What to Do If Your Employee is Sent to Prison

What should you do if your employee or direct report is sent to prison?

It’s hopefully a situation that most employers will never have to face … but it’s certainly something to be prepared for ahead of time.

Many employers only find out that an employee has been incarcerated when that employee doesn’t show up to work. A friend or family member might call to let you know, or you may get in touch with an emergency contact after a few days and then learn the news.

You might well feel shocked, or even angry, especially if your employee was a mission-critical part of your team. It’s important to get clear about what you can and should do, and what isn’t appropriate or legal.

Can You Fire an Employee Who’s Been Sent to Prison?

If you have an “at-will” agreement rather than an employment contract with your employee, you can fire them simply because they’ve been sent to prison.

If you have an employment contract, or you’re in a country that doesn’t have at-will employment, then you can normally dismiss an employee if (a) their conduct means they’re no longer suitable for the role (e.g. your accountant was imprisoned for fraud) or (b) they’re facing a long custody sentence. In the second case, the contract is considered “frustrated” as the employee is no longer in a position to fulfill it.

Don’t make a hasty decision if you’re unsure where you stand legally. Also, be careful not to make statements like “Of course we’ll keep your job open for you” if you don’t have the power to do this, or if you might change your mind when more facts emerge about the employee’s actions.

How Can You Find and Contact Your Employee In Prison, e.g. in South Carolina?

Perhaps you want to get in touch with your employee before deciding what to do next – but you’re not even sure which prison they’ve ended up in. You can find contact details using online databases. For instance, if you’re in South Carolina, searching across all SC’s penal institutions is quick and easy.

Keep in mind that it may take some time to get in touch with your employee, especially if they’ve just been admitted to prison. You may also want to attempt to call their emergency contacts to see if you can get more information (such as about the length of their sentence).

Before contacting your employee, consider what you want to say. For instance, if they’re awaiting trial or have been imprisoned for something relatively minor, you may want to offer a leave of unpaid absence so that they can resume their job after coming out of prison.

What Should You Tell Other Employees?

It can be difficult to know what to tell other employees. The best approach is likely to be to stick to the facts and let them know that their coworker has been imprisoned and won’t be back in the office any time soon. 

If you know the details of what they were imprisoned for, it’s not appropriate to share those unless the employee has specifically asked you to. (For instance, if they’re imprisoned awaiting trial, they may want coworkers to know that they haven’t actually been proven guilty of anything yet.)

Ultimately, you may decide to only share the details that will affect your other employees’ work. You could let them know that the employee won’t be able to be back for some time, and tell them what you plan to do about their role (e.g. maybe you’re going to fill it on a temporary basis, or maybe you’re restructuring the team so that the most essential duties can be covered).

Having an employee sent to prison is likely to be a shocking and difficult event. You need to carefully consider how to handle it and seek legal advice if possible. 

Most importantly, don’t jump to conclusions, don’t panic, and don’t spread rumors or gossip: you may find that your initial assumptions aren’t well-founded. Take your time, coordinate with other members of the management team, and decide how you’re going to approach the arrest and the aftermath.

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