You never appreciate a good performer until you’ve fired a bad performer. That’s because bad performers take so much time and attention to manage.
There’s so much legal maneuvering required when building a case for termination. I watch the employee’s personnel file get thicker. When it reaches two or three inches, I’m probably safe pulling the plug.
Don’t get me wrong. I understand the need to give everyone a fair chance to improve. I’m never impulsive, like in the movies when the boss yells out “you’re fired” on a whim.
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From the moment you sense that an employee isn’t working out—and you set in motion disciplinary steps—you have to imagine a judge and jury watching your every move. That way, you can stand behind your actions without feeling embarrassed or guilty.
For example, I never “paper” a personnel file with memos written from memory. If you terminate first and then justify it later in print, a court will disapprove. Instead, I write memos and then make sure the employee receives them immediately. If it’s an employment probation memo, I have the individual sign and date an acknowledgment that they’ve reviewed the memo.
I also apply a “consistency test” to my handling of weak performers. A court wouldn’t like it if I established different working terms and conditions for employees in the same position and skill level. And a court wouldn’t approve if I sent only my favorite people to seminars without giving others a fair chance to learn the tools they need to perform their jobs.
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Performance reviews are an even bigger challenge. It’s tempting to gloss over negative stuff when giving an appraisal.
But I’ve found that sugar-coating the truth hurts everyone. The employee will assume he’s doing just fine. The manager will lose a golden opportunity to alert the individual of a budding performance problem. And the court will throw a fit if they see a string of positive (or even neutral) performance reviews in a plaintiff’s personnel file; they’ll wonder exactly what grounds you had to fire the person if he kept getting pay raises along the way.
I follow three steps when firing people. First, I discuss the specific areas in which they need to improve their performance, and I reinforce my points by summarizing them in writing. I have them restate what I’ve said and written to eliminate misunderstandings. And I include a timetable when I expect to see better results.
If the performance doesn’t improve, I compose a formal 30- or 60-day employment probation memo. This reports the past, present and future—what we’ve discussed before, where we are now and the consequences (i.e., possible termination) if the problems persist.
After the probationary period, the actual firing rarely comes as a surprise. Given the clear communication that’s led up to this point, most employees know what’s coming and they accept it.
Why let rotten apples spoil the work environment when you can polish them instead?
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