Managing Your Practice

Firing an Employee Is Never Easy


My recent column on good hiring practices, which stressed the importance of replacing marginal employees with excellent ones, triggered an interesting round of discussion. "Isn’t it true," asked a colleague, "that most physicians tolerate marginal employees because it’s less painful than firing them?"

Indeed it is. Firing someone is never easy, and it is particularly tough on physicians. But sometimes it is unavoidable to preserve the efficiency and morale of yourself and your other employees.

Before you do it, however, be sure that you have legitimate grounds, and assemble as much documentation as possible. Record all terminatable transgressions in the employee’s permanent record, and document all verbal and written warnings. This is essential; you must be prepared to prove that your reasons for termination were legal.

Former employees will sometimes charge that their civil rights were violated. For example, federal law prohibits you from firing anyone because of race, gender, national origin, disability, religion, or age. You cannot fire a woman because she is pregnant, or recently gave birth. Other illegal reasons include assertion of antidiscrimination rights, refusing to take a lie detector test, and reporting OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) violations.

You also can’t terminate someone for refusing to commit an illegal act, such as filing false insurance claims; or for exercising a legal right, such as voting or participating in a political demonstration.

And you cannot fire an alcohol abuser unless he or she is caught drinking at work; but many forms of illegal drug use are legitimate cause for termination. Other laws may apply, depending on where you live. When in doubt, contact your state labor department or fair employment office.

If a fired employee alleges that he or she was fired for any of these illegal reasons, and you do not have convincing documentation to counter the charge, you may find yourself defending your actions in court.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, consider adding employment practices liability insurance (EPLI) to your umbrella policy, since a wrongful termination lawsuit is always a possibility despite your best efforts to prevent it.

Once you have all your legal ducks in a row, don’t procrastinate. Get it over with, first thing on Monday morning. If you wait until Friday afternoon you will worry about the dreaded task all week long, and the fired employee will stew about it all weekend.

Explain the performance you have expected, the steps you have taken to help correct the problems you have seen, and the fact that the problems persist. Try to limit the conversation to a minute or two, have the final paycheck ready, and make it clear that the decision has already been made, so begging and pleading will not change anything.

I’ve been asked to share exactly what I say; so for what it’s worth, here it is: "I have called you in to discuss a difficult issue. You know that we have not been happy with your performance. We are still not happy with it, despite all the discussions we have had, and we feel that you can do better elsewhere. So today we will part company, and I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors. Here is your severance check. I hope there are no hard feelings."

There will, of course be hard feelings, but that cannot be helped. The point is to be quick, firm, and decisive. Get it over with and allow everyone to move on.

Be sure to get all your office keys back – or change the locks if you cannot. Back up all important computer files, and change all your passwords. Most employees know more of them than you would ever suspect.

Finally, call the staff together and explain what you have done. They should hear the story from you, not a distorted version through the rumor mill. You don’t have to explain your reasoning or divulge every detail, but do explain how the termination will affect everyone else. Responsibilities will need to be shifted until a replacement can be hired, and all employees should understand that.

If you are asked in the future to give a reference or write a letter of recommendation for the terminated employee, be sure that everything you say is truthful and well documented.

Dr. Eastern practices dermatology and dermatologic surgery in Belleville, N.J.

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