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A good boss lets bad eggs go


You show consistency as a boss and respect for your top employees when you terminate someone who needs to go.

Have you ever terminated, fired, liberated, or let someone go after laboring over the decision for days and losing several nights' sleep, only to realize you should've done it much, much sooner? If so, you're not alone. Consider the case of Bertha.

Mark Opperman, CVPM

Bertha was a bad egg, a receptionist who yelled at clients, other team members, and even the practice owner. But when the practice was sold, Bertha stayed. The new owner brought me in to conduct an on-site operational audit. His No. 1 short-term goal was "Get rid of Bertha." At first I thought it was a joke, but I learned he was serious. This new owner was afraid to fire Bertha because she had been with the practice "forever."

"Everyone knows Bertha," the practice owner said. "If I fire her, some of the clients might leave. I can't."

Day one of my audit was interesting. Bertha was mean. She ignored me and proceeded to spend the day yelling at everyone. She even yelled at me for watching her as she yelled. I spoke to the practice owner that evening, and we put a plan into effect to fire Bertha. So the first time she acted out, we gave her a verbal warning, which was followed by a written warning, and then termination. All three actions occurred in the span of two days.

The day after Bertha was fired, a client asked where she was. The remaining receptionist said, "She's no longer with our practice."

"Really?" the client replied, with great relief. "I'm so glad. I used to hate coming in and having to deal with her. She was so mean."

That sentiment was repeated over and over in the months to come. The practice didn't lose clients; instead, many returned when they found out that the insulting Bertha had been given the boot.

Why do we put up with poor performance, undermine our own leadership skills, and watch team morale drop? Most bosses can give lots of reasons for holding on to bad eggs. At the top of the list is that they don't want to hurt anyone—after all, they're nice people. But if you're one of these "nice" bosses, the truth is, you're harming your practice. This is what you need to realize: You're not a bad person if you fire a team member who needs to go; you're a good boss.

Another reason you may be waiting to fire is that you don't know how to do it or are afraid of legal issues. So let's review the ABCs of termination and eliminate at least that excuse. You may find that terminating a poorly performing employee is the nicest thing you do for your team all year.

Cook up a five-star manual

The first step in the termination process takes place long before you hand an employee her walking papers: making sure everyone knows what the policies are. Update your practice's employee policy manual and put it in the hands of every team member. Then have employees sign a form indicating they've received it and they understand its contents.

Firing tip: Broken record response

Your manual should include all the details about working at your practice. Some examples:

  • time off and holidays

  • definitions of part-time and full-time employment

  • veterinary care benefits provided

  • dress code expectations

  • continuing education guidelines.

Of course, the most important policy is the topic at hand. Your manual must include information about your introductory employment period. With this policy in place, you can terminate an employee at any time during the introductory period. You need only say, "Annette, you're in your introductory period and I feel it's not working out. Therefore I've decided to discontinue your employment at our hospital." You don't need to give reasons or warnings as long as Annette is still in those first three months of employment.

Your manual needs to include a disciplinary policy, too. Once an employee has worked past the introductory period, that's the policy that matters. An example is the three-step process that follows. For sample policy wording, see below under "Related Links."

Follow your recipe

Let's look at each of the three disciplinary steps in more detail.

1. The spoken warning. If there's a problem with an employee—say, she left the hospital without getting her work done, was rude to a client, or yelled at another employee—your first step is to call her into your office. Make sure another person in a leadership role is present as a witness, explain what she's doing wrong, and present your expectations for correcting the problem:

"Annette, you left without treating the patients you were supposed to treat. Because of this, everything was backed up this morning. Even worse, patients that needed their treatments last night did not receive them. This is not acceptable and, because of your actions, I am giving you a verbal warning. If this problem continues, it will result in a written warning. If it still continues, I will have no choice but to terminate your employment. Do you understand that from now on you need to finish your work before you leave the hospital?"

Even though this is a spoken warning, it's still documented. You, the employee, and the witness will sign a warning notice, which is placed in the team member's personnel file. (If the team member refuses to sign, make a note of that fact and include it in the file.)

2. The written warning. Unfortunately, Annette failed to complete her work again. You call her into your office, along with a witness, and inform her of her infraction:

"Annette, you did not enter the charges into the computer last night before you left the hospital. I talked to you about completing your work two weeks ago. I told you that if you failed to complete your work or violated any other hospital policy, I would have no choice but to give you a written warning."

Annette will probably offer an excuse, but the fact remains that she didn't get her work done, so you have no choice but to proceed with disciplinary action:

"Annette, I'm sorry you had to leave early but it's your responsibility to complete all your work before you leave. At the very least you could have told me you needed to leave and were not going to be able to get all your work done. I'm going to have to give you a written warning. If this problem or any other violation of company policy occurs within the next three months, I'll have no alternative but to terminate your employment. Do you understand?"

Write up the notice, which Annette, you, and the witness will sign. Put it in the employee's file.

3. Termination of employment. Guess what? Annette failed to get her work done again last night and it's been just two weeks since the written warning. Call her into your office with a witness and proceed:

"Annette, you didn't finish your work again last night. You left patients untreated, you didn't give others water, and you didn't write up medical records on hospitalized patients. We spoke about this two weeks ago, and at that time I told you that if you didn't complete your work again, I would have no alternative but to terminate your employment."

Annette will make excuses. When she's done, here's the best response:

"Annette, I understand that, but it's your responsibility to finish your work before you leave. You've failed to do that three times in the past three months. I've given you a spoken warning and a written warning. I've given you every opportunity to resolve this problem. Therefore I'm terminating your employment. Please collect your personal belongings, here is your final paycheck, and I wish you well."

Write up a termination form and request that the employee sign it, then sign it yourself and have the witness sign as well. Then escort Annette out of the practice or ask another supervisor to do it.

Firing leaves a bitter taste?

So now you're a real SOB, right? I don't think so. Not all disciplinary problems are so black and white—and I certainly advocate that you be reasonable—but is it reasonable for an employee not to complete her work and just leave the hospital without telling anyone? And if you let this employee do it, you have to let everyone do it. Employees respect a boss who's fair and consistent. Nobody likes bosses who say they're going to do something and don't. They can't enforce the rules with poorly performing team members, and high-performing team members resent that. Use this termination policy consistently, and employees will know what's expected of them and will follow polices if they know consequences will follow if they fail to do so.

Firing tip: Exit interview

Tasty results

You have more to lose by keeping marginal employees than you do by firing them. Team members who don't support your policies and procedures undermine the rest of the team's good work. It's not "mean" to terminate. If a team member isn't doing the job or following policies, you're not the one firing her—she's firing herself. Practice owners or managers need to tell employees what they expect, give them the tools and support to get it done, reward them when they're doing a good job, counsel them when they're not, and terminate them when all else fails. Think about it this way. Doesn't one bad egg make the whole batch start to stink?

Firing tip: At-will bosses: Take note

Veterinary Economics Hospital Management Editor Mark Opperman, CVPM, owns VMC inc., a veterinary consulting firm in Colorado. Send questions or comments to ve@advanstar.com

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