October 9, 2019
Firing an employee is awkward and uncomfortable for everyone involved. But despite a physician’s or manager’s best efforts to hire, train, and motivate staff, sometimes termination is an unfortunate reality. Underperforming, untrainable, even occasionally criminal employees can foster a toxic or hostile work environment and/or limit your team’s ability to care for patients.
No matter what you do, there will always be some staff members who can’t or won’t do what needs to be done, and so must be let go. Make sure you do it right.
To avoid lawsuits brought by bitter ex-employees based on charges of discrimination, defamation, or anything else allowed by widely varying state laws on termination, follow the general policies and procedures below.
Remember: Always check with an attorney versed in your state’s labor laws to make sure your practice is in full compliance.
1. Document everything.
This includes well-written job descriptions, key performance indicators, an employee manual with termination policies, and written warnings for rule violations. Practices that do honest and constructive performance reviews can avoid the “I didn’t know I was supposed to do that” defense. Plus, you’ll have documented evidence that the employee was given feedback on performance issues. It’s this evidence that can substantiate the case for termination, should you get to that point. Don’t be like a physician I worked with whose philosophy was “the less said the better.” It cost him dearly in unemployment.
2. Be fair.
Listen to your employee’s side of the story before you make an official judgment. Even if that means accepting the idea that you might, in fact, be wrong in a particular situation. Develop a policy of progressive discipline so that staff have an opportunity to improve. I’m thinking now of another surgeon who mistakenly believed the office gossip instead of thoroughly investigating the allegations before threatening a blameless employee with termination.
3. Remain calm.
Stay calm and in control of your emotions. The World War II adage, “Loose lips sink ships” applies here, and it can cost you a lawsuit. Always focus on facts – not “what he/she said” – when speaking with an employee. Most importantly, stay calm when telling a dismissed staffer to clean out his or her desk.
4. Get right to the point and be direct.
Don’t belabor the conversation if you are ready to terminate the employee. Sit the staffer down and simply say you’ve got some bad news. This allows the employee to focus on the fact that this isn’t the time for chit-chat. It’s serious, and they need to pay attention. When delivering the information, experts suggest stating the termination clearly, and in the past tense: “Your employment has been terminated.” Not “will be terminated,” or “is being terminated.” Provide the written documents and ask if you were me, faced with these facts, “what would you do?” I’ve used this technique and the employee said “you have to let me go.”
5. Perform an exit interview whenever possible.
These are more typically done after a resignation, not a termination, but sitting down with any outgoing employee allows you to gather information that can help you head off future departures or poor hiring decisions.
Conduct exit interviews with staff who voluntary and involuntary terminate. Even if you are parting on good terms the conversations can be enlightening. One doctor found that departing employees often felt a sense of relief about being able to divulge disturbing behavior on the part of their soon-to-be-former coworkers. In one such case, it was a drawer filled with unsubmitted insurance claims.
During an exit interview, discuss all aspects of the practice to find out what contributed to the employee’s unhappiness with their job or their poor performance. For instance, one client learned in an exit interview that the employee had overstated her computer skills on her resume, hoping she would receive on-the-job-training at the practice. No such training was offered, leading to the staffer deciding to take a role that didn’t require much technical ability.
6. Don’t let guilt get the best of you.
Nearly every manager and physician I know feel bad about having to fire someone even when it’s the right thing to do for other employees and the practice. We all have compassion for others. I simply caution managers and physicians not to be so blinded by their compassion that they do something they regret.
One of our clients painstakingly documented the poor performance of a long-time employee for an entire year before letting her go. Then was promptly sued by the ex-staffer after the senior partner wrote her a glowing letter of recommendation without telling his peers. His misdirected sense of duty and empathy cost the practice tens of thousands in legal and other fees.
Keep this article handy, so you will have it when needed. A good labor lawyer’s advice should be sought.