Terminations: Self-auditing tips from hiring to firing

 Nancy Byerly Jones, The Daily Record Newswire

If you dread the thought of having to fire someone, you’re in excellent company. But as with any professional hurdle, it’s made immeasurably worse by going in unprepared.

The termination process is one that can be researched, managed and even avoided altogether by putting in place a system that removes as much guesswork as possible by focusing on effective hiring and retention.

Let’s address the issue from four perspectives:

• Minimizing the need to terminate in the first place;

• Steps to take before terminating;

• “How to terminate” tips; and

• Preventative steps for minimizing dips in office morale after a firing.

Minimizing the need

Most of us dread the thought of having to terminate anyone, and yet we often fail to take all the steps available that would keep us from getting to that point. Consider the self-audit questions below to ensure that you have a well-thought-out system and plan for hiring employees:

— Are you prepared for the actual interviews? Is the right person conducting them? Do you rush through haphazardly, bent on just finding a “good enough” warm body?

— Besides the technical skills needed, do you give fair thought to the type of personality that would best fit the position in question and with the firm’s overall dynamics?

— Where are you looking in your search for new employees and how are you getting the word out? Are your ads creative or just the “same old, same old?”

— When interviewing, do you do a good job of explaining not only the position itself, but also about the firm’s mission and practice areas?

— Once employees are on board, what is the quality of their orientation, ongoing training and supervision?

— Are your employees kept well-informed of firm activities via regular attorney-staff meetings, or is the grapevine of gossip allowed to do that job?

— Is each employee valued for the contributions he or she brings to the team and treated respectfully, or is there a tier system that screams: “Some of us are better than others”?

— Are firm rules and procedures followed by everyone, or do some employees get away with things that others don’t (e.g. tardiness, long lunches, excessive personal calls, etc.)?

— Do employees receive criticism privately and constructively, and are they praised in front of their co-workers when appropriate?

— Do they receive regular and constructive feedback from their supervisors on their strengths and areas needing improvement?

— Are employees offered continuing education opportunities from outside resources in addition to any in-house training?

— Are employees taught a good example by leadership of the need to respect and support one another, or do firm leaders teach by example that rudeness, childish conflicts and self-centered actions are acceptable behavior?

— Is the right person with the appropriate personality and training managing your employees, or is management chaotic at best?

— Are employees asked to give their input and suggestions regarding improving systems and procedures, client relations, work flow, production and quality?

— If you retain employees who seem to sport a chronically bad attitude, do you know how many fine ex-employees may have resigned because those sourpusses were allowed to spread their poison day after day?

— Can your budget adequately support another employee?

— Would you want to work for someone like yourself?

Steps to take before firing

If you have reached the point at which you’ve decided it’s best to let someone go, ask yourself these questions before proceeding:

— Have you or another appropriate employee investigated all the facts in the situation?

— Does the employee have a clear vision of his/her job responsibilities? Is it in writing?

— If the employee must report to more than one supervisor, do any conflicts exist among the supervisors that may be part of the problem?

— Have the policies in your firm’s policy and procedure manual, if any, been followed?

— What efforts have been made to correct the employee’s bad performance or other problem?

— Have you considered that there may be a more appropriate position for the employee elsewhere in the office?

— Has the employee voiced any valid or possibly valid complaints against the firm (e.g., sexual harassment, unfair enforcement of firm policies, etc.)?

— Are you sure the firing is in no way a retaliatory or other illegal measure?

— Have all discussions with the employee regarding the issue been properly documented?

— Are all members of the management team in agreement on terminating the employee? Why or why not?

— Do you have someone ready and trained to assume the fired employee’s work, to avoid as much costly downtime as possible between employees?

— Have you checked to see if there are any public policy exceptions that would apply in the situation?

— Do you know the relevant laws about employee terminations? Do you know the discrimination laws?

— Have you reviewed the employee’s personnel records carefully to ensure it is properly documented and all appropriate pre-firing steps have been taken (e.g., proper number of warnings, appropriate documentation)?

Termination tips

Be prepared for the termination conference. If there is an employee contract involved, review it carefully before proceeding.

— Review your firm’s policy and procedure manual carefully once again and follow it before the termination meeting. Provide a letter documenting the termination.

— Consider if there are any special circumstances that should be addressed in regard to the employee (e.g. disability).

