Processes, Procedures, Practices, and Protocols Are Kings
By Tanzania Cannon-Eckerle, Esq.
In this new, enlightened era of increased employee rights and employee shortages, many employers are scared to terminate employees in fear of litigation — or of not having enough staff to enable the company to produce at the desired level.
The second question we can save for later, but I will mention now that additional widgets will most likely never justify the havoc that a toxic employee will create.
In my opinion, the answer to the first question is simple: do not fear what you cannot control. You cannot control who goes down to the courthouse to file a complaint. Just be prepared for the battle. So, yes, you can fire that guy (or girl, or them). The question is, should you?
Don’t Shoot Before Aiming — Consider Your Goal First
Don’t respond emotionally or consider someone else’s emotional response. Stop and think. Ask, why is this employee on the chopping block (i.e., what did they allegedly do)? How did they get there (was the proper process followed)? Who placed them there (who is bringing this up? Does the person have the authority to raise this issue? Anything nefarious here)?
Notice that I did not ask ‘who’ this employee is. We don’t assess the ‘who’ on the chopping block. It doesn’t matter who did it. It matters what was done, why it was done, whether it was actually done, and whether it rises to the level of termination.
Essentially, assess the conduct. What do you hope to attain by terminating this employee? A safer workplace? Good. To stop disruptions in operations or the beginnings of a hostile work environment? Good. Now prove it.
Prove It (in Preparation for the Battle)
If you can’t prove it, abort the mission. Go back to the drawing board. Go to plan B. Joking aside, preparing for appropriate employee terminations is a long game. It starts with consistent application of procedures, processes, policies, and practices. Probably the most important thing is documentation.
Consistent application of the ‘four Ps’ over time may take an investment of time and money into creating them if you don’t already have them, and training managers and supervisors in the art of holding employees accountable.
“Preparing for appropriate employee terminations is a long game. It starts with consistent application of procedures, processes, policies, and practices. Probably the most important thing is documentation.”
Among other things, there should be consistent application of all conduct and performance-related policies. There should be consistent application of all of the policies, procedures, and practices associated with managing human-resources functions such as leaves of absence and request for accommodations, as well as employee complaints made and investigated.
All of these should contain a component that enables tracking the underlying data and providing the ability to obtain and distribute the underlying information that supports assertions made. So you want to terminate an employee because he has been to work only seven out of 19 days, and on the seventh day he violated a safety policy and then stole your candy bar? You should be able to show documentation of these occurrences that were created in real time — including, of course, when the company had the initial conversation with him for being absent the first few times, checking to make sure it wasn’t actually a protected leave of absence.
Once you have the documentation, sit him down and tell him that he is being terminated from the job because of his inability to perform and because of his violation of the attendance policy. Have a witness. If you don’t have the documentation, sit him down, put him on notice that he is in the line of fire, and start documenting. Provide him with expectations, and then document it thereafter. Most likely, this will just delay the inevitable, but you never know. Regardless, at least you will have something to take with you into battle.
Make the Business Decision Informed by the Data, and Document It
Please know, you can terminate an employee for any reason at any time so long as it is not an illegal reason. That means you cannot terminate because of an employee’s protected status or activity or in a manner inconsistent with a collective bargaining agreement or other employment agreement.
As such, if you want to terminate a person for business reasons that have nothing to do with the person and everything to do with your business needs, that is OK too. But you should prove it. Do you have the data to back up your decision? You don’t have to have it, but if that person files a complaint, you will want it, and you will want to be able to attest that the business analysis was done prior to the termination. Otherwise, they will scream ‘pretext,’ meaning you just made that up. Plus, doing the analysis first may help you assess the risks of terminating an employee for business reasons.
There are always risks. Is it cheaper to keep him after assessing those risks, or not? That is a legitimate fiscal business concern. There are risks associated with not terminating employees as well. Be sure to document those, too — not just in the business case (e.g., budget concerns), but also in the ‘do I have enough to terminate this employee for conduct?’ case. Some examples: if I don’t terminate, there will be allegations that I did not maintain a harassment-free workplace; or, I terminated another employee for this same behavior last year, and there is no legitimate reason distinguishing this employee from being terminated for the same; or, he keeps violating safety procedures, and someone may get hurt.
Terminate with Grace and Pay What You Owe
Be respectful to all employees, including those who are coming and going. He knows what he did to get terminated (if you have done it right). There is no legitimate reason to be rude about it.
Terminating with dignity or grace does not mean that you should not terminate an employee. Once an employee gets to termination, he should have already had an opportunity to cure the conduct or behavior for which he is getting terminated. As such, by the time the writing is on the wall, he should not be surprised. If he is, that might partly explain why he is getting terminated.
Next, make sure you reach out to your employment counsel for assistance with properly preparing a termination package (necessary correspondence, pay requirements, and timing considerations). A misstep here can get you in hot water — triple hot water. Failure to pay an employee what is due at termination has no defense, and the remedy to the employee includes three times the wages due. Call your counsel before terminating.
I know this article is not going to make me popular among some folks. I am not trying to be cold. I am just being practical. Your employees are your life force. I get it. I am one. But they are also human capital. If you manage your human capital like you manage your non-human capital, then you should be able to terminate employees without fear.
Processes, procedures, practices, and protocols are kings. Remember, keeping a toxic employee is more costly, in a variety of ways, than the cost of defending a claim — that is, if you have your ducks in a row. So get your ducks in a row. Plus, the remainder of your staff will appreciate the decision. Heck, the terminated employee may appreciate it in time; sometimes it just isn’t a good fit. Cut them free to find their better role. In the case of the business decision, your shareholders or business partners will appreciate your fiscal responsibility.
Tanzania Cannon-Eckerle, Esq. is chief legal and administrative officer for the Royal Law Firm; (413) 586-2281.