Can I fire someone for…? 10 more common dismissal questions answered

Phil Kendall

Dec 2021 ⋅ 9 min read

Photograph of an interview with one person holding a clipboard

Firing is never fun. There are times, however, when it feels like it’s the only option left.

We’ve already answered 10 of the most googled questions about dismissal, but in today’s blog we’ll be exploring a few of the more unusual queries that managers — and perhaps also their staff — are putting into Google.

We hope you find it useful.

1. Can I fire someone for being drunk at work?

Technically, an employee can be fired for being drunk in the workplace — but don’t be too hasty.

A member of staff either showing up or getting drunk at work could amount to what’s known as gross misconduct — a term that covers a variety of serious offences like theft, harassment, or misuse of confidential information. These are fireable offences.

However, since there are no specific laws (in the UK at least) that prohibit the consumption of alcohol at work, it’s important that employers not only include drugs and alcohol policies in their company and employee handbooks, but make sure that a fair and consistent process is adhered to in the event that someone comes into work drunk.

Before taking action, you’ll need to be sure that a) the employee is, in fact, under the influence of alcohol, and b) that it’s affecting their ability to do the job they were hired for and/or putting someone's safety at risk.

If you’re certain that the answer to both of these questions is "yes", then as an employer you’d be within your rights to act — whether that means issuing a warning or dismissing the employee will depend on your company’s policies and the severity of the offence.

Keep in mind, however, that alcoholism is an illness. If a member of your team feels that they have a problem with alcohol, they should be offered support by their employer — dismissal wouldn't be considered either fair or legal.

2. Can I fire someone for being bad at their job?

You can fire someone for poor performance at work, but not on the spot.

It can be difficult to define what someone being “bad” at their job looks like — after all, one person’s “bad” could be another’s “has potential”.

To avoid any confusion, employers should have a clear set of criteria for each role at their business, together with ways of measuring an individual’s performance when carrying it out.

If, when judged against these criteria, one of your employees is found to be underperforming, then they should be made aware of this — as well as given the time and training they need to improve — before you attempt to dismiss them.

The only real exception would be if an employee told you on applying for their role that they possessed skills or qualifications that they don’t, which could be cause for dismissal on the grounds of capability (or lack thereof!) — provided that procedure is followed.

In all other instances, managers should work together with their employee to set goals to help them improve, and agree on a timeline for them to do so. If, by the agreed date, the employee hasn’t shown signs of improvement, then dismissal might be a reasonable option.

Just be sure to document every step in the process — you may need to produce or refer to this if the employee challenges their dismissal at a later date.

3. Can I fire someone for not wearing a mask at work?

Yes, under some circumstances.

The Covid-19 pandemic has left employers with a minefield of legal and administrative challenges to navigate — made even trickier by the fact that there’s so little case law to base decisions on.

If it was set out in company policy that face masks are mandatory at your business for health and safety reasons, however, then an employee can be dismissed if they refuse to comply.

There are some exemptions, of course. Those with medical conditions or who are registered disabled, for example, wouldn’t be required to wear a face mask even if it was stipulated in the employee handbook.

Be sure to find out an employee’s reason for not wearing a mask before taking any sort of disciplinary action.

4. Can I fire someone for not getting vaccinated?

Similar to the above query regarding face masks, vaccinations in the workplace are still something of a contentious issue, and employers are advised to tread carefully.

If the law dictates that an employee must be vaccinated — for example, against Covid-19 — in order to perform a particular job (e.g. care workers in England) then an employer can under some circumstances dismiss them if they refuse to do so and aren't exempt.

Outside of these circumstances, it would be difficult to dismiss someone for not being vaccinated. Employers who wish to could choose to make vaccinations a part of their employment contract, but policing this would be tricky since, in the majority of cases, staff aren’t legally required to reveal their vaccination status to their employer.

Check out our in-depth guide to vaccinations at work for more on this tricky subject.

5. Can I fire someone for their political views?

Squabbles in the workplace regarding politics aren’t uncommon, but in most cases an employer cannot fire an employee simply for holding particular political views.

If an individual’s political views are impacting on their relationships with their coworkers, offending your customers, or somehow affecting their ability to do their job, however, then you have a right to address it — which could include dismissal.

A few examples of when it may be appropriate to take action include when, as a result of their political views, a member of your team:

  • behaves in a way that violates company policy.
  • harasses other employees who disagree with their views.
  • brings the business’ reputation into disrepute.
  • wears a company uniform or branded clothing while protesting in public.
  • makes offensive comments that violate anti-discrimination policies.

If you choose to take action— whether it’s a simple warning or a full-on firing — as a result of an employee’s politically motivated behaviour, be sure to carefully document it and explain your reasoning to the employee clearly.

However you decide to respond, you should take care to ensure that your response is proportionate to the employee’s behaviour, and that it’s not motivated simply by the fact that your employee’s political opinions differ from your own — no matter how extreme they may be.

6. Can I fire someone for something they posted on social media?

You might think that what people do in their own time — including their use of social media — is their own business. Under some circumstances, however, an employee can actually be fired for something they’ve posted or shared online.

When it comes to an employee’s social media use, there are a number of things that could lead to either dismissal or disciplinary action, including (but not limited to):

  • Posting “on behalf” of their employer without permission.
  • Posting disparaging comments about their employer or its customers.
  • Sharing private company information or info about a customer.
  • Expressing personal opinions that could reflect negatively on their employer.

