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A staffer hands you a two-week notice: What’s next?

By Paul Edwards

It’s 4:30 on a Friday afternoon, and one of your employees knocks on your door asking to come in. They’re avoiding eye contact, they’re fidgety, nervous… This can’t be good news. You imagine accidentally shredded payroll reports, stolen laptops full of client information, or something equally catastrophic. But when the employee tells you what’s going on, it’s the last thing you expected: They’re putting in their 2 weeks’ notice. Now what do you do?

Before you can decide, you’ll need to know what your options are. In any at-will employment arrangement, you can let an employee go at any time for any reason that’s not unlawful (although there are factors you should consider first), and the employee can also quit at any time, with notice or not. At-will employment is the law of the land in 49 of 50 states, so we’ll assume your employee in question is probably at-will—unless you’ve done something to change that status, which we’ll discuss a bit later.

In most cases, you can do 1 of 3 things when an employee tells you they’re going to quit:

  1. Let the employee finish out their time.
  2. Send the employee home immediately.
  3. Send the employee home immediately, but continue paying them until their original quit date.

This is a decision you’ll often need to make right there on the spot, so it helps to know the pros and cons of each option beforehand.

Note: Regardless of how you choose to handle the situation, it’s critical to document this as a resignation to help avoid any future questions about this employee’s departure.

Ask the employee to provide you with a resignation letter, or ask them to fill out a Voluntary Resignation form. If they don’t do this, you should provide them with a letter that confirms your acceptance of their resignation.

If you choose to let the employee go before their intended resignation date (Option 2 or 3 below), you can also use this letter to inform them in writing that you are accepting their resignation immediately.

Getting this documented correctly is important, and there may be additional state law requirements.

 Option 1: Let the employee finish out their time

If you have a great relationship with the employee and there are no hard feelings over their quitting, having them continue working for a few weeks could be a godsend. You’ll have time to prepare, and the employee can help train their replacement and give a detailed explanation of their status on any projects, including advice on how to move them forward.

That time can be a double-edged sword, however. Keep in mind that even the best employees are liable to start “phoning it in” to some extent as they get closer and closer to their last day, so you might not be getting the same high-quality performance out of your employee during their last few weeks. Mentally, they’re already moving on.

But if you truly feel that your soon-to-be-former employee can perform well during their final weeks at your practice, letting them stay and ease the transition is a viable choice.

Option 2: Send the employee home immediately

An employee who is working on borrowed time and no longer committed to your practice is a variable you can’t fully control, so you may feel that just removing them is the safer choice. Again, you aren’t required to let an at-will employee remain at their job for any length of time, whether they gave notice of two days or two weeks.

The biggest downside to letting the employee go right away is obvious: You’ll now have an unstaffed position, before you’ve been able to make plans to fill it. This is going to cause some stress among your staff, and you are likely to see office morale take a hit, at least in the short-term.

Then there’s the question of unemployment benefits. By asking an employee who gave notice to leave right away, you may, in rare circumstances, risk accidentally transforming a voluntary quit into an involuntary termination (without cause). In some states, the employee may be able to claim unemployment for those two weeks. However, generally, as long as the notice was two weeks or less, this will not trigger unemployment benefit eligibility. Not paying wages in exchange for the courtesy of giving the standard two weeks’ notice, however, may encourage other employees not to give you any notice next time.

Option 3: Send the employee home immediately, but pay out the two weeks

This is sometimes your best option if you don’t want the employee to finish out their time. Perhaps you know they’ve been dissatisfied for a while, and you just don’t trust them to care about this job now that they have another one. This option may avoid further discontent: you’re paying out their time, while also limiting your risk.

You should also consider whether you have in any way altered the at-will status of your employment relationship with this employee, whether intentionally or unintentionally, as that could change your obligations. If you have an employment contract in place, you may have limited options.

Even without an employment contract, you should check your employee handbook for ways you might have inadvertently changed the employee’s at-will status. Do you state anywhere that notice before quitting is required for any reason? Unless you have very careful at-will disclaimers in place—which you should—policies like this are often viewed as an implied guarantee of employment for the length of that notice, which can also cause a loss of at-will status.

What’s the final word on that final two weeks?

If you like option 2 or 3 best, double-checking on at-will status before sending an employee on their way with their notice paid out is critically important. If you let go of someone who is not at-will, even just two weeks early, you could end up dealing with a wrongful termination complaint.

And one last caution—as always, be sure to treat similarly situated employees in consistent ways. Choosing an early acceptance of resignation from only your pregnant employee (or only your black employee, or only an employee who recently requested a medical accommodation, to name just a few variations) when you’ve never done this before could be problematic, and it may even expose you to a discrimination claim.

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