The Firing Line

No matter what the reason, whether because of an economic downturn or poor work performance, firing someone is never enjoyable. As a manager, even if the firing is deserved, it’s never fun to be responsible for terminating someone’s source of income. It can get emotional, and sometimes there are legal  consequences if the employee is not given enough of a chance to improve before he or she is let go.

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With proper planning, the tough task of terminating an employee becomes a little easier

The majority of advice out there on the best way to fire someone all comes down to having a strong plan in place.

“I have, in the past, had to terminate technicians who have been under my supervision, due to poor work performance,” said Tiffany Niven, a laboratory management professional with clinical and regulatory experience. “At my current institution, this is a relatively painless process, but as a personal experience, it can be upsetting.”

She agrees a plan is essential to mitigating the upsetting side of firing and emphasizes the importance of being open with employees regarding their termination. “Prior to speaking with the person being terminated, I always had a plan of action in place,” she said.

The following steps should help if you find yourself in the unfortunate situation where you need to fire someone.

Step one: Inform

First of all, employees should always be given a chance to correct any performance problems before they are fired, both for legal reasons and out of fairness, unless the infraction is so terrible that they need to be let go immediately. Managers should first meet one-on-one with the employee to discuss the reasons why they are unhappy with the worker’s performance, presenting a clear plan to fix those issues. Cliff Ennico, a columnist and author of several books focusing on small business, recommends in an Entrepreneur article that managers create a list of things they are unhappy with in that employee’s performance so the person knows exactly what needs to be rectified.1

When raising performance issues with a staff member, he says, “Do not allow the employee to drag you into a discussion that focuses on anything other than what you’ve just covered.”

For personnel in the laboratory environment in particular, offering employees additional help or training with scientific techniques they may be having trouble with should be the first step before considering termination. Everyone learns at a different pace and should be given a chance to be successful.2

It’s also wise to take into account any problems outside the workplace that may be negatively impacting an employee’s performance, such as an illness in the family or other personal issues. Discussing these issues with the employee, especially if they are a worker who normally does an outstanding job, is important in order to give them a chance to recover their past level of work.3

Keeping a written record of the employee’s performance over an extended period of time, as well as your plan for improving their work, is also necessary so that they can’t come back with a wrongful dismissal suit. If an employee has done such a poor job that they need to be fired outright, the reasons why should always be clearly explained.

“It would not be appropriate to fire someone without telling them why they are being terminated and why they are not being offered the chance to improve their performance—and also, in some cases, why they would not be receiving letters of recommendation,” Niven says. “I have discovered in most cases that the employee who is performing poorly is often not the one who is devastated to lose his [or] her employment.”

Getting the help of your HR department can be very useful in developing your plan to fire someone as they are most familiar with your company’s policies for the firing process and disciplinary actions. Most companies use a “three strikes and you’re gone” type of policy, but it all depends on how serious the employee’s offense is to the company.

Louzette Hattingh, a former lab manager currently working as a quality assistant at Eyethu Coal in South Africa, advises managers to keep the company rules and regulations somewhere in the workplace where they are visible so employees know what is expected of them. Managers should also keep their country or state’s laws and regulations in mind when handling terminations. She says that at her company, serious workplace infractions were dealt with by a hearing.

“The one incident I had to handle involved a lab [technician who] hit an analyst [in the face] with his fist,” she said. “He was sent for a hearing and discharged for a very serious act of physical violence.”

Of course, you never want to fire someone without first thinking it through. And you shouldn’t let your personal feelings for someone determine an employee’s fate. You may not like someone, but unless they are doing a terrible job, being vindictive to other employees, or going against company policy, feelings alone shouldn’t determine whether or not you fire them.2,4

“This is no place for impulsive action or anger or acting in the heat of the moment,” advises author Victor Lipman in his article “How To Fire Someone Effectively But (Hopefully) With Dignity” in Forbes. “Among other things, mishandled employee terminations can have serious legal and financial consequences. It’s a place for thoughtful, wellplanned action.”

Step two: Follow up

After the initial warning to your employee, you should carefully monitor their performance. If they haven’t improved in a few weeks or so, scheduling a meeting to discuss the problem is a smart idea. Refer back to the list of issues you wanted them to fix and give them a chance to explain any factors that may have kept them from meeting their goals. Reiterate exactly what you’d like them to work on and give them a period of about a month to improve unless they are such a destructive element to the rest of your team that it would be better to let them go at that point. Spell out very clearly that the next step is to fire them if they do not sufficiently improve within that time span.1

Step three: Fire

If the employee continues to produce unsatisfactory work or behave inappropriately, you’ll have no choice but to let them go. Being both professional and kind is key at this stage. The majority of employees are generally good people but simply aren’t a good fit for the position. Most information regarding the firing process recommends ending on a positive note and providing any career advice you can, along with references, unless the employee was especially awful. The Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Howard Hughes Medical Institute book, Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty, Second Edition, points out that the world of science is a small one—therefore, it’s likely you could end up working with that employee again in the future. Being kind is wise for that reason.