— Do not rush through the meeting, no matter how badly you want to get out of there.

— Be clear and concise about the reasons for letting someone go if you need to justify a for-cause termination. Even if it is an at-will situation, share what you can.

— Avoid personal attacks.

— Be prepared for tears, anger and a range of other emotions and reactions, and be ready to handle them in a professional and thoughtful manner. Roleplaying beforehand helps.

— Have another partner or other appropriate witness present during the exit interview.

— Remind the employee that the firm’s confidentiality rules apply post-employment, and have the employee re-sign a confidentiality policy (assuming he or she signed one initially, which I hope is the case).

— Clearly explain any severance pay, COBRA and other insurance details, benefit continuation forms or pension-related issues, and offer the explanations in writing.

— Have a checklist ready for the departing employee of all firm property that is to be left with you or the appropriate person before he or she leaves (e.g., office keys, credit cards, computer discs and drives, etc.).

— Allow the employee to gather personal belongings at a time that is least embarrassing.

— Give a fair and respectful amount of time to answer questions, and offer a time to talk with you at a later date when his or her emotions may be stronger and thinking clearer.

— If appropriate, offer to write a letter of recommendation.

— In many cases, it is better that the employee leave immediately, so plan your termination conference accordingly (e.g., on a Friday afternoon, for example).

— Immediately following the termination conference, document your personnel records appropriately about your discussions with the employee, his or her reactions, etc.

— Remind other employees not to discuss the situation outside the firm so as not to hurt, embarrass or further agitate a former employee. It’s also a good time to remind everyone about the critical importance of confidentiality regarding firm business.

— Ensure with proper calendar reminders that all post-termination matters regarding the employee are handled in a timely and proper matter (e.g. COBRA, pension plans, etc.).

— Notify clients, when appropriate, that there has been a change in personnel and introduce them as soon as possible to the employee who will be working with them and replacing the former employee. If the former employee has been rude to certain clients or otherwise mishandled work, be sure you apologize to the client and ensure the problem has been corrected and will not happen again (and make sure it doesn’t).

Helping office morale

In the wake of a firing, employee morale could go one way, the other way or anywhere in between. It may be greatly uplifted because a whiner, troublemaker or laggard has finally been asked to leave.

On the other hand, any employee termination, no matter how overdue or warranted, can leave an enduring cloud. It’s frightening to see others fired, and employees naturally will fear for their own job security or imagine things that may not bet true (“The firm is having financial problems! I might be next!”).

What can be done to protect office morale post-termination?

— First and foremost, don’t be too closed-mouthed about it. Of course, certain things are and should remain confidential, but try to be the first to tell your remaining employees that a co-worker will be leaving or has left the firm. Stay ahead of the grapevine.

— Encourage employees to let their supervisors know if they want to discuss the matter privately. Give them options as to how to have their questions answered.

— Think about what the experience has taught you about the firm, its policies and employees.

— Use the information learned to strengthen or upgrade the firm’s systems, revise outdated policies, improve communications, etc. — and get everyone possible involved in the self-audit and improvement process.

— Ensure everyone that leadership is not planning on letting anyone else go, if that’s the case, and look for frequent opportunities to show your appreciation for well-done jobs and to let employees know you value their contributions to the firm.

The worst thing we can do for ourselves, our staff and our firms in general is to be unprepared for a potential termination. To procrastinate when it’s evident that a change be made can be damaging; impulsively or hurriedly making a decision can be just as costly.

Your sanity, peace of mind and profit margin are well worth the time and effort to conduct at least a quick self-audit as to the state of your firm regarding the hiring, training, supervision and care of your employees. They are indeed our intellectual, marketing and technical capital — our team members who help us pull it all off day after day after day.

Without our loyal and productive staffs, how long would we survive and how would we like practicing law? Would you rather have stable and productive employees or be faced with firing folks on a somewhat regular basis?

The choice is ours. Each of us, no matter what role we play, in a firm of any size, needs to stop waiting for someone else to take care of the dirty work and start doing what we can to help build loyal, productive and enthusiastic legal teams within our firms. And when it just doesn’t work out, we must have the courage, wisdom and professionalism to face the situation squarely.

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Nancy Byerly Jones is an attorney and certified family financial mediator who heads NBJ Consulting & Conflict Resolution. She can be contacted at nbj@nbjconsulting.com.

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