Optometric Management Tip # 382   -   Wednesday, June 03, 2009
Tips for Firing Staff

Dismissing an employee is one of the most unpleasant tasks a manager or practice owner must do, however, it is sometimes necessary for the health of the practice. This article will provide some guidelines for making the job as easy as possible.

Rehabilitation first

Making the decision to terminate employment is usually difficult and requires assessment of many factors. I think employers have a duty to attempt to train employees to bring their job performance up to an acceptable level. This begins with open communication in a private setting about the deficiencies and allowing the employee to respond. To me, a key factor in the potential of an employee is how she responds to the criticism. If the employee denies that there is a problem and does not seem to understand the complaint, I believe there is little hope for improvement. On the other hand, if the staff member demonstrates sincere concern and agrees that the behavior must change, I think we have a chance of continuing an employment relationship.

Generally, the employer should describe the deficiency in clear detail and set a time period for demonstrating improvement. Additional meetings should be scheduled to assess progress as needed. If positive change is not realized, each meeting becomes more serious. Eventually, if performance is not satisfactory, a final warning of dismissal should be issued. It is important to summarize what was discussed and agreed upon at each meeting in the employment record.

Employment-at-will

You should check with your state department of labor to see if you practice in an employment-at-will state. All states follow the doctrine to some degree but there are various exceptions. Simply put, employment-at-will means that an employer does not need a reason to dismiss an employee. It is always understood that an employee may never be fired for being a member of a protected class, but as long as termination is not discriminatory and there is no contract in place, no reason is needed. This may seem harsh to some, but really it is simply the converse of an employee quitting for any reason or no given reason, which happens all the time.

Certain employment policies and contracts may cancel the employer's employment-at-will rights, so be careful how you word your office manual.

No discrimination

It should be well understood in the United States, but a review of employment discrimination is always in order. There are federal and state laws that protect certain classes of individuals against discrimination in the hiring and firing process. The usual protected classes are race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, disabilities, veteran status and genetic information. The law does not prohibit firing a person in these groups, but the reason for job termination must not be because of the group.

Unemployment claims

I often hear from practice owners who are reluctant to let someone go because the person may file a claim for unemployment benefits and if the state rules in favor of the employee, the practice may be assessed additional costs. There is usually a sentiment from the doctor that a strong case for the dismissal is needed along with frustration that even when there are valid reasons, the state may grant benefits.

There are many misunderstandings about this process. The state labor office wants to know the facts surrounding the dismissal, but awarding unemployment benefits does not mean the employer did something wrong. It is common for an employee who is fired to receive benefits for a period of time or until she finds new employment. The taxes that are paid to fund unemployment benefits may increase temporarily for your practice, but I view that as a cost of doing business. I would never let the potential increase in unemployment tax stop me from dismissing an employee who was bad for my practice. The cost of keeping such an employee is much greater.

Actually dismissing an employee

Here is a tip that will greatly ease the awkward confrontation that can occur when you have to actually fire someone. Resist the urge to tell the person why she is no longer worthy of employment in your office. The tendency to give a reason is natural because you are feeling badly about the act and you want to justify why you have to do it. But realize that you are not going to find agreement from the person you are letting go! In fact, you are only trying to make yourself feel better but you'll always make the situation worse.

Here is what you should say: “Mary, it's just not working out and it's best if we part ways.” Then be quiet. Say no more. Mary most likely already knows the issues that led to the firing but even if she is fuzzy on that point it's too late now to go over it. You are no longer trying to rehabilitate the employee; you're goal is to end employment with a minimum of hard feelings. If Mary asks why or otherwise objects, just repeat that it is not working out. Ask for return of the office key and any other items owned by the practice and ask the employee to leave the office now. Depending on your state law, you may have the employee's final checked prepared in advance, including accrued vacation time, and give it to her at this meeting. Do not allow extended goodbyes or tantrums.

Severance pay

I think severance pay is an excellent tool that is well worth the cost. It is not applicable in every termination, but often. Rather than fighting the payment, consider being proactive and have a second check prepared equal to two weeks pay. To me, this is simply a final act of integrity as an employer. We generally ask for two weeks notice when an employee quits (granted, we don't always get it), but there is no advance notice at firing. Severance pay makes up for that. Employees are never pleased about being let go, but I prefer they remember my practice as fair and honorable.


Best wishes for continued success,

Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Chief Optometric Editor, Optometric Management