All businesses at some point have to fire an employee. At best, it’s unpleasant, at worst it’s a nightmare. Sally Mills shines a light on this murky issue so it won’t be your darkest hour.
I don’t like firing people, but separating the personal from the professional makes it faster and easier. We had a receptionist in London who simply didn’t want to do her job. Instead of answering the phones – we only had two lines in – she was always chatting on one of those two lines. Not only did she disobey us, she also made us look bad to clients.
I told her off a number of times, and then she must have had an epiphany: she started to use the fax line to dial out. When I found out, I had my own moment of inspiration and fired her.
I didn’t bring personal issues into it. Yes, her behaviour was obnoxious, but the real issue was that she wasn’t performing! So with no other road out, I got rid of her.
In hindsight, I realise I’d fallen into the common pitfall of hiring the wrong person. I’ve said it before, hire slow, fire fast. I should have listened to my own counsel. Realistically, for small businesses, this advice is not always easy to follow, especially in a skill-short market. But you don’t have the time or resources to carry someone who can’t – or won’t – do their job.
The first trap I fell into was not interviewing the candidate in full, and not reference checking. It can happen to any of us, we skip the full procedure, then wonder why the employee hasn’t worked out. And beware of employing your mate!
Here’s another tip: know the role you’re hiring for. If you don’t have a job description in place, or totally change the role further down the track, you’re going to get into hot water with only yourself to blame.
But even if you take all the right steps, there’ll always be a time when you have to take disciplinary action. First up, try and resolve the situation if you can. Sit down with the employee and talk through the issues. That said, even the best intentions sometimes fail. A bad employee costs you more than money: team morale can suffer, you lose business, and the damage gets hard to quantify.
During your talk, don’t leave room for ambiguity. Take no bullshit, but also give them a chance to offer ideas to make things better.
After your chat, talk through your expectations going forward. Set the bar and a review date. Yes, this process is a pain, but don’t ignore that bad apple: if you have fruit-flies there’s only one way to get rid of them!
A bad employee is the one who’s most likely to seek legal action. As an employer, you shouldn’t be worried about terminating. What you need to be careful about is following the correct procedures. As long as you’ve applied a fair and reasonable approach to termination, you shouldn’t have any issues.
For proper legal advice, however, you should contact an employment law professional.
First up, get your employment contract right. Be consistent and thorough with policies and procedures. It’s worth sitting down and thinking about potential problems, and creating rules for them. Any time you have an employee problem, document it and the actions you’ve taken.
If you have no choice but to fire the employee, plan that dreaded meeting ahead of time. Write the employee termination letter and make sure it’s professional, otherwise you might get into a spot of bother if the employee uses it against you. Keep the meeting professional and non-judgmental. It might be a good idea to have witnesses on both sides to keep things fair. Give clear and concise reasons why you are firing the employee, and don’t let personal attacks creep in.
This article originally appeared in Magazine April 2008