Last week, I covered some factors about dismissing employees, such as employment at-will law and if you need a reason to fire someone. It turns out you don’t need a reason to fire a staff member in most cases, as long as you don’t discriminate against a protected class of people. Conversely, employees do not need a reason to quit. Both parties can exercise free will.
This week, I’ll present the second part of a three-part series on rehabilitating and dismissing employees. Criticizing or firing someone is not a pleasant topic, but it is necessary at some point if you want to keep your practice functioning at a high level. This series of articles is aimed at practice owners and managers to help them conquer any apprehension that may exist. If you follow the proper steps, dealing with problem staff members does not have to be difficult at all.
Feminine and masculine pronouns can present a challenge for writers, so I will announce here that I am using feminine pronouns in this piece, but I recognize that many optometric staff members are male.
Of course, just because you can fire an employee does not make it the smartest move. Generally, unless an action by an employee is extremely egregious, the best approach is to talk to her about the problem. This seems like common sense, but many practice owners and managers hate confrontations and they just move along and don’t say much. Eventually, the situation may get completely out of hand and then they start to think about firing the person. In many ways, that is really not fair and it is not even good for business.
The fair thing would be to let the employee know there is a problem and provide some help on how to improve or prevent it. This approach is good for business because many problem employees can be converted into good ones with a little effort. After all, it is hard to find good employees and you have invested considerable resources in the ones you have now, so keeping them is best if you can. Besides, you will never have a perfect staff. If you let someone go, you may find even bigger issues with the replacement.
Planning the talk
First of all, don’t let the need for a talk with an employee stress you out. Realize that bad things happen in every practice, every day. It is no big deal and you can handle it. It is a routine part of being a manager (owners are included in this). This includes tough employees who can be harsh or defensive. Don’t let it be personal. This is about business.
Some of the common job performance issues that managers face is punctuality, frequent call-offs, making frequent errors, arguments with co-workers, poor attitude, not following procedures, working too slowly and more. When you notice problems like these, decide if the talk would be better handled as a topic in your next staff meeting or one-on-one with the offender. Both have advantages:
• If multiple people are guilty of some issue, a staff meeting is best.
• If an issue only occurs with one person, a private meeting is a much stronger learning experience.
• Don’t embarrass a staff member in front of their peers.
• A one-on-one talk can build a record of attempts to train and rehabilitate an employee before firing her.
Think about who should be in the meeting. It might be beneficial for a practice owner and an office manager to both be present along with one staff member. If two staff members are involved, you could have them both attend.
Talking with employees
Here are some tips on how to make private meetings with employees go well.
• Be prepared to change your mind during the talk. In many cases, you will think you have the facts of a situation and you may be ready to come down hard on an employee, only to learn something new in your talk that changes everything. Anticipate this and start slowly. Tell the employee what the meeting is about in very general terms and then ask the employee to tell you more about it. Then listen and ask questions.
• Have an example if possible. Try to bring the name of a patient, a record of call-off dates, an invoice or whatever may serve as an example of the problem. The goal is to get the employee to understand the problem in order to learn from it.
• Focus on starting fresh and forgiving the past. In the absence of hard facts, accept that the true story is somewhere in between the versions you heard from other employees.
• A quick meeting following a problem has the benefit of everyone remembering the details.
• Don’t focus on how bad the employee is; focus on how and why what she does hurts the practice, patients or other staff members.
• Take notes. It is fine to do this right after the meeting. It is not necessary to have the employee sign the record unless there are strong legal issues. Keep in mind that asking employees to sign a record tips them off that it just became a legal issue.
• Ask one person in a disagreement to extend the olive branch to a co-worker for the good of the practice. Call a truce and start anew.
• Don’t get too bogged down in the details of disagreements between employees. Share your point of view as the leader of the practice and then let the employees work it out.
• Plan how to monitor the situation in the immediate future. Can the manager pay close attention? Should the manager hang out at the time clock exactly at starting time to confront employees who are late? Employees may test you to see if you are serious.
• At some point after a few meetings with little improvement noted, you should tell the employee that her job is at stake over this. Be transparent about what is coming next.
• I don’t believe in penalizing employees for mistakes. I would not cut pay or hours or make someone pay for the cost of a mistake. I expect employees to learn from mistakes. If problems continue, I’d rather fire the employee than penalize her. An employee who resents management can do damage in many ways.
Does a practice need a boss?
As we contemplate correcting poor job performance, it assumes there is someone acting as a supervisor or boss. But many practice owners think the old top down management style is out of date. They wonder if the practice needs a boss or can employees just do the right thing? I’m open to new approaches, but in my opinion, practices need an active boss. Staff members sometimes make decisions that are directed toward their own agenda. Even well-meaning staff don’t always have the right priorities. I think it is best to have a protocol and follow it.