rights after their employment ends.
  • Record of Employment: A detailed record of the employee’s tenure, including performance evaluations, disciplinary measures, and training sessions will be invaluable when defending against potential legal issues, like wrongful termination claims. 

Terminated Employees’ Requirements 

  • Signed Acknowledgement of Termination: A signed acknowledgment of termination is important to keep in employee records so that they are informed about their rights. While this isn’t a legal requirement, it is useful in resolving labor disputes or defending against lawsuits.
  • Company Property Return Acknowledgement: After the termination, the employee should sign a record of any returned company property like ID badges or company devices. This practice prevents any later disputes regarding the ownership of these items.
  • Unemployment Claim Forms: Terminated employees who qualify for unemployment benefits should keep a copy of any correspondence related to unemployment claims.

Who is Responsible for Terminating in Hawaii?

During the termination of employment in Hawaii, recognizing the unique roles and responsibilities of key organizational figures is essential for executing the process lawfully. The main participants in this procedure are Human Resources (HR), managers, and legal counsel, all of whom have particular responsibilities and areas of expertise that include:

Role and Responsibilities of Human Resources 

Human Resources plays a pivotal role in terminations. They ensure adherence to Hawaii’s labor laws and company protocols, prepare termination letters and final pay details, and advise on conducting exit meetings. Post-termination, HR handles the exit process, including benefits information and retrieval of company property. They may also address any claims made by the terminated employee, such as unemployment benefits or wrongful termination.

Role and Responsibilities of Managers 

Managers also play a crucial role in the termination process, as they are responsible for communicating the decision with clarity and respect, focusing on business reasons. They work with HR to ensure compliance with legal and company standards, oversee the reassignment of tasks, and maintain team morale. Managers should also provide feedback to HR about the termination process, aiding in future policy improvements.

Role and Responsibilities of Legal Counsel

Legal counsel is crucial in high-risk terminations or where legal complexities are involved. They ensure the termination adheres to state employment laws, and they assess legal risks. Advising on the precise language of termination documents to prevent legal issues, they guide companies through sensitive terminations and represent the employer in lawsuits, leveraging their expertise in employment law. 

How Long Should the Termination Process Last in Hawaii?

In Hawaii, the termination process should be managed delicately over the course of several weeks. Firstly, employers should assess termination reasons, reviewing the employee’s performance and conduct. The duration of this procedure varies, depending on whether the employee was terminated for misconduct, performance issues, or for any other reason. 

Preparations for the termination meeting include drafting a letter and organizing final pay. This will require coordination with HR and possibly legal counsel. The meeting kept private and concise, should address termination reasons and next steps, including benefits continuation options under COBRA and the return of company property. Post-meeting, employers finalize pay and benefits and communicate changes to the team in a way that respects the privacy of the terminated individual and minimizes disruption of workplace morale. 

The entire termination process in Hawaii generally takes a few weeks from start to finish. During this time, it’s essential to strike a balance between timeliness and thoroughness. Speeding through the process can risk legal complications while taking too long can cause employee uncertainty and stress.

How Can You Prepare for Termination in Hawaii?

Preparing for termination in Hawaii involves a series of steps, which include:

