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Not a very pleasant topic this week, but sometimes firing an employee is a necessity to
keep your practice operating at the highest level. We don't see this topic tackled very
often in our professional literature, but I'll share some practical thoughts on it here,
based on my experience.
Training and Rehabilitation
Depending on the nature of the problem, I believe in giving an employee a chance to correct
deficiencies and in assisting in that process with specific training. As employers, we
have a duty to inform an employee of shortcomings, unless an offense is so grievous that
there is simply no possibility of overcoming it. This due process before dismissal is also
the smart thing to do as a manager. It is difficult to find employees and we can't simply
fire everyone who makes a mistake. No one is perfect.
When an unwanted behavior is noticed, it's important for the doctor or manager to discuss
it in private with the employee. This may not seem like an easy task for some people, but
avoiding it is worse because it appears that you have accepted the behavior by not
addressing it right away. Some judgment is needed here, of course, because if a boss
intervenes in every minor oversight or staff disagreement, the office culture can be
As problems are discussed, notes should be made in the employee's file. Performance
should be monitored and if improvement is not noted, additional meetings should be held.
One need not make a big deal out of the meeting; just ask the person to step into your
office or other private room and say what you need to. It may only take two minutes.
When I first bring up a deficiency to an employee, I start very gently and I usually begin
by finding something that the person does well, to acknowledge the good with the bad.
Some staff members have difficulty accepting any criticism and even a mild admonishment
can hurt their morale. I like to see the employee acknowledge the criticism and adopt
an attitude that he will work on improving. If the employee does not know what in the
world I'm talking about, I usually find that there is little hope for positive change.
As meetings continue, I become less congenial and eventually I issue a warning that job
termination will occur if the behavior can't be improved. I will give a date as a final
deadline for improvement. These notes are documented in the file.
Employment at will
Most states adopt a legal doctrine called employment at will, which means the employer
does not need a reason to fire someone - as long as the firing is not discriminatory against
a protected class. This seems fair to me, since employees don't need a reason to quit.
It's kind of interesting really, that employees often just tell the employer that they
found a better job, with very little warning. That act is comparable to the employer
telling a staff member they found a better receptionist. Yet it is not really viewed
the same way, and that is understandable because companies are bigger than individuals.
Much of employment law favors the employee, but employment at will gives some power to the
Employment at will can be lost if a company gives an employee a contract or makes other
rules about the dismissal process, so it's usually best to keep employment simple.
It is against federal and state law to fire someone because he or she belongs to a protected
class. That doesn't mean you can't fire someone who is in a protected class, it only means
the class can't be the reason you fire. Protected classes vary by state to some degree but
usually include race, color, religion, national origin, age, gender, sexual orientation,
marital status and disability. You may "discriminate" against factors that are not
protected - but that's not really discrimination. Poor manners, tardiness, excessive
absences, sloppy hygiene, poor grammar, bad attitudes and odors of cigarette smoke are
How to actually do it
When you decide that your practice would be better off without an employee, I recommend
keeping the process short and simple.
- Resist the temptation to explain why you are firing. It's too late and trying to
prove that you are justified in your action is futile because you are asking the
dismissed person to agree that he is not worth employing. Pretty tough to agree to.
Allow the person some dignity.
- Just say something like "things are not working out and I think it's best if we part
ways." If pressed for a reason, resist. As long as you aren't discriminating, you don't
need a reason.
- You may wish to give the employee an opportunity to resign, before actually firing him.
Some people may prefer to have a resignation on their resume and on your records. Resigning
also benefits the employer because an employee who resigns will have difficulty filing a
claim for unemployment benefits.
- I prefer to end employment immediately after the dismissal meeting. There is no benefit
in having a fired employee finish the work day or any additional days while you look for a
replacement. I ask for the key to the office right now.
- It is routine practice to change our office alarm code on the day an employee is
discharged, so duplicate keys will be of no use.
- The end of a work day may be the best time to terminate employment.
- I often provide severance pay equal to two weeks salary because I am not giving the
employee the two weeks notice I would ask for if he quit. You don't have to provide
severance pay, but it's often the right thing to do.
- You may want to have the final paycheck and severance check ready to hand to the
person, or hold these checks until company-owned materials (uniforms) can returned
(check with your state law about when the final check must be delivered).
Each state has a program to assist the unemployed. I do not let that system influence my
decision to keep or fire and employee. As an employer, I pay into the fund which provides
money for the state to award. Like insurance, if I have a claim, my premiums may go up
temporarily. Having the state grant benefits to a former employee and charge your account
does not mean that your dismissal was wrongful. It only means that the state is assessing
more risk to you because of this experience. You may fire someone for very legitimate
reasons and still find that the state awards benefits. That may be quite valid; the person
is still unemployed.
Unemployment tax is a cost of doing business and retaining a poor employee is much more
costly. If I'm contacted by the state employment office, I write a letter stating the facts
of the employment and the discharge, because the office needs to receive both sides of the
situation to make a correct determination.
Best wishes for continued success,
Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Editor, Optometric Management Tip of the Week
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Dr. Gailmard offers consulting services to eye care professionals through Prima Eye Group; information is available at www.primaeyegroup.com.
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