Guide to Firing Employees in Washington for Employers

March 12th 2024

Firing an employee is one of the most challenging tasks for any employer, carrying legal, financial, and interpersonal implications. In Washington, as in many other states, there are specific laws and regulations governing the termination process that both employers and employees need to understand. From reasons for termination to documentation requirements, navigating these guidelines is crucial to ensure a fair and lawful dismissal. Read on as we cover the essential aspects of firing employees, for Washington-based employers.

This Guide Covers

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

What Does Firing an Employee Involve?

Firing or terminating an employee is basically the process of an employer permanently ending an employee’s contract of employment with their company. This decision can be driven by various factors including, but not limited to, performance issues, misconduct, redundancy, or business closure.

Differentiating between Firing, Layoffs, and Resignations in Washington

In the context of employment terminations, it’s crucial for employers, especially those in Washington, to carefully understand the differences between firing, layoffs, and resignations. Each scenario has distinct implications for both the employee and employer, and handling them appropriately is essential to maintain a fair workplace and comply with legal standards.

Firing in Washington

Firing, or dismissal, is an employer-initiated termination of an employee’s contract due to performance issues, misconduct, or breach of company policy. In Washington, employment is generally considered “at will”, meaning employers can fire employees for any reason not prohibited by law (such as discrimination or retaliation). However, employers must still follow any policies they have established regarding disciplinary actions or termination procedures. Documentation is critical in these instances to protect the business from potential legal challenges, ensuring that the reasons for firing are clear, well-documented, and communicated to the employee.

Layoffs in Washington

Layoffs occur when employees are let go due to business reasons unrelated to their performance or behavior, such as economic downturns, business restructuring, or the elimination of their positions. Unlike firings, layoffs are not a reflection of the employee’s job overall performance. Washington employers contemplating layoffs must be mindful of the WARN Act, which requires most businesses with 100 or more employees to provide 60 days’ notice of significant plant closings or mass layoffs. Employers should also consider the impact on the remaining workforce and may offer severance packages or outplacement services to support affected employees.

Resignations in Washington

Resignations in Washington are initiated by employees who choose to leave their employment/position voluntarily. The reasons for resignation can vary widely, from personal circumstances to accepting a position elsewhere. While employers cannot prevent an employee from resigning, they can create an environment that encourages open communication, potentially addressing concerns that might lead to resignation. Upon receiving notice of resignation, employers in Washington should follow any internal procedures for offboarding, including final paychecks, which must be provided on or before the next scheduled payday.

Why Does the Termination Process Matter in Washington?

The termination process in Washington 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:

  • Legal Compliance: In Washington, adhering to the letter of the law during the termination process is paramount. The state enforces specific regulations governing how terminations should be handled, including but not limited to notice periods, final paychecks, and the handling of accrued benefits. Failing to comply with these legal requirements in Washington can result in significant penalties, legal disputes, and damage to the employer’s overall market reputation.
  • Protecting Employee Rights: The termination process is crucial in safeguarding the rights of employees. It involves ensuring that the reasons for termination are non-discriminatory and justifiable, providing the employee with a clear explanation of the decision, and, where applicable, offering severance or outplacement support. By formalizing these steps, employers can demonstrate their commitment to treating each employee fairly and with dignity.
  • Maintaining Workplace Morale: The manner in which terminations are handled can significantly impact the morale and productivity of the remaining workforce. A transparent and respectful termination process shows current employees that the company values fairness and integrity, which can enhance trust and loyalty among the team. Conversely, mishandled terminations in Washington can lead to fear, uncertainty, and a decline in employee engagement, negatively affecting the overall work environment and company culture.
  • Mitigating Financial Risks: A well-managed termination process in Washington can also mitigate financial risks associated with wrongful termination claims, discrimination lawsuits, and other legal actions that may arise from disgruntled former employees. By ensuring that each step of the process is legally compliant and appropriately documented, employers can better defend against such claims, potentially saving significant amounts in legal fees and settlements.
  • Upholding Company Reputation: Finally, how a company handles terminations can affect its reputation, both within the industry and in the broader community. Fair and respectful terminations contribute to a positive image, aiding in the attraction and retention of talent, as well as maintaining customer loyalty. In contrast, publicized instances of poorly handled terminations can tarnish a company’s reputation, impacting its ability to do business effectively.

