The safest way to fire a staff member

Optometry Times Journal, May digital edition 2021, Volume 13, Issue 5

Follow these 4 suggestions to gracefully and safely let an employee go

The phrase “you’re fired” was made famous by our 45th President in a previous gig, but it is never pleasant to hear these words from a boss or to have to say them to an employee. Fortunately, our clinic now has a practice administrator who handles the task of delivering bad news, but in the past I have been the one to do it. I am sure all ODs could swap horror stories on the topic, but one I remember, in particular, occurred shortly after joining the practice.

A young OD's predicament

We had recently hired a new technician who soon had a conflict with an older technician with a year of tenure with the practice. The older employee had supposedly begun assigning the newer employee the patient workups and special testing assignments that she didn’t want to handle herself. There were also accusations from the newer employee of other subtle forms of harassment on the job and workplace bullying, which were reported to the office manager.

Not having firsthand knowledge, I called an impromptu staff meeting at lunch that Friday and collectively addressed everyone. I reminded them that we were on the same team, we needed to set personal differences aside, and we were going to share equally in our duties. No one was named or singled out, but perhaps a guilty conscience betrayed the older technician because before I finished what I was saying, she exclaimed, “I don’t need this. I quit!”

She grabbed her things and stormed out the door. Her abrupt departure was not what I was expecting.

This employee was good at her job, liked by patients, and aside from the recent challenges had never been a problem. Disappointed and somewhat rattled, I decided it was probably for the best. The office manager documented the incident and reported the resignation to our state’s Department of Labor/Unemployment Office, then we all pitched in to make it through the busy afternoon clinic which was suddenly shorthanded.

The following Monday, I was seeing patients in a different office location when I received a call from the office manager. The employee in question had shown up to work that morning like nothing had happened. I told the office manager to inform the employee she was suspended for walking off the job and to send her home for the day with instructions to meet me at 7:45 a.m. the next morning when I was back in that office.

The next morning, a senior manager sat in on that meeting as I informed the employee that we had accepted her resignation from Friday, thought it best for everyone involved to get a fresh start by parting ways, thanked her for her service, and wished her well. She immediately and loudly told me what I could do with myself using colorful four-letter words, then proceeded to throw a ballpoint pen at me. Fortunately, it missed, although it did take out a small chunk of the wall.

Shell-shocked, I managed to keep my cool and walk away to deescalate the situation, asking the senior manager to help the employee collect her belonging and escort her from the office. Thankfully, nothing more came of it—other than the employee filing for unemployment benefits, claiming she was fired without cause. I didn’t feel prepared to handle this situation as a young doctor.

While it is best to hire wisely and carefully, then care for staff like family in order to keep good people, it is inevitable that at some point practice owners will address this challenge. Most ODs practice in “at will” states, meaning employers can terminate employees for any legal reason or for no reason at all, without incurring legal liability.1 However, best practices can ease the situation and reduce the risk of litigation.

#1 DOCUMENT, DOCUMENT, DOCUMENT!

First, become familiar with distinctive state labor law requirements regarding terminating employees and consider engaging a local labor attorney.

If the situation escalates to the point of termination, such a move should never come as a complete shock to the employee, even though they may have been in denial. By that, I mean the employee’s personnel file should justify the action by containing write-ups, disciplinary actions, performance evaluations, and remediation plans for subpar job performance.

Even if an egregious offense occurs that justifies firing the employee on the spot, documentation in the personnel file should show that the employee signed and dated an acknowledgement of receipt and understanding of the practice’s employee policy manual. The manual should list clearly stated job descriptions for each role in the company, including minimum requirements for the job, and general workplace expectations for every employee as decided by management (eg, punctuality, good attitude, team player, honesty, etc.). It should also state the behaviors that will not be tolerated and which may result in immediate firing (eg, sexual harassment, racial discrimination, workplace bullying, theft, etc.).

#2 DON’T BELABOR THE POINT (BUT BE SENSITIVE TO TIMING)

Usually I could determine if an employee had a long-term future with our clinic by the time of their 90-day performance evaluation. If it is clear by then that they don’t mesh well with other team members, are unable to perform their job satisfactorily, or have other significant work-related concerns, then it is best for everyone involved to move quickly. Do not forget the impact an underperforming employee can have on a practice’s top staff. Someone has to cover for the employee in question, and they may drain staff morale in other ways. For everyone’s good, act quickly and decisively in terminating their employment. However, be sensitive to the timing of the notification.

While the following situations are not cause to indefinitely delay the decision, beware of how things may appear to other employees and risk of litigation, just in case reasonable steps can be taken to mitigate those concerns:

– Employee or their spouse has just been diagnosed with cancer and it affects their health insurance coverage

– Employee is about to vest in the office’s 401k plan

– Employee has recently filed a whistleblower complaint or a grievance with the human resources department

– The timing is right before or during a holiday season

Consult a local labor attorney for guidance if doubt exists.

#3 BE SUCCINCT AND DIRECT

Whether the OD, a manager, a human resources director, or another representative of the practice has responsibility for firing employees, ensure that more than 1 senior staff member is present to witness the dismissal. Conduct the termination meeting face-to-face in private. The meeting is generally best held at the end of a workday, and note that Friday is a prime option to allow everyone to cool off over the weekend.

Such a conversation is never pleasant, but there is no sugarcoating it, so be direct, succinct, and get to the point in the first sentence or 2, and phrase everything in the past tense.1,2

For example, “Alexa, I’m sorry it has gotten to this point, but unfortunately the concerns we have discussed before are continuing to negatively affect your job performance, so we have let you go today. Thank you for your efforts here, and we wish you all the best. Let’s get your personal belongings, and we can walk out together.”

If the employee has redeemable traits and would be a good fit in another organization, consider offering to provide a reference for their next opportunity. For some limited situations, consider a week or 2 of severance pay.3

#4 DON’T APOLOGIZE

Despite the temptation, avoid apologizing or justifying the decision with additional details. Plus, don’t argue with the employee because it may lead to more confrontation.

Layoffs and furloughs due to unforeseeable circumstances such as stay-at-home orders and economic downturns from the pandemic involve many of these same considerations. Knowing when and how to let employees go is vital to success in today’s workplace!

References

1. At-Will Employment Overview. National Conference of State Legislatures. April 15, 2018. Accessed April 27, 2021. https://www.ncsl.org/research/ labor-and-employment/at-will-employment-overview.aspx

2. Knight R. The right way to fire someone. Harvard Business Review. February 5, 2016. Accessed April 27, 2021. https://hbr.org/2016/02/theright- way-to-fire-someone. Accessed: 12/8/20

3. Vasel K. The right way to fire an employee. CNNMoney. March 15, 2018. Accessed April 27, 2021. https://money.cnn.com/2018/03/15/pf/jobs/ how-to-fire-employee/index.html

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