While it’s important to tell staff why they are being fired, it’s equally important to keep it brief so that the meeting doesn’t turn into an argument or blame game or give the employee any false hope that they can keep their job.1,2,5 Making the Right Moves says developing a script for this conversation is a good way to stay on track and avoid rambling. Creating a checklist with the help of HR can also help ensure that you don’t miss any steps, such as informing the employee about what severance they will receive from your company. You may also want to have a witness (perhaps someone from HR) during this process, both for legal and security reasons, especially if you think the employee could get aggressive.

There are differing opinions on when in the week you should fire someone. Ennico suggests doing it early in the week so that the fired employee doesn’t have a chance to “‘stew about it’ over the weekend.” However, other articles suggest firing later in the week is better so the person’s colleagues aren’t thinking about the firing over the course of their workweek, distracting them from more important tasks. Of course, if the fired individual was a bad element in the lab, morale is likely to improve in the wake of termination, so in that case, sooner is probably better.

Another important step is to ensure all company or lab equipment is returned and that the employee can no longer access the lab’s computer system. In her About.com About Money article, “Top 10 Don’ts When You Fire an Employee,” Susan M. Heathfield suggests teaming up with your IT department to remove the employee’s system access while they are in the termination meeting with you. That way, if they are the vengeful type, they won’t have a chance to get into your company’s system and cause serious damage.5

“I’ve heard many funny but also sad stories about employees sending good-bye notes that started with, ‘I’m outta here, you suckers,’” she writes. “And, I am also aware of employees sabotaging computer systems in a moment of anguish following termination.” She also suggests that managers team up with IT to monitor an employee in the weeks before termination, if possible, to make sure they don’t steal sensitive information. In a lab, anything related to experiments, such as cell lines or critical data, should be watched carefully.2

Giving your employees an incentive to sign a release form is something else most guides on firing recommend, and getting the help of your company’s legal team to draft such a form is encouraged—again, to prevent wrongful dismissal or workplace discrimination suits.

“If the employee is a minority, a female, or over the age of 40, I would recommend asking them to sign a release of liability,” Ennico says in his article. “Have your employment law attorney draft the necessary release before the exit interview—it should take only about an hour of the attorney’s time.”

Once all the points on your checklist are checked off, see the employee safely out of the lab, taking care to keep them away from their coworkers to minimize the chances of a scene. Having someone else collect their personal belongings or arranging to have the fired employee come get them when everyone else has gone home can keep the staff member from mingling with their now-former coworkers. It also minimizes the chances that the employee will take company property with them and is a nice way to protect their dignity, as they are likely to be agitated or possibly even in tears.5

In the end, it’s important to keep the Golden Rule in mind. Treat employees how you would want to be treated if it were you being fired. However, it’s equally important to get the process done since an unproductive or bad team member can cause a lot more harm the longer you delay the decision to fire, a point highlighted in Making the Right Moves.

“An employee with serious work-related problems is a disruptive force and, especially in a small lab, can significantly retard research progress,” the book states. “Although it is not easy to decide to terminate someone, those investigators who have had to release staff say that in retrospect, their biggest mistake was not doing it sooner.”

Sources:

1. Ennico, Cliff. “The Right Way to Fire Someone.” Entrepreneur. September 2006. http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/166644 

2. Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty, Second Edition. Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “Chapter 4, Staffing Your Laboratory: Asking Staff to Leave.” 2006. http://www.hhmi.org/sites/default/files/Educational%20Materials/Lab%20Management/Making%20the%20right%20Moves/moves2_ch4.pdf 

3. “How to Fire an Employee.” wikiHow. http://www.wikihow.com/Fire-an-Employee 

4. Lipman, Victor. “How To Fire Someone Effectively But (Hopefully) With Dignity.” Forbes. April 2013. http://www.forbes.com/sites/victorlipman/2013/04/16/how-to-fire-someone-effectivelybut-hopefully-with-dignity/ 

5. Heathfield, Susan M. “Top 10 Don’ts When You Fire an Employee.” About.com. 2014. http://humanresources.about.com/od/howtofireanemployee/tp/top_ten_donts.htm 

Published In

Building a Dream Team Magazine Issue Cover
Building a Dream Team

Published: December 11, 2014

Cover Story

Building a Dream Team

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