  • Understand Legal Requirements: Familiarize yourself with the termination regulations in Hawaii, which follow the “at-will” employment doctrine. This rule allows either the employer or employee to terminate the employment relationship at any time, with or without cause. However, note that terminations based on discriminatory reasons or as retaliation for legally protected activities like whistleblowing are illegal. 
  • Review Employment Contracts and Company Policies: Closely examine the employee’s contract and your company’s policies to understand termination protocols, such as notice periods and severance packages. 
  • Document Performance Issues: When planning a termination for performance reasons, thoroughly review the employee’s performance records and the reasons for dismissal. Important documentation, such as records of disciplinary actions and communications regarding performance issues, should be gathered to defend against any legal disputes. The documentation must include a termination letter that specifies the dismissal reason, effective date, benefits continuation, and severance details, if applicable. 
  • Prepare for the Termination Meeting: Organize a termination meeting with an HR representative and the employee’s supervisor. The meeting should be held in a private setting to minimize any effect on other employees. Prepare what you will say, keeping it professional and focusing on facts, rather than any discriminatory or personal language. 
  • Inform the Employee About Final Paycheck and Benefits: In the termination meeting, explain to the employee their rights regarding benefits continuation, such as health insurance through COBRA. Issue the final paycheck within the legal timeframe – in Hawaii, it’s illegal to withhold the final paycheck any later than the next regular payday, or even before that, if the employee has resigned with at least one pay period’s notice. 
  • Conduct an Exit Interview: This step is optional but can be a source of valuable feedback, helping you avoid similar situations in the future. An exit interview should be conducted in a positive, understanding, and professional manner, providing the employee with closure. 
  • Collect Company Property: Make sure that the employee returns all company property. Additionally, take immediate steps to protect company data and systems by revoking access to computer systems, email accounts, and premises as appropriate.
  • Communicate the Change to Your Team: After termination, it’s important to inform your team about the departure in a way that maintains the privacy of the former employee and helps them adjust to any reallocation of tasks. 
  • Seek Legal Advice When Necessary: If there are any complexities or uncertainties, it’s wise to consult with an employment attorney to ensure all actions are compliant with current laws.
  • Update Your Records: After the termination, it’s beneficial to review and update employment practices, reflecting on potential areas of policy improvement, such as in recruitment, training, and performance evaluation.

Steps for a Respectful Termination Process in Hawaii

  • Ensure Legal Compliance: Verify that your company’s policies are in line with federal, state, and local laws to prevent legal issues, and confirm terminations adhere to both company rules and legal standards. Key laws to consider include anti-discrimination acts like the Hawaii Employment Practices Act. Although Hawaii is an “at-will” employment state, certain terminations, such as those that discriminate on the grounds of race, age, or gender, could have legal repercussions.
  • Document Performance and Conduct Issues: Keep a detailed account of any performance issues or misconduct of the employee involved, including evaluations, written warnings, disciplinary measures, and relevant communications. This documentation is crucial for supporting the termination decision, particularly if it comes under legal scrutiny later on.
  • Plan the Termination Meeting: Organize a private meeting to inform the employee of their termination, choosing a suitable time with an HR witness present. Plan what you will say, focusing on facts to avoid discriminatory or personal comments. You should also offer information on the COBRA for continuing health insurance coverage. 
  • Manage Company Property Return: Arrange for the return of company property, such as identity cards/badges, any keys, laptops/PCs, or any mobile devices. This should be done after the termination meeting to ensure all property is promptly returned and accounted for. 
  • Secure Company Assets and Information: Immediately revoke the employee’s access to company systems, including their email account, computer access, and access to physical premises. This measure is vital for security, and safeguarding sensitive data and company resources. 
  • Communicate with the Remaining Team: Inform the rest of the team about the employee’s departure respectfully, without divulging private reasons for the termination. Focus on sustaining a positive work atmosphere and smooth workflow, addressing any concerns about the impact on the team. 
  • Consult with a Legal Expert: In cases where the termination is complex, or if there’s uncertainty about legal compliance, consult with an attorney. This ensures that your decisions are in line with the latest legal standards. 
  • Document the Termination Process: Keep a detailed record of the entire termination process, including all communications and details of the termination meeting, to defend the company in potential legal disputes. This documentation also presents an opportunity to review company policies and identify any issues with the termination process. 

Post-Termination: What Happens Next?

After termination in Hawaii, several key steps must be followed to ensure a smooth transition and a positive work environment. Firstly, the final paycheck should be issued by the next regular payday, as per Hawaii’s final pay laws. Both employer and employee must keep a record of this payment, including any accrued vacation or bonuses. 

Retrieve all company property from the employee, such as electronic devices or access cards, using a detailed inventory to ensure nothing is missed, and revoke the terminated employee’s access to company systems and physical premises to protect confidential information and assets. 

Employers must also inform the terminated employee about COBRA or other health insurance options, to ensure they are aware of their rights post-termination. Managing the impact of this change on company culture and staff morale is also important. This may involve team discussions or one-to-ones to address any concerns or to reassure employees about their own job security. During these discussions, the colleague’s departure must be handled in a respectful way to maintain confidentiality, focusing on the future and business continuity. 

