Firing a Staff Member: Will You Be Ready When It’s Time to Pull the Trigger?
By Dr. Brian D. Miller
I often wonder if the curriculum has changed to any great degree since I graduated from dental school in 2000. One major complaint has always been that students are unprepared to run a business when they graduate. As a solo practitioner, I have seen that someone who has a strong innate business sense seems to have a leg up in practice. In addition, those who go into practice with a family member or have someone to mentor them seem to be able to make an easier transition into the “real world” of dentistry. One aspect of running a practice that I was unprepared for was dealing with problem staff, and being able to terminate an employee as needed.
Let’s face it – firing someone is uncomfortable to talk about and is extremely stressful to think about. We run small businesses, not large corporations, where we can ask one of our managers to fire someone for us. We worry about the implications related to firing someone – will they collect unemployment and how the other staff will react? Because of these worries, we tend to hang on to less than ideal people, who in turn can transfer their bad attitudes and practices to others in the office.
The good news is that it’s okay to “free your staff member to find true happiness,” as I have heard it said. I do not profess to be an expert hatchet man (and you should always consider differing laws in individual states) but I can give out a few tips based on my experience. Hopefully these tips may ease your pain when it comes time for you to pull the trigger.
- Make sure that you have standard office policies in writing. All employees need to know what is expected of them when they are hired.
- Make sure that you have appropriate documentation of the employee’s lack of compliance. This should include a first warning (verbal), a second warning (written) and a third warning (suspension) prior to termination. Dates, times and the nature of the violation should be documented carefully, as well as any actions to be taken if the violation is repeated.
- Make sure you have a legitimate job-related reason. Speak with your attorney (but not for too long if they make $150/hour) to get his or her advice first in order to avoid a discrimination lawsuit.
- Be careful what you say to other employees. If the person being fired finds out about pending termination prior to the actual event, he or she may attempt to sabotage you on the way out. If you let them hang around too long, they may corrupt other employees and ruin morale.
- Be prepared for the actual termination. If you are offering any severance pay, have the check ready. Prepare the final paycheck for hours worked up to termination and for any vacation hours that have been accrued/unused. Find out from your state unemployment office how this will affect your SUTA (state unemployment tax).
- Keep the actual conversation short and concise. Have a termination document that outlines the reasons for termination. Describe what actions are expected (ex: return of keys or company property) and explain what will become of any benefits/severance. Do not make any promises you will regret to keep and avoid excuses. It is also wise to avoid arguments.
- Make sure you have a back-up plan. In my situation, my wife stepped in until I could train a new hire. You may consider splitting the terminated employee’s tasks between the remaining employees or contact a temp agency for a short-term replacement.
Firing a problem staff member can seem like a daunting task, but if done properly, it can boost the morale of other hard-working staff, earn the doctor newfound respect, free you and your staff from future grief and mental anguish and improve office atmosphere and efficiency. If all of your I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed, you can confidently explain: “I didn’t fire you. You fired yourself.”