County News Home Page
June 05, 2006
NACo Home Page
NACO Home Current Issue Back Issues Editorial & Advertising
County News

 The H.R. Doctor Is In

Firing Yourself

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 be.

That philosophy is that an organization should never fire anyone.

All 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.

Can the organization say this person’s 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.

In the HR Doctor’s 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 organization’s expectation of appropriate performance or behavior, but despite that, violated the rules in ways which harmed the agency.

It 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 organization’s 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 employee’s 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 employee’s 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.

The 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.

So, 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 professional.

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.

A 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 person’s 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 liabilities.

In my decades (actually, I’m 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 he’s 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 themselves.

When it comes to your career, get fired up - but not fired!

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor


Job Market / Classifieds

Financial Services News

The H.R. Doctor Is In

What's In a Seal?

News from the Nation's Counties

NACo On the Move

Research News

Profiles In Service

In Case You Missed It ...

Tools for Tough Times
Write to Your Editor
Print This Page

Bookmark and Share
NACo Home  |  Current Issue  |  Back Issues  |  Editorial & Advertising
© Copyright 1996-2002 County News