Termination Laws in Washington: What You Need to Know

Here are the termination laws that the Washington workforce should be familiar with:

Laws Regarding Termination of On-Site Employees in Washington

  • Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD): The Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) is vital in prohibiting employment discrimination on various bases, including race, gender, and age. It ensures that terminations cannot be predicated on these protected characteristics, aiming to foster a fair workplace environment for on-site employees.
  • Washington Minimum Wage Act: The Washington Minimum Wage Act mandates timely payment to employees upon termination, requiring that final wages be paid by the end of the next business day after an employee is terminated from the company. This swift timeline underscores the importance of respecting the financial needs of departing on-site employees.
  • Washington Family Leave Act (WFLA): Though not directly a termination law, the Washington Family Leave Act (WFLA) is relevant as it protects employees’ jobs under certain family or medical leave circumstances. Understanding this act is crucial for employers to ensure that terminations do not unlawfully infringe upon an employee’s protected leave rights.

Laws Regarding Termination of Remote Employees in Washington

  • Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA): While a federal law, the FLSA’s applicability to remote employees in Washington underscores the requirement for proper compensation, especially regarding overtime, up to the point of termination. It ensures that remote workers are paid fairly for all hours worked, including any applicable overtime, through to their last working day.
  • Washington State Telework Protection Act: The Washington State Telework Protection Act provides protections for remote employees, ensuring that their geographical location or telework status does not unfairly impact termination decisions. Furthermore, it highlights the need for equitable treatment of remote workers in comparison to their on-site counterparts.
  • Electronic Information Privacy Act (EIPA): Again, while not directly related to termination, the Electronic Information Privacy Act (EIPA) protects the privacy and digital rights of remote employees, particularly concerning the use and monitoring of electronic devices and communications. Employers need to navigate the termination of remote employees carefully, ensuring compliance with privacy rights up until the termination date and beyond.

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

  • Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD): Under the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), it is unlawful to terminate an employee in Washington based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, age (40 and over), marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or veteran status. If an employer dismisses an employee for any of these reasons, the employee may have grounds for a wrongful termination lawsuit. Such legal actions can result in the employer being required to pay damages, including back pay, reinstatement, legal fees, and potentially punitive damages, depending on the severity of the discrimination.
  • Retaliation Claims: Washington protects employees from retaliation for engaging in legally protected activities, such as filing a complaint about discrimination in the workplace, participating in a court investigation, or whistleblowing on illegal practices. Terminating an employee as a form of retaliation can lead to significant legal consequences, including compensatory damages and reinstatement. Employers must ensure that any termination is not linked to an employee’s engagement in protected activities to avoid these repercussions.
  • Breach of Contract Claims: For employees in Washington who have a written, oral, or implied contract that provides specific protections against termination, dismissing the employee in violation of these terms can lead to a breach of contract claim. In such cases, the employer might be liable for any damages that include lost wages and employment benefits. Employers should review all contractual agreements with employees before proceeding with termination to ensure compliance with any terms that limit the reasons or procedures for termination.
  • Public Policy Violations: Washington recognizes wrongful termination claims when an employee in the state is terminated for reasons that violate public policy, such as refusing to engage in illegal activities at the request of an employer or performing a public duty like jury service. Employers found to have violated public policy through wrongful termination may face lawsuits resulting in hefty compensatory damages and, in some cases, punitive damages.
  • Constructive Dismissal: While not a direct form of termination, constructive dismissal occurs when an employer in Washington creates or allows the continuation of a work environment so intolerable that an employee feels compelled to resign. If it can be shown that the employer intended for the employee to resign or knew about and failed to remediate the situation, the employer may face legal action similar to those for wrongful termination cases.

Required Documents for Employers and Terminated Employees in Washington

Here’s a detailed breakdown of the essential documents required in the termination process:

Employers’ Requirements 

  • Final Paycheck Documentation: Washington state law mandates that employers provide the final paycheck to terminated employees by the end of the next business day. This official final paycheck documentation should include not only the final wages owed for the period worked up until termination but also compensation for accrued but unused vacation time or paid time off (PTO) if the company policy allows for such compensatory payouts.
  • Termination Letter: While not legally required in every scenario, providing a termination letter can help clarify the reasons for termination, the effective date, and any next steps. This document should include information on the final paycheck, a summary of any continuing benefits, and the return of company property after termination.
  • Benefits Information: Employers should provide documentation related to the continuation of health benefits, if applicable. This includes information on COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act), which allows former employees the option to continue their health insurance coverage for a limited time, assuming they cover the full cost of the premiums.
  • Separation Agreement (Optional): Some employers might offer a separation agreement that includes the terms of the termination, such as severance pay, in exchange for not pursuing legal action against the company. This document should be drafted to ensure compliance with legal standards and is typically accompanied by a release of claims against the employer.

