Article Date: 8/1/2006

staffing solutions
When It's Time to Be The Terminator

In this two-part series, we examine management's most unpleasant task.


One of the questions I've posed to countless seminar audiences is, "What do you consider management's most unpleasant task?" The most frequent response: Having to fire an employee. How you handle the process of employees' departures will have a significant effect on the practice. Regardless of the reason, it's critical to make the experience as positive as possible.

Bad apples

Every practice has a bad apple from time to time: the person who never should have been hired in the first place, the employee whose job performance has seriously deteriorated, the person who just doesn't blend in with the rest of the team.

Reality check: When Physicians Practice magazine recently asked some of the country's busiest practice management consultants what mistakes they see repeatedly in practices, one of the major problems they identified was retaining incompetent employees. "Practices know something is wrong but don't act on it," says consultant Elizabeth Woodcock of Atlanta. Staff members who come in late, do nothing, or simply aren't doing a good job ruin the morale of everyone else, Ms. Woodcock says. Those who do arrive on time, for example, need to cover for the employee who is always late. Worse than the extra work, the staff begins to feel like management doesn't care. If the physician-owners don't seem emotionally invested in the practice, no one else will be. The only solution, she adds, is to tackle underperformance head on.

Hard-learned lessons

►Attempts to salvage an employee gone bad seldom work.

Prolonging dismissals — when everyone knows that the employee is about to be fired, including the employee, but management delays it — only prolong the agony.

►"Employees don't want to work with low performers," says Quint Studer, former hospital president and author of "Hardwiring Excellence." He points out that making employees work with people who don't pull their own weight is sure to lower morale and create resentment. "Low performers usually drive high performers out the door," Mr. Studer says in a recent issue of Successful Meetings.

►Employees who do not perform up to par are expensive in terms of payroll and may alienate, or possibly endanger, patients. Poor job performance hurts your practice in many ways.

Tips for the moment of truth

Always fire someone face to face. You can't delegate the job anymore than you can postpone it.

Come to the point within the first two or three minutes and make the reasons for termination clear. Remain firm in your decision.

►Adopt a low-key approach that the employee is just not right for your practice, in that job, at this time. Don't dwell on the person's shortcomings. Simply express disappointment that things have not changed since the last performance review and that you have no alternative but to terminate employment. Acknowledge the person's capabilities and strong points.

►"Consider having a witness," advises Paul Preston, Ph.D., author of "Employer's Guide to Hiring and Firing." While this is usually unnecessary, "If there is any chance that hostility will turn into a physical threat, or if there is a chance the employee may take legal action, a witness is good protection."

►Should you tell the employee the reasons for your decision or gloss over them? Most personnel managers advocate an explanation somewhere between the two extremes: Give the employee enough information to show your decision was not arbitrary — but not so much detail as to destroy the person's self-esteem in the process. OM

Next month, we'll offer recommendations for avoiding verbal landmines, as well as wrongful dismissal lawsuits.

References available on request.


Optometric Management, Issue: August 2006