Years ago, when I first entered the family business as the last brother in to what was then a 3rd generation service contracting business—now a 4th generation plumbing, heating, cooling and now electrical contracting business—my dad said to me, “You can no longer hire anyone until you prove you can fire someone the right way. Face it. You like hiring people. And who doesn’t? But you need to do both.”
Well, I didn’t like that message much, but I knew he was right. As an empathetic person I am able to put myself in another person’s shoes and see things from their perspective. And I could only imagine how bad it felt to get fired!
Before I go on, a disclaimer: I’m not a labor lawyer nor do I play one on TV. You’d be well served to engage a human resources partner or a labor lawyer to help you navigate the waters. The rules and laws differ from state to state and even among local governments so you don’t want to wing it.
Our service contracting company was and still is a NYC Union Shop. When it came to employee relations that was both good and bad news. The good: there was formal process for disciplining and terminating employment. The bad: we were not consistently following the steps. (In our defense, they were not all that clear!)
The first few times I fired a bad employee they were genuinely surprised. Naturally, they wanted to unload their frustrations but I just wanted to get it over with so usually I cut them off. It went so badly a few times I’m lucky I didn’t get shot!
Something had to change. We had to figure out a “right” way to say goodbye to a bad employee. The answer was to create our own formal process, which we called “The Steps of Discipline,” part of having contractor operations.
Before these steps were in place, we’d complain amongst ourselves when the employee messed up again and again until one day we’d had enough and lowered the boom. The problem was we hadn’t put anything documenting our displeasure with their performance into their employee file, which caused all kinds of problems.
The Steps of Discipline finally made the path to termination (and redemption) clear to our employees:
- Step 1: An informal meeting and a note in their employee file
- Step 2: A formal write up that the employee signs off on
- Step 3: A formal suspension
- Step 4: Termination of employment
Later we changed the name of the process from Steps of Discipline to Steps of Corrective Action. The new name was a better description of positive goals because we always hoped the employee would get back on track.
It was a good start but begged the question: What exactly were we judging these employees on? At that point, we had to admit it wasn’t on anything objective or even uniform. Every brother had a different point of view!
To fix this we created standard operating procedures for every position in our service contracting company— technicians, CSRs, dispatchers, accounts receivable, payables, managers, sales people, whatever role there was in the company, we had an operating manual for it.
One day my shop steward (the person who is a union employee that works in the field but also is there to protect other union members when these types of issues come up) walked in to my office and said to me, “The way I see it, we don’t fire anyone anymore. They just choose not to work here anymore. I say that because we give them four chances and we’ve told them how we’re judging them and we offer them ongoing training to help them get better.”
How good is that?
Having operating manuals in place that map to the boxes on your organizational chart makes deciding whether someone should to stay or go clearer, if not easier. SOPs give you something to train on and make your expectations for the job very clear.
So as long as you have objective standards that you’ve communicated, you can do the steps of corrective action in a way that everybody gets to maintain their dignity. Let’s say they are at Step 3, which is suspension and the next step is termination. Rather than a big (one-way) surprise, there is a conversation that goes something like this:
“Tell you what. You and I are going to push over the next two weeks to see if we can get you to where you need to be. If it works out after two weeks, great. If not, we can say goodbye and know that we gave it our best shot.
“What do you say?”
Maybe they say yes, and it works out. But even if it doesn’t, at least you’ll both know things were done in a fair and right way.