After more than three decades
leading HR in public agencies, it is time for the HR Doctor to
share a basic "secret" with colleagues about dealing with the
times when an employee is to be fired. This is less an article
about the techniques of giving "the word" to employees in a
safe and respectful manner than it is about a basic philosophy
that works very well no matter what the circumstances may
That philosophy is that an
organization should never fire anyone.
managers, supervisors, directors, lawyers and whoever else may
be involved in an employee termination need to approach this
difficult circumstance by asking whether the employee really
fired himself or herself.
the organization say this persons behavior or performance was
clearly contrary to job requirements, policies, mutually
understood and clear expectations. Can it be demonstrated that
the person knew of the performance deficiencies or the
improper behavior, was also was given an opportunity to
improve and correct the failings, and still the
soon-to-be-former employee remained in a persistent vegetative
state? In this case, the person could have prevented his (yes,
usually, they are males) own termination but he failed in a
duty to act.
the HR Doctors experience, it is unusual that a person is
fired for a technical or physical inability to do the job.
Overwhelmingly, terminations result when an employee has an
attitude of arrogance, or unwillingness to "work and play well
with others" or serve the public with respect.
Whatever the issues are, the
manager would be very well served professionally, ethically
and legally to be in a position to show that the employee knew
the rules, was clear in the organizations expectation of
appropriate performance or behavior, but despite that,
violated the rules in ways which harmed the agency.
is important to establish the presence of "harm" to the
organization. Harm may be the worst of all kinds of harm Ñ
workplace violence, harassment or unlawful discrimination. It
may be harm in the form of the commission of a crime such as
embezzlement of public funds. It may be misuse of the
organizations property, including misuse of the telephone or
computer systems. It may also be a relatively low level of
harm in the great scheme of the universe, such as persistent
tardiness resulting in other people having to cover that front
counter reception duty. Projects may be late or not well
completed because of an employees inattention. Unnecessary
overtime may be required by virtue of the unscheduled repeated
absences of a person.
Whatever it is, being able to
show the employee that these behavior or performance failures
created harm can be quite important. It may also not be just a
matter of showing the employee the harm, but of showing the
employees mother, lawyer, helpful television reporter, even
more helpful EEOC investigator, or others that the agency
acted in a job-related manner, in a timely manner, and in an
effective and respectful manner.
HR Doctor has used the phrase, "performance or behavior"
several times already in this article. That is very
deliberate. Performance and behavior are the only issues that
a manager should be concerned about when it comes to making
human resources decisions, including any disciplinary action,
as well as promotion, selection or reward. Every one of these
actions should always and only be anchored to job-related
performance or behavior.
Using anything else as the basis
for an HR decision puts the manager and the organization at
unnecessary risk. The risk may not be real, but the outcome
may be the same if the basis is only perceived not to be
job-related. Something that is not job-related is a quicksand
pit waiting to swallow up the stumbling, bumbling manager who
steps into it.
dear colleagues, if you remember the basic notions of
anchoring all termination decisions to job-related performance
and behavior; are prompt and effective in pointing out
failures in these areas; give employees demonstrated
opportunities to correct and improve; and document all these
positive actions by the agency, you are being an effective HR
When the employee wakes up and
takes positive actions to show improvement or awareness, the
outcome will be that the employee may never reach the point of
being terminated in the first place. However, if that most
significant of all disciplinary actions, firing - or, if
you prefer, organizational capital punishment - must
occur, the agency and the manager will have done the right
things at the right time and in the right way.
This powerful package in the
prior paragraph, mixed with specific techniques of how to
present the termination news to the troubled employee in a
safe and respectful manner, will result in a defensible
separation of a person who perhaps should never have been
hired in the first place.
Disciplinary action or corrective
action is a necessary part of a business relationship. It is
necessary at different times with different people when all of
the other steps described in this article have not resulted in
effective performance or appropriate behavior.
final note: there are some performance or behavior failures
that are so egregious that offering repeated opportunities for
an employee to improve is just not the right thing to do. It
may be the substance-abusing employee whose drunk driving of
the school bus causes serious injury. It may be the police
officer who fires a warning shot into a persons head in a
display of excessive force. It may be workplace violence. The
point is that despite everything else mentioned in this
article, the greater the consequences of the poor behavior or
performance, the more important it is for the organization to
act in a strong and decisive manner. While the basic rules and
best practices described above still apply, the point is that
the organization has a duty to understand and reduce its own
my decades (actually, Im not that old!) of leading HR
organizations and advising colleagues, clients and friends all
over the country on difficult HR matters, the HR Doctor can
safely say hes never fired anyone. However, he can also say
that a significant number of employees are now former
employees because they apparently could not wait to fire
When it comes to your career, get
fired up - but not fired!