Terminated Employees’ Requirements 

  • Acknowledgment of Received Documents: Terminated employees should provide acknowledgment for any documents received during the termination process. This may include the termination letter, benefits information, and the separation agreement, if applicable.
  • Company Property Receipt: If the employee is responsible for returning company property, a document detailing the items returned and their condition can be beneficial. Both the employer and the employee should sign this receipt to acknowledge the return of the property.
  • Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) and Non-Compete Agreement: If the employee signed an NDA or a non-compete agreement at the beginning, they might be reminded of these obligations upon termination. While not a new requirement at termination, reviewing these documents can help ensure the employee understands their continuing obligations.
  • Unemployment Benefits Application: While this is not a requirement from the employer, terminated employees may need to file for unemployment benefits. Providing employees with information on how to apply for these benefits can be part of a supportive termination process.

Who Should be Responsible for Terminating in Washington?

In Washington, the responsibility for terminating an employee is shared among Human Resources (HR), managers, and legal counsel. Each has a crucial role to play in ensuring the process is conducted fairly, respectfully, sensitively, and in compliance with Washington laws. 

Role and Responsibilities of Human Resources 

Human Resources (HR) plays a central role in the termination process, ensuring that all procedures are followed in accordance with company policy and state laws. In Washington, HR is responsible for preparing the necessary termination documents, including the final paycheck, benefits information, and any separation agreements. Additionally, HR provides guidance on best practices to managers, assists with the communication of the termination, and handles any post-termination inquiries, such as unemployment claims or requests for references.

Role and Responsibilities of Managers 

Managers in Washington are typically responsible for the initial steps in the termination process, including documenting performance issues with employee’s work and policy violations that actually lead to the termination decision. They often deliver the termination news to the employee in coordination with HR and provide context about the reasons behind the decision. On the other hand, managers also play a key role in managing the team’s response to the termination, addressing any impact on morale, and redistributing workloads as necessary.

Role and Responsibilities of Legal Counsel

Legal counsel’s involvement in Washington, as in other states, is crucial to ensure the termination process complies with federal and state employment laws, thereby minimizing the risk of legal repercussions for wrongful termination claims. They review the termination documents for legal accuracy and advise on any potential legal risks associated with the termination. Legal counsel may also be involved in negotiating separation agreements and representing the company in the event of any legal challenges arising from the termination.

How Long Should the Termination Process Last in Washington?

In Washington, the duration of the termination process can vary depending on the complexity of the situation, the reasons, and whether it involves a dismissal or a more complex legal matter.

Generally, the process should be as swift and efficient as possible to minimize stress for all parties involved. From the moment a decision is made to terminate an employee, the actual notification and finalization of the process should ideally occur within a few days to a week. 

This timeline allows for the necessary paperwork and logistics, such as the preparation of the final paycheck (which, according to Washington state law, must be provided on the next scheduled payday or sooner if the employee requests it), to be completed in a timely manner. 

It also provides a window for HR to prepare the termination letter and for any consultations with legal counsel to ensure compliance with state laws. However, in cases where a severance package is negotiated or where there are complications, such as disputes over the reasons for termination, the process may take longer. It’s crucial for employers to balance the need for a prompt process with the importance of thoroughness and compliance with legal requirements.

How Can You Prepare for Termination in Washington?

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

  • Document performance issues and policy violations clearly and consistently.
  • Review the employee’s file for previous warnings or disciplinary actions.
  • Consult with HR to ensure compliance with company policies and state laws.
  • Prepare a detailed termination letter outlining the reasons for dismissal.
  • Arrange a final paycheck in accordance with Washington state law.
  • Schedule a termination meeting with HR and the employee involved.
  • Organize for the return of company property (e.g., laptops, mobile, ID badges),
  • Provide information on COBRA or other benefits continuation if applicable.
  • Discuss the termination process with legal counsel if necessary.
  • Plan for the communication of the termination to the rest of the team.
  • Consider the need for a severance package or separation agreement.
  • Prepare for unemployment claims by gathering the necessary documentation.

