Dental and Medical Counsel Blog

Employment Separation in the Dental Practice: How to Prepare

April 28, 2022

What to Do if You Need to Fire a Dental Practice Employee

In dental practices, people work closely together. Dentists and their staff may feel like family. When someone is fired, it can be a wrenching experience for everyone who works there. However, as hard as it may be to fire someone, employees don’t always work out and sometimes have to be let go.

At-Will Employment

If you need to fire someone in your dental practice, you should do it in a way that minimizes potential future problems. Many states, including California, are at-will states. If you are the employer, that means that unless you have an employment agreement with an employee that specifies the length of employment, both you and your employees have the right to terminate the employment relationship at any time without notice.

You can fire an employee for any reason, and you can fire an employee for no reason – you just can’t fire them for an illegal reason.

This is where you must be careful. An employee who believes you fired them for an unlawful reason can file a claim for wrongful termination. Employment claims or lawsuits can be expensive, time-consuming, stressful, and disruptive to the smooth running of your dental practice.

To protect yourself against a claim or lawsuit from a terminated employee, you should:

  1. Understand what types of actions might lead to a claim of wrongful termination.
  2. Only fire an employee if you have a legitimate, non-discriminatory business reason for doing so.
  3. Lay the groundwork, before the need to fire an employee ever arises, to show in advance that you consistently treat all your employees fairly and legally.
  4. Handle the termination process in a way that will minimize your risk.

If you need any help during a termination, please contact Ali Oromchian or contact us & the attorneys at Dental & Medical Counsel to advise you and work with you to set up procedures that will help prevent wrongful termination claims. If you do have a claim or lawsuit against you, we can provide a vigorous defense.

When Is it Unlawful to Fire an Employee?

When terminating an employee, it’s important to avoid committing – or even giving the appearance of committing – any unlawful discrimination, harassment, or retaliation.

Discriminatory Firing

Discrimination is unlawful when used against a protected class. Protected classes are groups that are specified in federal, state, or local law. State laws often contain more classes than federal law. In California, like most states, it is unlawful to fire someone because of their race, color, national origin, ancestry, religion, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, marital status, genetic characteristics, history of cancer, military or veteran status, mental or physical disability, age (over 40), or requests for leave for family care, pregnancy disability, or a serious health condition.

Retaliatory Firing

It is also unlawful to fire someone because they exercised their legally protected rights. These include the rights to:

  • Make good-faith complaints about unsafe working conditions.
  • Inform you, their employer, of their rights as an employee.
  • File a claim with the state if they think you are violating their rights.

Steps to Take to Avoid Wrongful Termination Claims in Your Dental Practice

A systematic approach to preventing wrongful termination claims will include:

  1. Setting up employment procedures for all employees that will help ensure and document that your staff is being treated fairly.
  2. Documenting the termination process.
  3. Make sure that all legally required actions, such as giving the employee their final pay, are handled correctly.

Set Up Rules and Procedures for All Your Employees

Prevention is better than cure. That’s just as true for employment matters as it is for oral hygiene. Setting up the right procedures and documents at the outset of an employment relationship is easier than scrambling to defend yourself after an employee has filed a lawsuit against you.

We advise that even a small dental practice have a written employee handbook. Each employee should sign and date a statement acknowledging that they have read the handbook and understood it. If a policy or rule is spelled out in the handbook, and you later have to fire an employee for violating that policy or rule, the handbook will provide evidence that the employee was aware of the policy that they violated.

The handbook should also state that your practice does not tolerate unlawful discrimination, harassment, or retaliation.

A program like HR for Health can automate the process of creating and updating an employee handbook that will help you stay in compliance with current state and federal law.

Apply All Policies, Procedures, and Rules Fairly and Consistently

If you ever face claims of wrongful termination or discrimination, your best defense will be to show that you consistently treated your employees fairly, in accordance with the law.

Document the Reasons for Termination

If a terminated employee claims they were fired for an unlawful reason, you want to be able to prove that you fired the employee for a legitimate business reason. Employment separation agreements that can support that include negative performance reviews and disciplinary notes in the employee’s file. You should be consistent about documenting any problems you have with employees as those problems arise.

Final Pay

California law, for example, requires that you pay your employees all their wages immediately at the time you terminate them. This includes accrued vacation time. California law also has requirements for how you need to handle the final pay of employees who quit voluntarily. You should follow the procedures exactly to avoid potential claims. HR for Health software can help you stay in compliance with all employee pay laws and regulations.

Best Practices for Terminating Dental Practice Employees

In addition to ensuring that your actions comply with federal, state, and local employment laws, there are also best practices you can follow to minimize the risk of problems arising from a termination:

  • Create a termination checklist in advance so you will be prepared and won’t overlook anything important that you need to do.
  • Try to schedule the termination meeting for soon after the employee arrives at work.
  • Treat the employee with respect throughout the meeting.
  • In the meeting, clearly explain to the employee why you are firing them and what policies or expectations they have violated. Be specific.
  • Give the employee their final paycheck. In California and other states that have final-paycheck requirements, make sure that all legally required pay is included.
  • Document what happened in the meeting for the employee’s personnel file, including notes on how the employee responded.
  • Have a plan in place for how you will handle the employee’s job functions until you are able to replace the employee.
  • Talk to your staff to reassure them that the practice remains stable and strong, but keep the details of the termination confidential.

Contact Us If You Need Help With Termination Procedures

As a busy dentist, your time is better spent with your patients than with trying to keep up with ever-changing federal, state, and local employment laws. Our sister company, HR for Health, provides software that will automate your human resources functions, help you stay in compliance, and create a safe and positive environment for your staff.

The attorney team at Dental and Medical Counsel is available to provide advice on your termination policies.  We work only with dental, medical, veterinary, and optometry practices and we understand the needs of dental practices like yours. Contact us to set up a complimentary consultation with attorney Ali Oromchian.

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At Dental & Medical Counsel, PC, we understand dentists have trouble navigating the legal process. We believe every dentist deserves the best advice and service so doctors can do what they do best, treat their patients. We make dentists' lives easier by providing expert guidance, so they can focus on their personal and professional aspirations.

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