When an employee leaves, it can impact the distribution of tasks within the team. Reassess the team’s structure reallocate tasks and hire new staff where necessary. Engage with your team, as their input can be valuable in understanding the dynamics and requirements of the roles affected.

Lastly, reflect on the termination process itself. Assess the reasons behind it, identifying any lessons to be learned or areas for improvement in hiring, training, or management practices. This reflection can help prevent similar situations in the future and improve overall workplace efficiency and morale.

Legal Considerations During Termination in Hawaii

  • The Hawaii Employment Practices Act: This act prohibits employment termination based on protected characteristics like race, gender, age, and credit history. Employers in Hawaii must document legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for termination to ensure that the termination process adheres to state and federal laws. 
  • The Hawaii Whistleblower Protection Act: In Hawaii, it is illegal to terminate employment for retaliatory reasons. Employers must not, under any circumstances, fire an employee for reporting illegal activities, otherwise they may be liable for compensation for lost wages or the employee’s reinstatement. 
  • Hawaii Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act: In Hawaii, businesses with 50 or more full-time workers are required by this WARN Act to notify employers 60 days in advance of mass layoffs or plant closings. Failure to comply can result in penalties, including back pay for employees.
  • Hawaii Labor Laws Regarding Final Pay: In Hawaii, employers are required to issue the final paycheck no later than the next regular payday, or even earlier if the employee gives at least one pay period’s notice of resignation. Ensuring timely payment of final wages is critical to prevent legal issues or claims for unpaid wages.
  • Hawaii’s “At-Will” Employment Doctrine: Hawaii follows the “at-will” employment doctrine, allowing both employers and employees to terminate the employment relationship at any time without cause. While this provides flexibility, employers should be vigilant in ensuring their terminations are not based on discrimination or retaliation.

Bonus: Best Practices for Reducing Litigation Risks in Hawaii

  • Develop Comprehensive Employment Policies: Your first line of defense in Hawaii is a clear and comprehensive set of employment policies. These should encompass recruitment, work behavior expectations, disciplinary procedures, and the termination process, ensuring adherence to federal and state regulations.
  • Maintain Transparency and Encourage Open Dialogue: Employees should be well-versed in employment policies and feel at ease voicing concerns or issues. Promoting clear communication about expectations and promptly addressing any matters can help prevent them from escalating to legal disputes. 
  • Regular Training for Management and Staff: Regularly train your managers and staff on company policies, with an emphasis on anti-discrimination, workplace harassment, and safety regulations. Training not only ensures everyone understands company policies and legal obligations but also demonstrates your commitment to a fair and compliant workplace.
  • Maintain Accurate and Thorough Records: Documenting every aspect of an employee’s time with the company, such as performance evaluations, disciplinary measures, and any reports of misconduct, is crucial for minimizing legal challenges. These records back up employment decisions, including dismissals, and are vital for defending the company against claims of wrongful termination or discrimination.
  • Fair and Consistent Policy Enforcement: Policies should be applied consistently across the board. This includes uniformly enforcing disciplinary actions and termination decisions, otherwise, claims of unfair treatment or discrimination may arise. 
  • Conduct Regular Legal Compliance Audits: Regularly review and adjust company policies to ensure they’re in line with the latest legal standards. Given the evolving nature of employment laws, working with a professional to conduct audits may be helpful. 
  • Conduct Exit Interviews: Exit interviews are a chance to gain insights into the workplace culture and identify areas to improve. They offer a setting to address any remaining issues with the terminated employee to prevent these concerns from escalating into legal matters.
  • Seek Advice from Legal Experts: Regular consultation with legal professionals can ensure you stay compliant with current laws and address any legal issues so that termination is handled correctly. 

Final Thoughts

Firing employees in Hawaii requires careful planning, fairness, and thorough record-keeping. How terminations are conducted affects the work environment, employee loyalty, the company’s integrity, and its reputation. Employers must therefore be consistent in their adherence to company policies to ensure that terminations are non-discriminatory and can be legally justified. 

Important Cautionary Note

This content is provided for informational purposes only. While we make every effort to ensure the accuracy of the information presented, we cannot guarantee that it is free of errors or omissions. Users are advised to independently verify any critical information and should not solely rely on the content provided.