Can I fire someone for...? 10 of the most Googled dismissal questions answered

Phil Kendall

Nov 2021 ⋅ 8 min read

Close up photo of a woman holding a cardboard box filled with stationery items,

Have an employee who’s always showing up late for work? A member of your team who keeps pulling sickies or slipping out for unauthorised breaks?

You might feel like you have no option but to let them go, but before you reach for that big red button and fire someone, you might want to check that your reason for doing so is technically valid.

In today’s blog, we’ll be discussing 10 of the most frequently Googled questions about firing staff, assessing whether they’re really grounds for termination, and offering up some helpful tips for managers.

We hope you find it useful.

1. Can I fire someone for no reason?

Curiously, the most commonly Googled question about firing staff is whether an employer can terminate an employee without having an actual reason.

The short answer is no. At least, not without risking some kind of legal challenge from the employee in question.

When dismissing a member of staff, employers must always:

  1. Show that they have a valid reason to fire the employee.
  2. Show that they’ve “acted reasonably” in the circumstances.

The second point here is open to interpretation, but basically means that you haven’t purposely looked for an excuse to fire someone or flown off the handle over something you’d allow another member of staff to do.

If in doubt, check out the UK government’s page on fair dismissals before taking any action.

2. Can I fire someone for being off sick?

Any form of employee absence can put a strain on your business, but someone being off sick isn’t grounds for immediate dismissal.

If an employee is continually or repeatedly absent due to illness, however, and you believe that it’s impacting operations at your business, then you’ll need to trigger your capability procedure.

A capability procedure sets out what’s required of an employee in each role at your company, and should be clearly detailed in your employee handbook. It also outlines the steps to be taken if an employee isn’t meeting those standards.

As an employer, it’s your responsibility to make adjustments to support an employee’s return to work if they’ve been absent due to ill health. For example, you might consider adjusting their shift times or working environment, or even helping them access counselling services if their mental health is suffering.

If, after making reasonable efforts to accommodate your employee, you find that they’re still not able to perform their job to the required standard, then you might want to consider letting them go.

Just be sure to document the steps you take and explain any decisions made along the way — and be aware that absence triggers for employees classed as having a disability, or staff who are experiencing sickness due to pregnancy or maternity, would be considered exempt.

3. Can I fire someone for being late to work?

Staff showing up late for work can be frustrating. You can’t, however, fire someone on the spot for being late.

The first thing to do in the event that one of your team is repeatedly showing up late is to find out why it’s happening. If it’s something that’s out of their control, then it would be unfair to dismiss them — but they could benefit from your support.

If you feel that the employee’s reasons for being late aren’t valid, then you’ll need to take action. This could be an official warning that you document somewhere on your employee’s file, or perhaps just a quiet word in the back office.

If there’s no improvement following this warning, then you'll need to give them a written warning, explaining that a failure to improve may result in termination.

If the employee continues to arrive late for work after this, then you may have no option but to fire them. Keep in mind, though, that you’ll need to document the steps you’ve taken in the lead-up to this in order to avoid claims of unfair dismissal.

You’ll also need to show that you’ve given the employee in question time to turn things around — it’s no good issuing a warning one day and firing them the next if the employee hasn’t had chance to deal with whatever was causing them to be late in the first place.

Be sure to refer to ACAS procedure if you’re unsure of the steps to take when formally disciplining an employee.

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4. Can I fire someone for not being a good fit?

This is a tricky one, since whether or not a person is a “good fit” for your company is entirely subjective.

So long as your employee is doing the work that’s required of them, and to the required standard, then you couldn’t reasonably fire them on the grounds that they’re not fitting in.

Even in the event that an employee’s personal traits or characteristics do somehow affect their performance at work, employers are required by law to follow their company’s capability procedure to help that employee improve before attempting to let them go.

On the other end of the spectrum, if an employee is behaving inappropriately or being disrespectful to others, then this should be tackled as a disciplinary matter, with clear and fair warnings given and the employee made aware of what has to change.

Either way, you can’t fire someone simply because they’re “not a good fit”.

5. Can I fire someone for not showing up to work?

It can be really frustrating when a member of staff misses one of their shifts. Productivity drops, customers get irritable, and the rest of your team end up overworked as they try to pick up the slack.

When a member of your team fails to show up for a shift without contacting you beforehand, then the first thing you should do is attempt to reach them — or their nominated emergency contact if that’s not possible — by phone.