Steps for a Respectful Termination Process in Washington

Here are the steps to ensure a respectful termination process in Washington:

  • Step 1: Review Employee Performance and Documentation: Before proceeding with the termination process, ensure you have a clear, documented history of the employee’s overall performance issues or policy violations. This documentation should include any warnings given, performance reviews, and any efforts made to assist the employee in improving, such as training or counseling. This step is critical for fairness and to protect against potential legal challenges.
  • Step 2: Check Compliance with Laws and Policies: Next, review both Washington state laws and your company’s internal policies regarding termination. This step includes carefully understanding any contractual obligations, ensuring there’s no violation of anti-discrimination laws, and following any established procedures for termination within your company. It’s also important to be aware of the Washington State Final Paycheck Law, which requires that employees receive their final paycheck on or before the next regularly scheduled pay date.
  • Step 3: Prepare for the Termination Meeting: Plan the meeting in advance, choosing a private location to maintain confidentiality and respect for the terminated employee. It’s also advisable to have a witness present, typically someone from the HR department, to ensure the process goes as planned and to document the meeting. Prepare all necessary documents in advance, including the employee’s final paycheck (as required by Washington state law), any documents related to the termination, and information on benefits or any severance package.
  • Step 4: Conduct the Termination Meeting: During the meeting, be direct but respectful. Clearly explain the reasons for the termination, sticking to the facts and avoiding any language that could be seen as personal. Provide the employee with the documentation prepared earlier, including their final paycheck and any information about benefits continuation or severance pay. Allow the employee to ask questions and answer them as clearly and respectfully as possible.
  • Step 5: Manage Post-Termination Logistics: After the meeting, take care of any logistical issues, such as retrieving company property, deactivating access to company systems, and informing the employee about how and when they can collect personal belongings from the office. Ensure the process is respectful and protects the employee’s privacy and dignity.
  • Step 6: Communicate the Termination to Other Employees: Inform your team about the termination in a way that respects the privacy of the individual who has left, focusing on the future and the continued success of the company. Avoid sharing exact details about the termination and encourage the team to focus and support each other during the transition.
  • Step 7: Review and Reflect: After the termination process is complete, review the process to identify any areas for improvement. This can help refine your approach to future terminations, ensuring they are handled as respectfully and efficiently as possible. Reflecting on the process can also help improve the company’s performance management and disciplinary processes.

Post-Termination: What Happens Next?

After a termination, several steps are taken to transition smoothly and address both the company’s and the employee’s needs. Initially, the company will finalize any administrative tasks, such as ensuring the return of company property, finalizing the employee’s last paycheck in accordance with state laws, and managing benefits or severance details if applicable. This helps in closing the employee’s chapter with the company cleanly and without loose ends.

The next phase involves communication within the company. It’s important to inform the team about the departure in a manner that respects the privacy of the former employee while also maintaining team morale. This communication should be carefully managed to avoid spreading unnecessary details about why the termination happened and to focus on the path forward.

Additionally, the termination might prompt a review of workplace policies, practices, and culture. This can be an opportunity to implement changes that could prevent future terminations for similar reasons. It also serves as a critical moment to reassess job roles and team dynamics, potentially leading to restructuring or hiring to fill the now vacant position.

Overall, the post-termination period is marked by transition and adjustment, with both the company and the terminated employee taking steps to move forward from the situation.

Legal Considerations During Termination in Washington

Here’s an overview of important legal considerations during termination in Washington:

