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 By Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO, Editor September 20, 2006 - Tip #244 
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How to Fire an Employee


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Additional Information

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 adversely affected.

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 employer.

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.

Discrimination

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 all non-protected.

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).
Unemployment benefits

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,

Read Past Tips Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Editor, Optometric Management Tip of the Week


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Send questions and comments to neil@gailmard.com.

Dr. Gailmard offers consulting services to eye care professionals through Prima Eye Group; information is available at www.primaeyegroup.com.

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