Can You Fire an Independent Contractor?

If you are a business owner who hires independent contractors to perform various tasks for your company, you may wonder if you can fire them at will, just like you would do with an employee. 

The answer is not so simple. Independent contractors are not employees, and they have different rights and obligations than employees.

In this blog post, we will explore the distinction between employees and independent contractors, the factors that determine whether you can fire an independent contractor, and the best practices to avoid legal troubles when terminating a contract.

What is an Independent Contractor?

Female employee packing up things on her desk.

Independent contractors are self-employed individuals who provide services to other businesses or individuals based on a contract or agreement. They have more control over how, when, and where they perform their work, and they are responsible for paying their own taxes and expenses. 

Independent contractors are not covered by labor laws that protect employees, such as minimum wage, overtime, workers' compensation, unemployment insurance, anti-discrimination, and whistleblower protection.

However, independent contractors are not completely free from legal obligations. They have to comply with the terms of their contract, as well as any applicable laws and regulations that govern their profession or industry. They also have to respect the intellectual property rights of their clients and avoid conflicts of interest or unfair competition.

If you hire independent contractors for your business, you have to be careful not to treat them like employees or exert too much control over their work. Otherwise, you may face the risk of misclassification, which can result in penalties, fines, audits, lawsuits, and back taxes.

The Distinction Between Employees and Independent Contractors

Cheerful employee while working

There is no single test or rule that can determine whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor. Different agencies and courts may use different criteria or factors to evaluate the nature of the working relationship.

However, one of the most common and widely used tests is the IRS's Common Law test (US only) which utilizes a three-prong approach to determine whether the workers are employees or independent contractors. 

This approach explores the following factors and factors to consider in the three different domains:

  • Behavioral Control 
    • Types of Instructions
    • Evaluation System 
    • Training 
  • Financial Control 
    • Significant Investment 
    • Unreimbursed Expenses 
    • Opportunity for Profit or Loss
    • Services Available to the Market 
    • Method of Payment 
  • Type of Relationship 
    • Written Contracts 
    • Employee Benefits 
    • Permanency of the Relationship
    • Services Provided 

Generally speaking, the more control, supervision, and direction that the employer has over the worker, the more likely that the worker is an employee. Conversely, the more autonomy, flexibility, and independence that the worker has over their work, the more likely that they are an independent contractor.

Defining Employees

Employees are workers who are hired by an employer to perform services for them under their direction and control. Employees are subject to the employer's policies, procedures, rules, and regulations. 

Employees are paid by the hour or by salary, and they receive benefits such as health insurance, retirement plans, paid leave, etc. Employees are covered by labor laws that protect their rights and interests.

Characteristics of Independent Contractors

Here are some characteristics of Independent Contractors:

  • Hired by a client to perform a specific task or project based on a contract or agreement.
  • Freedom and discretion over how they perform their work. 
  • Paid by the project or by results, and they do not receive benefits from their clients. 
  • Liable for their own tax and expenses. 
  • Not covered by labor laws that apply to employees.

Can You Fire an Independent Contractor?

Alt text: Reviewing the terms of the contract together

This is dependent on a few factors, such as: 

  • The Terms of the Contract
  • The Applicable Laws and Regulations
  • The Legal Counsel

Reviewing the Terms of the Contract

The first thing you should do if you want to fire an independent contractor is to review the terms of your contract with them. The contract should specify how and under what circumstances either party can terminate the relationship. 

For example, some contracts may include clauses such as:

  • A termination date or duration
  • A notice period or procedure
  • A breach or default provision
  • A force majeure clause
  • A dispute resolution mechanism

If your contract has a termination clause that allows you to fire the independent contractor for any reason or no reason at all (also known as "at-will" termination), then you can simply follow the contract's terms and notify the contractor accordingly. 

However, you should still be careful not to act in bad faith, discriminate, or retaliate against the contractor, as this may expose you to legal liability.

If your contract does not have a termination clause or has a termination clause that limits your ability to fire the independent contractor (such as requiring cause, evidence, or compensation), then you have to abide by the contract's terms and conditions. 

You can only fire the independent contractor if they fail to perform their obligations, breach the contract, or violate the law. You may also have to pay damages or penalties for terminating the contract early.

If your contract is silent on the issue of termination or is ambiguous or unclear, then you may have to rely on other sources of law, such as common law principles, statutes, regulations, or case law, to determine whether you can fire the independent contractor.

Consider Applicable Laws and Regulations

The second thing you should do if you want to fire an independent contractor is to consider any applicable laws and regulations that may affect your decision. Even if your contract allows you to fire the independent contractor at will, you still have to comply with any relevant legal obligations that may apply to your industry or profession. 

For example, some laws and regulations that may affect your ability to fire an independent contractor include:

  • Anti-discrimination laws that prohibit firing a worker based on their race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or other protected characteristics
  • Whistleblower protection laws that prohibit firing a worker for reporting illegal or unethical activities
  • Intellectual property laws that protect the rights of the worker and the client over the work product
  • Licensing laws that regulate the qualifications and standards of certain professions
  • Tax laws that require withholding and reporting of income and payroll taxes
  • Labor laws that govern the classification and treatment of workers

If you violate any of these laws or regulations when firing an independent contractor, you may face legal consequences such as fines, penalties, audits, lawsuits, or criminal charges.

Seek Legal Counsel

The third thing you should do if you want to fire an independent contractor is to seek legal counsel. Firing an independent contractor can be a complex and risky process that involves many legal issues and implications. Therefore, it is advisable to consult with an attorney who specializes in employment law or contract law before making any decisions or taking any actions. 

An attorney can help you:

  • Review your contract and advise you on your rights and obligations
  • Evaluate your situation and recommend the best course of action
  • Draft and send a termination letter or notice to the independent contractor
  • Negotiate and settle any disputes or claims with the independent contractor
  • Represent and defend you in court or arbitration if necessary

Seeking legal counsel can help you avoid costly mistakes, protect your interests, and minimize your exposure to liability when firing an independent contractor.

Navigating Termination

Employer passing the termination letter to his employee

In this comprehensive exploration of the legalities surrounding the termination of independent contractors, we've highlighted the critical differences between employees and contractors, the significance of contract terms, and the importance of adhering to applicable laws. 

When contemplating the termination of an independent contractor, remember that it's a delicate process that requires careful consideration of contractual obligations and legal implications. 

Seeking legal counsel can be your best ally in ensuring a smooth and legally compliant termination process, safeguarding your business from potential pitfalls, and maintaining ethical and legal standards in your professional relationships.

Recruitery wishes you the best as you navigate the legal prospects in whatever you do.