  • Washington State Law on Final Paychecks: One of the immediate concerns following termination is the issuance of the final paycheck. Under Washington state law, employers are required to provide the final paycheck to the departing employee on or before the next regularly scheduled pay date. This law focuses on all wages owed to the employee up until the termination date. Failing to adhere to this requirement can result in legal penalties against the employer.
  • Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD): The Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD) makes it illegal to terminate an employee based on race, creed, color, national origin, families with children, sex, marital status, sexual orientation (including gender expression or identity), age (40 and over), disability, or honorably discharged veteran or military status. Employers must ensure that the termination process is free from discrimination and that decisions are based on legitimate reasons, well-documented performance issues, or violations.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Washington State’s Laws: Similar to federal law, Washington state law also protects employees with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Employers need to provide accommodations for employees with disabilities and ensure that any termination decisions are not based on the disability itself but on the employee’s ability to perform their job duties with or without reasonable accommodation.
  • Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and Washington Family Leave Act (WFLA): The FMLA and the WFLA provide certain employees in Washington with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year for specified family and medical reasons. Employers must ensure that the decision to terminate an employee is not related to their request for or taking of FMLA or WFLA leave. Such actions could be deemed retaliatory and lead to legal complications.
  • Unemployment Insurance: Following a termination, employees may file for unemployment benefits. The Washington State Employment Security Department (ESD) administers these benefits. Employers should be prepared to provide the ESD with information regarding the termination, as the reason for the termination can affect an employee’s eligibility for unemployment benefits. Misconduct by the employee may disqualify them from receiving benefits, whereas layoffs or terminations not related to misconduct typically do not.
  • Constructive Discharge Considerations: Employers should be aware of the concept of constructive discharge, where an employee’s resignation could legally be considered a termination due to the employer creating a work environment so intolerable that the employee felt compelled to resign. Such situations can lead to legal action if the employee leaving can prove that their resignation was, in effect, a termination initiated by the employer’s actions.

Bonus: Best Practices for Reducing Litigation Risks in Washington

To effectively minimize litigation risks in the workplace, especially in a state with as diverse and complex employment laws as Washington, employers must adopt a strategic approach. Here are best practices tailored for employers in Washington to reduce the likelihood of legal disputes:

  • Develop Clear Employment Policies: Creating and maintaining a comprehensive employee handbook is extremely critical. This handbook should clearly outline all company policies, including equal employment opportunities, anti-harassment, disciplinary procedures, and termination processes. Ensure that all employees have access to this handbook and understand its contents. Regularly updating the handbook and obtaining written acknowledgments from employees for receiving and understanding the policies can significantly reduce litigation risks.
  • Conduct Regular Training: Provide regular training for all employees, including management, on sexual harassment, discrimination, workplace diversity, and inclusion. Training should also cover how to handle complaints and the importance of carefully documenting performance issues and disciplinary actions. This effort ensures that employees are aware of their rights and responsibilities, reducing the likelihood of unlawful conduct.
  • Document Performance Issues and Actions Taken: Documentation is key to defending against wrongful termination or discrimination claims. Maintain detailed records of each employee’s performance, noting both achievements and areas needing improvement. Also, document all instances of disciplinary action, including the reasons for the action, the employee’s response, and any follow-up measures taken. This documentation can provide critical evidence in defending the company’s actions as fair and based on legitimate reasons.
  • Implement Fair and Consistent Disciplinary Procedures: Ensure that disciplinary actions and termination processes are applied consistently across the company. Inconsistencies can lead to claims of discrimination. A clear procedure, outlined in the employee handbook, helps managers deal with issues fairly and consistently, reducing the risk of litigation.
  • Engage in Interactive Processes: When dealing with requests for accommodations, whether for disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or for religious reasons, engage in an interactive process with the employee. Discuss the requested accommodation, assess whether it’s reasonable, and explore alternative options if necessary. Documenting these outcomes is crucial for compliance and can protect against claims of discrimination.
  • Conduct Exit Interviews: Finally, when employees leave, regardless of the circumstances, conduct exit interviews to gather feedback on their work experience within the company. These interviews can actually provide insights into potential issues within the workplace that need to be addressed and may alert you to concerns that could lead to litigation if not resolved.
  • Seek Legal Advice When Necessary: Consult with legal professionals specializing in employment law to ensure your policies and practices comply with current laws and regulations. Legal advice is particularly important when handling complex issues such as terminations, layoffs, and responses to complaints of harassment or discrimination to prevent costly litigation.

Final Thoughts

Terminating an employee is a profound action with significant implications for both the person and the company involved. It’s a procedure that necessitates attention to detail, equity, and strict adherence to legal standards. For employers in Washington, successfully managing this complex situation hinges on thorough preparation, transparent policies, and empathetic implementation. By prioritizing these factors, businesses can facilitate a more seamless transition for everyone involved while also upholding the principles of the organization.