Weighing the Risk of Termination

By Stuart Oberman, Esq., Oberman Law

Editor’s note: Unpleasant as it may be to fire a staff member, it’s sometimes necessary to protect the practice from risk. An understanding of employment laws can make the termination process less complicated.

Dental practices are subject to a variety of local, state, and federal employment laws. While dental practice owners assume they are justified in their reasons for firing employees, employment laws can make the termination process complicated.

Claims may arise from bad employment decisions. These claims may be asserted by any employee and could include – but are not limited to – workplace discrimination or retaliation, harassment, breach of contract and defamation. Employment litigation can bring its own set of challenges, including attorney’s fees, loss of time, disruption of services and stress.

Hiring an incompetent employee could lead to certain claims against a dental practice. The practice could be held liable for the unlawful action of employees. Hiring dishonest employees may also cause difficulties in running the practice.

Practice owners should balance the relative risks and choose among an assortment of different options when it comes to handling employment matters. They should ensure that their employment decisions are justifiable and fully supported by employee evaluations and other documentation. When possible, they should give employees notice of their deficiencies and a reasonable opportunity to correct the problems. Even the most frustrating employees are to be treated with dignity and respect. Finally, if a decision to terminate an employee has been reached, careful planning of the actual termination and the handling of the transition is important.

Every dental practice owner should consider the following before making the decision to terminate an employee:

  • Are the employee’s problems serious enough to interfere with the efficient delivery of dental treatment and quality patient care?
  • Is there a larger point to be proven?
  • Is the timing of the termination decision risky because the employee has asserted his or her legal rights?
  • Is the employee’s behavior toxic to the workplace, placing the practice owner at risk of losing valued employees?
  • Will the practice’s retention of a difficult and/or incompetent employee cause harm to its reputation within the community?

There will be situations where the above factors outweigh the risk of liability for employment discrimination, and the dental practice has no choice but to accept the risk. At this point, the dental practice has an option to offer a severance package with a release agreement, prepare a vigorous defense, or reach a reasonable settlement.

Editor’s note: Stuart J. Oberman, Esq. handles a wide range of legal issues for the dental profession including employment law, practice sales, OSHA and HIPAA compliance, real estate transactions, lease agreements, non-compete agreements, dental board complaints and professional corporations.


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