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Terms and Definitions

What is summary dismissal?

Updated: May 16, 2024

Summary dismissal definition and meaning

A summary dismissal (also known as “instant dismissal”), is when an employer ends an employment relationship with an employee without giving notice or going through a company’s standard disciplinary procedures. It’s often reserved for cases of serious misconduct or gross negligence on the part of the employee, such as theft, violence, or a brazen breach of company policies.


More on summary dismissals and when they are used

Because a summary dismissal is such a serious action to take, most employers only use it when there is clear evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the employee. Furthermore, employers should understand that summary dismissal is a drastic measure that should only be considered after exhausting all conventional coaching or disciplinary measures, such as employee performance reviews and coaching plans, and after recording any documented warnings or one-on-one meetings that address the employee’s behavior or performance.


Most businesses avoid summary dismissals, reserving this tactic for specific situations in which an employee’s behavior threatens the well-being of the organization or its clientele, or otherwise obstructs the organization’s ability to conduct business as usual.


Though acts of “instant dismissal” are rare, it’s recommended to include a section in your employee handbook that establishes summary dismissals as the final disciplinary action to be taken. The policy should be made clear and plain, and should include examples of specific actions or behaviors that would warrant summary dismissal, as well as any resources or corrective strategies available to help employees who may be at risk to avoid such action. Should they believe their termination was unfair or unjust, a terminated employee reserves the right to challenge a summary dismissal in court, so employers are wise to mitigate any potential legal and financial risks, should the situation ever arise.


Should employers have a procedure for summary dismissal?

While most employers are able to avoid using a summary dismissal altogether, it’s recommended to have a process in place in the event it’s unavoidable. Although each business is different, most procedures generally include the following steps.


  • Conduct a thorough investigation into the employee’s violation (documenting any evidence of gross misconduct along the way)
  • Interview (and get statements from) anyone who witnessed the violation
  • Schedule a disciplinary hearing to discuss the violation with the employee, and make sure someone from your human resources team is present
  • Present the employee with any allegations or evidence of the violation, and give them a chance to explain their actions
  • Decide if a summary dismissal is your next course of action (even if this decision has already been reached before the disciplinary hearing, it’s still appropriate to discuss schedule the disciplinary hearing)
  • If the instant dismissal is warranted, provide the employee a written notice before they leave of the dismissal


Note: Most notices include a clear explanation for the summary dismissal, with specific details about the employee’s behavior (or actions), and any prior warnings the employee received for this violation. It should also include a formal termination date, with instructions on how to return company property, including notice of the revocation of access credentials to any proprietary systems or data (if applicable). Lastly, this notice should include a statement that the employee has a legal right to appeal the decision.


By having a clear and standardized procedure in place, employers can be confident that there’s a legitimate reason to end an employee’s tenure, without the risk of perceived or alleged bias, discrimination, or favoritism. It’s important to be careful that a summary dismissal never be based on underperformance in a role, or any other conduct issue that isn’t a clear violation of written policy. At every step of the summary dismissal procedure, it should be clear that the dismissal is not based on anyone’s opinion, or whim, but on objective data that demonstrates the employee’s willful disregard for policy. Not only does this practice clarify where the line is drawn between what warrants disciplinary action over a summary dismissal, it’s integral to protecting employers in the event that an employee claims unfair dismissal or wrongful termination.

Using summary dismissal in a sentence 

“Even though Fred was already on a performance plan because of his time management and missing deadlines, we would never have considered a summary dismissal had we not learned that he was selling company printer cartridges online.”

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