Dr. Bill Wagner
The Troublemaker: Whether to remediate or fire a challenging employee
It is a dilemma that every practice owner is accustomed to facing: How to handle an employee who is under-performing, not a good member of the team, or otherwise causing trouble. This creates a dilemma of whether to let that individual go and try to rehire for the position or whether to try to remediate that employee towards the goal of creating an effective long-term employee. As an independent small business owner, you likely don’t have a dedicated Human Resources professional (one of the many benefits of partnership with AVP!) so the responsibility of figuring out how to troubleshoot these challenging staffing concerns falls to you. Here’s some tips on how to handle them effectively and arrive at a decision of whether to remediate or fire in each situation:
1) Did you properly set them up for success?
Expectations and rules should be clear, fair, and consistently applied. To quote one of our earlier blog posts, “Team failures are leadership failures until proven otherwise.” A good leader always looks inwards first before looking externally when trying to figure out why a problem exists. Chances are that often the fault does lie with the troublesome employee, but you can only fault the employee if you’ve done the work first to set them up for success. Every employee should have a clear and detailed job description that lets them know what they’re responsible for, have been properly trained on all the tasks that they will be performing, and should understand what the consequences are (up to and including termination) for failing at their duties or violating the rules. The rules should apply uniformly to all staff, regardless of position or tenure, if they are to carry weight. A detailed employee handbook is crucial for establishing the rules, the consequences for breaking them, and ultimately serving as a key part of your paper trail to prove that those rules and consequences were communicated to an employee prior to termination.
2) Is this a single employee problem or a larger team culture issue?
Just as you set your employees up for success through clear expectations, fair and consistently applied rules, and thorough training on their tasks, the rest of the team plays a crucial role in making sure any individual employee sinks or swims. A good team supports each other, checks each other's work, and holds each other accountable. If an employee isn’t doing well, it is a good time to do a pulse check of how the rest of the team is doing to make sure that there isn’t a bigger culture issue involved. You can’t pizza party your way out of a toxic team culture, so if there’s a larger team culture issue at play you need to identify it early and start the hard work of getting your team back on track.
3) Were the employee's actions intentional or accidental? Were they technical or interpersonal?
Intent matters. Malicious actions are an individual problem, errors are an operational problem (stay on the lookout for an upcoming blog on this topic!). Failures of technical skills are often easier to troubleshoot through remedial training, whereas interpersonal failures can be a challenging hurdle for an employer to overcome. Depending on the degree, challenges with interpersonal behavior can be addressed but it is more difficult. If you’re trying to troubleshoot interpersonal issues you should focus on figuring out what their personal motivators are and how you can align their motivation with the needs of the team.
4) How big is the problem?
It is important to note that it is the size of the problem that matters, not the size of the impact. A small error can lead to a large impact due to the high stakes of medicine but may not be appropriate grounds for termination. On the other hand, a significant breach in behavior might be grounds for immediate termination even if the overall impact is small (theft from the register, etc).
5) Keep the long-term picture in mind, even in a tough job market.
It is tempting to keep a “bad apple” employee around during busy times for the clinic and/or a tough job market, especially when their issues are interpersonal rather than a deficiency in the quality of their technical work. Turnover is expensive and it is a tough time to hire veterinarians and support staff right now so it is correct to try to limit turnover as much as possible, but not when it is putting the long-term integrity of your team at risk. Temporarily running a smaller but happier and more effective team by removing a toxic team member is the right long-term decision, even if it creates a short-term staffing problem. You’re best served by keeping the current job market out of your mind when trying to figure out whether to fire someone. If firing them is the right choice, it’s right in any job market. Keeping troublesome team members will cost you your better employees when the toxic environment that those troublemakers create drives your All Stars away.
6) If you decide to terminate, do it right.
Being able to point to clear rules and consequences in the employee handbook (see above) makes this process much easier since it adds impartiality to your decisions. It is important to establish a paper trail early. This means that you should document infractions even by employees that you may not have any thoughts towards terminating yet, since you never know when more problems may arise in the future. An employee should never be surprised by being fired. They should have a clear sense of rules and consequences and should also have had remedial intervention prior to termination where it was made clear that further failure of performance would result in termination (except for situations involving significant infractions where immediate termination is justified). Have a second person present at the termination to take notes and who can act as a witness to what was said. Termination is not a negotiation, so allow them to voice their thoughts but otherwise keep the meeting brief and strictly focused on informing them of the termination. Any terminated employee should be provided with a written notice. Letting someone go is one of the hardest jobs of a veterinary practice owner but getting the wrong people out of your team is a necessary part of running a successful business.
In a profession where we set out to help animals in need, we spend a lot of time working with people! Managing human resources is one of the hardest jobs for veterinary practice owners. At AVP we provide professional HR services to our practice partners so that they can spend more time with their patients and less time dealing with human headaches. Please contact me at email@example.com if you’re interested in finding out more.