Is It Time to Cut the Cord? Handling Termination of Poor-Performing Employees
By Louise Dunn
What qualifies for termination? What is the “line in the sand” that, once crossed, starts the termination process? For many businesses, that line is either non-existent or keeps moving, depending on the person involved or the day of the week. Here is where the problem truly begins—not having very clear, verifiable lines in the sand.
Drawing a Line in The Sand
Of course anyone in the pet industry will say that abusing a pet is grounds for termination. Same with stealing money or controlled drugs. But what about arriving late to work? How many times is too many? What about not getting along with another employee or client? Would refusing to grow professionally qualify? The point is, there may be a section in the employee handbook titled “professional conduct and workplace rules” that lists behaviors (and most handbooks say “the list is not intended to be exhaustive”), yet often these behaviors are condoned due to extenuating circumstances or a desire not to take action.
The other issue is moving the line in the sand because of the people involved or the current state of economics. Some may condone certain qualifying behaviors because it is too difficult to find a new hire, or maybe people are going out on sick leave, or it is the busy time of year, etc., etc.… This is a tough predicament—either the behavior justifies termination or it does not. Condoning it today because ________ (fill in the blank with one of the previously-mentioned excuses) may set precedence, and, later down the road, when you do terminate someone else for the same behavior, that person may have a good argument about unfair/biased/discriminatory treatment because you failed to terminate someone else for the exact same behavior.
Step #1: Identify what conduct qualifies for termination (check what your handbook lists) and discuss with the management team where the line in the sand must stand firm.
Step #2: Conduct an annual review with the team and discuss what behaviors are expected.
Does Management Know What to Do?
“At-will” is the legal phrase so many managers like to quote; however, “at-will” termination may still land the business in legal trouble. There are specific federal laws and state statutes which protect employees from discrimination (age, sex, race, disability), and these are frequently cited in an unfair termination lawsuit.
A short note about disabilities: Certain disabilities are “protected;” however, this does not mean that the business must lower performance standards because of a disability or addiction that falls under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). In these types of situations, it is recommended that the business requires that the employee offer specifics on how he/she can improve, and that the company makes reasonable accommodations for the employee.
There are a few steps to take to defend allegations of discrimination or bias: communicate and document. From the moment an employee is hired, communicate expectations; expectations on how to perform the job, how to interact with clients and team members, and even expectations on how to request help when there is an issue regarding job performance. Show them the correct path to follow by providing regular updates on the job performance and strategic goals of the business. Do not leave the employee guessing. Do not let bad behavior continue and proliferate.
If the employee veers off the path, have corrective action plans in place. Identify mentors, coaches or subject-matter experts who can be relied upon to teach and train others. Have a Performance Improvement Plan template ready to be used. Give warnings (and yes, have a warning document template prepared for use), set up training and give timelines for improvement. And, while you are at it, set up procedures for the management team to stick to the plan. All too often, it is the management team that lets the errant employee slide because training or timelines get forgotten in the daily chaos of a busy day/week/month. Make it easy for the management team to communicate and document.
Step #3: Communicate the clear picture of what an employee’s job performance should be.
Step #4: Conduct regular performance reviews, real-time reviews and issue warnings when appropriate.
Step #5: Keep records, set time limits and have employees sign these documents.
When Should the Cord be Cut?
While many managers will say these steps are in place, there are still enough times when the final stage of cutting the cord is delayed. When does the inappropriate behavior or poor job performance cross the line? When should the coaching, training, warnings and accommodations end?
Keeping an employee because replacing them at this time is not convenient is the first hurdle to overcome. There is a “cost” when keeping the cord attached. Some experts estimate the cost of keeping the wrong employee can be up to 15 times his or her annual salary.1 Other costs include losing great employees (because they are tired of putting up with the poor performer), missing the opportunity to hire a great employee (either due to not having that opened position or those great ones not applying because they sense the poor work culture when they interview), losing clients (either due to the actions of that poor employee or due to the overall environment of the business) and losing productivity. As you can see, the costs can mount when the cord isn’t cut. So, where does the manager go from here?
Consider the following questions as you assess the situation:
- Is the person contributing to the success of the team?
- Does this person adapt to the needs of the business, team, pets and clients?
- Is the person damaging the work culture or operation of the business?
- Are there extenuating circumstances that are affecting the person’s ability to perform the job?
- Has this person been given the opportunity to make improvements?
- Has management fulfilled their responsibility to this person?1
In some situations, all answers point to terminating the employee. If there is any question, maybe it is about the management team’s experience with termination procedures. After all, there are times when management has been second-guessed or not supported in a decision. These past experiences can weigh heavily on decision-making, and especially on a decision such as terminating an employee. Training the management team on the steps mentioned above and proper termination procedures will help.
Prepare a termination file with a checklist and standard forms. Also train the management team on how to prepare for and how to conduct the termination process:
- Schedule a private location and time to meet with the employee.
- Tell the employee why he/she is being terminated.
- Have documents ready regarding continuing health insurance (COBRA), severance package, retirement plans, etc.
- Provide notice of the company’s policy regarding his/her account and any balance owed.
- Have the final paycheck cut and ready to give (including vacation and severance if applicable).
- Collect keys (or disable security codes) and any equipment belonging to the business.
Having a file with prepared documentation allows for a smoother process. It is never comfortable, but if the manager has gone through the prescribed steps and has all the documents, there should be no regrets or push-back when the employee is terminated.
Step #6: Have a termination file with checklist and forms ready to use.
Preparation, Action, Results
No one likes firing a person. But the take-home message is simple: If the person does not buy into the leadership, core values and culture of the business, they do not belong on “the bus.” If the person has become toxic, they need to exit the bus.
In Jim Collin’s book Good to Great, companies are challenged to move the company from merely being good, to be a great company. One of the tips in the book is to get the right people on the bus and in the right seats. There will be times when a poor performer is identified as being in the wrong seat and, with coaching/training/feedback, he/she is moved into the right seat and stays on the bus. This person improves and now understands the guidelines and expectations. They buy into the core values and the strategic goals of the business. They contribute to the overall success of the team; in pet care, client service and business success.
Other times, this person will need to exit the bus. This action will initiate the process of hiring and onboarding a new person. Do not ignore this step; in some cases, weak action during this step may have been what prompted the recruitment of the person that was just terminated. Hire right; just like the termination file, the management team should have a file for hiring and onboarding.
Step #7: Have the processes in place for hiring and onboarding. Create files with forms, templates and checklists. Identify the subject matter experts who will handle the training. Give feedback. Move the person into the right seat on the bus.
When all the processes are in place, more of the “right” people will be hired and placed in the right seats on the bus. Should the need arise to terminate someone, those processes will have been followed, and cutting the cord will be professional, legitimate and legal.
1. Here’s How Much Your Bad Employees Are Costing You. Inc.com. (2016, June). https://www.inc.com/jeremy-goldman/here-s-how-much-your-bad-employees-are-costing-you.html