If you’re googling this question, then it’s probably the last of these points that you’re most concerned about.

If there’s a clear link between the person doing the posting and their employer (for example, if they’re a prominent figure at a company, or they mention their employer in their bio), then employers have the right to take action if they feel that their reputation is at risk.

Whether you choose to discipline an employee over the things they share on social media will of course depend on the severity of the situation and the chances that your business’ reputation will be harmed as a consequence.

Be sure to include a social media policy in your company's employee handbook, making it clear what your stance is and the possible repercussions of breaking the rules.

7. Can I fire someone for discussing pay?

Legally, employers can’t prevent their employees from discussing pay with their coworkers — or anyone else, for that matter.

The Equality Act 2010, which covers everything from protected characteristics to prohibited conduct, specifically states that employers can’t include so-called “pay secrecy clauses” in employment contracts.

Firing an employee for discussing their pay with another employee, then, could easily be countered with a claim of unfair dismissal — a claim that’s likely to be upheld if taken to tribunal.

Instead of trying to prevent staff from talking about their pay, it’s probably better to ensure that there are no unfair pay gaps in the first place. That way, if your employees do decide to discuss their salaries with each other, there’s less chance of anyone getting angry or upset.

8. Can I fire someone for pretending to be ill?

An employee can be dismissed for feigning or exaggerating illness in order to take time off — but only if you’re absolutely certain that they’re intentionally misleading you.

If an employee has been absent for more than seven days, then they’ll need to provide a doctor’s note. If their absence is any shorter, you should ask them to self-certify (usually by filling out a return-to-work form) when they come back, outlining the nature of their illness, how long it lasted, and confirming that they’re now fit to work.

If the employee is unwilling or unable to provide a doctor’s note, or they’re repeatedly taking sick days and you’re not convinced that their illness is genuine, then you’d need to investigate the matter further before taking any sort of action.

Start by looking for patterns in their absence. Is the employee always off on a particular day of the week? Do they tend to call in sick when they have, say, a late shift as opposed to a daytime shift?

It helps to keep a record of all instances of sickness across your team. Workforce management software like RotaCloud allows managers to quickly mark absence on employees’ timesheets and generate a variety of reports to help them make and back up difficult decisions.

When you’ve gathered the data you need, sit down with your employee and raise your concerns. In many cases, simply letting them know that there’s a question mark above their absence is enough to stop the behaviour repeating — without the need for disciplinary action.

If, on the other hand, you have reason to believe that a member of your team has lied to you about being ill (for instance, if they said they had severe flu but are later seen enjoying a night out with friends) then it wouldn't be unreasonable to take action.

Start by presenting the facts to the employee as you see them — they claimed to be ill, but they were then seen out with friends, for example — and give them a chance to explain; it not impossible for someone to feel under the weather at the start of the day but be well enough to socialise that evening.

If they can’t, then you may need to issue a formal warning, or in more severe cases, consider dismissal. Whatever action you take, be sure to stick to your company’s policies and ensure that the employee is given fair warning.

9. Can I fire someone for unionising?

An employee cannot be fired simply for being in a union. Similarly, staff can’t be treated any less favourably at work because they’re a union member — or for not being a union member, for that matter!

A member of staff going on strike, however, is slightly trickier.

Going on strike is technically a breach of employment contract — by joining your company, the employee is agreeing to perform specific duties for set pay at an agreed time and location. By failing to show up for work, employees risk disciplinary action, or even dismissal in some cases.

When the strike has been endorsed by a union, however, and the employer has been given due notice (usually one week in the UK) of the action by said union, then any attempt to discipline or dismiss an employee would likely result by legal action in the form of an employment tribunal.

The UK government has a page on its website dedicated to strikes and industrial action. We’d advise all employees thinking about taking part in a strike — and their employers — to familiarise themselves with this before taking action.

10. Can I fire someone for dating a coworker?

Employment laws regarding workplace relationships are stricter in some countries than others. In the US, for instance, it’s not uncommon for private companies to have policies either forbidding workplace romances entirely or dismissing staff for failing to disclose their relationship to HR the moment it began.

In the UK, things are a little more relaxed.

Generally speaking, if one of your employees becomes involved with someone they work with, then that’s their business. So long as it’s not affecting their work, then an employee dating a coworker isn’t something they can be fired for.

The only time a workplace romance might get tricky — and possibly be grounds for disciplinary action — is if one of the individuals involved is in a senior or supervisory position to the other.

If a department head were to become involved with a member of their team, for example, then it could make things difficult down the line.

Did Simon get that promotion because he deserved it, people might wonder, or because of his relationship with his supervisor? Isn’t it weird that Sadie never has to work on the weekend, others might comment, now that she’s going out with Kate who does the rota...

Similarly, relationships of this kind could easily leave the company open to claims of harassment. Someone who’s new to the company or working in a much more junior role, for example, might find it difficult to refuse the advances of someone in a managerial position and feel pressured into going out with them.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to have a policy in place regarding relationships between managers or supervisors and staff. Such individuals entering into a relationship, however, isn’t itself grounds for dismissal.

Check out our tips for managing workplace romances blog for more info.