Quick, when’s the best time to fire an employee? According to management guru Tom Peters, it’s the very first time you think about it. The reason, he says, is simple: If you have a problem employee, things very rarely get better.
It is a combination of art, luck, and science to hire competent, adaptable, caring people. The best way to prevent having to fire someone is to have an excellent pre-employment screening process, but even the most rigorous screening processes occasionally fail. And, after agonizing over it, you will realize the only thing to do is to fire that person. (Please note: This column is not intended to be legal advice. If you do need to fire an employee, I strongly suggest you discuss it with a competent labor attorney who specializes in representing employers.)
When Good Employees Go Bad
There many reasons why employees don’t work out. The biggest issue is attitude. Skills and knowledge can usually be learned; a bad attitude is forever. Remember, nothing you do is likely to change who your employees are deep inside. If they aren’t working out, you are doing yourself, your other employees, and probably even your problem employees a favor if you give them the boot. There’s probably somewhere they can fit in and contribute to society; it doesn’t have to be with your firm.
Another common problem is the employee who is not performing up to snuff. In a small business, it’s sometimes hard to determine how much work your people should be doing and what the standards are. But if your employee is making lots of mistakes, can’t meet realistic deadlines, or just isn’t able to fulfill the requirements of their position, you may have to replace them.
Some problem employees may harass or be rude to their co-workers. They could be rude to you or to your clients. Or they may be constantly late. They come in late in the morning, take long lunches, leave early, and just don’t seem to have any real commitment to the work you have asked them to do. These folks always have a good excuse, but they can’t seem to get anywhere on time.
Your problem employee may have drug or alcohol problems. If they come in smelling of booze first thing in the morning, you clearly have a problem. However, you need to check with an attorney on this because they might be considered to have a disability. You need to handle this issue very, very carefully.
Be aware that some problem employees are angels when you’re around, and slackers when you’re not. Your other employees may complain about them, and tell you that they’re not carrying their load.
Or perhaps they’re dishonest. Both my father and my wife’s father had office managers who embezzled money from them.
One of the most difficult things about problem employees is telling the difference between someone who is slightly off track and needs to be coached versus someone who is simply not right for the job and never will be. And it’s even harder to pull the trigger when you’ve invested a great deal of time or money in the new hire. Have you ever spent a long time looking for a great staff person, finally hired them, and then spent six months training them? Maybe you even wrote a personnel agency a big check.
Unfortunately, regardless of how much you have invested, things will probably get worse. If your troublemakers are truly problematic, other quality members of your team may even leave just to get away from them.
Most states have “at will” employment laws. This means that employees work at the pleasure of the employer, and the employer can fire them without cause at any time. It’s particularly important to make sure that you do not have an employment contract with your employees, since this almost always protects the employee and not you. The best way to hire employees is simply month-to-month on an “at-will” basis.
Before you decide to take action, note that there are certain classes of people who are considered protected employees. This may not be a complete list, as this is a constantly moving target, but here are some key categories of protected employees: ethnic or racial minorities, people with disabilities, people over age 40, and pregnant women. Be aware, too, that a drug or alcohol problem may be considered a disability. If you fire any of these people, with or without cause, you may end up with a lawsuit or other legal problems on your hands.
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