Being absent without leave (AWOL) is usually considered an act of misconduct and can be grounds for dismissal, but you should start by conducting a disciplinary meeting when the employee returns to work to ascertain the reason for their absence.

If they’re unable to give a valid reason, or if they’re repeatedly absent, then you’ll need to issue your employee with a formal warning, which could eventually lead to dismissal — again, providing that you follow the ACAS disciplinary procedure.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can fire a consistently absent employee without the risk of reprisal, however — if challenged, you’ll need to be able to prove that you had reasonable grounds for dismissal.

Be sure to keep written records of any warnings you’ve issued, and ideally a log of their shifts and clock-ins (or lack thereof) to point to if your decision is challenged.

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6. Can I fire someone during probation?

The probation period is the “easiest” time to fire an employee, but that doesn’t mean you can let someone go for any old reason.

Probation periods are a time for employers and new employees alike to test the water. On paper, a new hire might seem like the right person for the job, but it’s only once they've settled in that you’ll know for sure whether the relationship will work out.

If, during their probation period, an employee is found to lack the necessary skills for their role, or behaves in a way that violates company policy, then you may be able to let them go — so long as you follow the relevant capability or disciplinary procedures.

As discussed above, you couldn’t fire someone on the grounds of them “not being a good fit” for your company, regardless of whether they’re in their probation period. Nor would it be acceptable to fire someone for a reason that would be classed as discriminatory — for example, because of a protected characteristic such as age, gender or race. This is illegal under UK law, both within and outside of an employee’s probationary period.

Finally, unless their contract states otherwise, employees should be given at least one week’s notice if let go during their probation period. If an employee has been with you for less than one month, then only one day’s notice is required.

7. Can I fire someone for insubordination?

First, let’s cover what insubordination actually means.

Unlike insolence — which typically refers to rude or generally disrespectful behaviour at work — insubordination usually refers to when an employee refuses to follow instruction relating to their job, or when they openly disrespect their manager, supervisor, or employer.

Low-level insubordination — for example using crude or inappropriate language when engaging with a superior — wouldn’t be considered grounds for termination. Managers would be required to issue warnings and to give the employee a chance to mend their ways before even considering firing them.

An employee repeatedly refusing to follow instruction, however, would be considered an act of gross misconduct, and is grounds for termination — again, provided that the employer can prove that they’ve acted fairly and followed procedure.

8. Can I fire someone for lying?

This all depends on the nature of the lie — and how serious the repercussions are.

A particularly serious lie told by an employee — for example, something about a manager, a customer, or even the business itself — could be classed as gross misconduct, and therefore be grounds for dismissal.

On the other hand, a lie about, say, having done a piece of work when you haven’t, is unlikely to be cause for dismissal on its own, but should absolutely be investigated by the employee’s line manager.

Bear in mind that not every lie comes from a desire to deceive for the sake of it — an employee might lie to cover up an insecurity or because they feel overwhelmed with their workload and worry that admitting to it could get them into trouble.

Sometimes, it’s better to find out the reason for a lie than to pounce on the mere fact that a lie was told in the first place.

9. Can I fire someone for looking for another job?

Finding out that one of your staff is thinking about leaving you is bound to hurt. But it’s not a sackable offence.

You might argue that, since your employee is actively seeking employment elsewhere, then their commitment to the company — and possibly even their day-to-day productivity — will be reduced, thus giving you fair grounds for letting them go.

This would be difficult to prove, however, so dismissing an employee simply because you’ve found out that they’re looking for another job could easily result in claims of unfair dismissal.

The only thing that you might reasonably be able to call your employee out for is if they’re doing their job-searching during company time or using company equipment, which should be dealt with in the same way as you would any other employee misusing company time.

Just be careful that you don’t unconsciously come down harder on an employee caught browsing job sites than you would someone who’s wasting time on their fantasy football team!

10. Can I fire someone without giving them notice?

In the vast majority of cases, employers are required to give their staff notice and pay in line with what’s set out in their contract before letting them go. (Similar rules will also apply when making redundancies.)

Even in instances of gross misconduct — for example theft, physical violence, gross negligence or serious insubordination — a full investigation would have to be carried out before terminating someone’s contract.

Only once the relevant procedure has been followed and the employee has been given an opportunity to respond to any accusations can an employer fire an employee.

In short, no, you can’t fire someone on the spot, even when an offence has occurred.

Visit the RotaCloud Small Business Success blog homepage for more people management tips.