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This it great Lunell--thanks. I do hope we work together again soon--I appreciate your sensitive attention to this issue for us, the results have been great.

--Executive Director

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

by Lunell Haught and Laura Asbell

Getting the employee group right is one of the most powerful things you can do to fuel your company’s success. Trying to move ahead with someone who doesn’t contribute in a timely, accurate and agreeable manner is like trying to drive with the parking brake on. It’s not just difficult, it damages.

There are several ways owners and managers get stuck in difficult employee situations. Observing and interviewing people in this plight has led us to useful conclusions. Roadblocks to putting the best employee group together for your company are easier to get around if you understand what’s holding you back from action and what to do about it.

Here’s the list of issues and recommendations for working through them. The first roadblocks are the ones in your own head.

Most managers have to ‘get a grip’ on the situation by having a serious talk with themselves before they begin on the employee in question. After working with all kinds of bosses in challenging situations we accumulated a list of why it’s difficult and what might be done to make one of the decision more manageable.

Have I supervised well?

Have you held the employee accountable for actions, have you guided, coached, supported, reinforced, given clear regular feedback? Have you explored with the employee why performance is suffering? You must know the answer so you can decide if you’re going to try to save a potentially good employee or let a problem employee go. Performance appraisals, the acid test for clear feedback, do not have to be complicated. A blank page with the employee’s name, date and list of what’s going well and what isn’t with the addition of goals for the next period, along with the employee’s and your signatures is all that’s really necessary for an appraisal. The purpose of an appraisal is to formalize and ensure two-way feedback occurs. If not done candidly, the supervisor ends up with a file of glowing appraisals about an employee who has been a problem for a while. Postponing unpleasantness makes it more difficult to take corrective action. Is not unusual for an outsider to be called in to help resolve a conflict or poor performance problem, only to discover past appraisals don’t substantiate the difficulties. This is usually because the supervisor didn’t ‘want the hassle’ of telling someone he wasn’t performing well. If this hasn’t been done, now is the time to begin.

Do I have the authority to fire?

Be sure and check to see if you have the authority to do what you’re about to do. Check with your boss and up the chain if you must. Just because the personnel manual says you can terminate an employee, the way the company actually works may be different. Particularly if you’re concerned you won’t ‘do it right’ and have to take the employee back, checking on authority and procedure is essential.

What will others think of me?

As long as the termination is done well (fairly and thoroughly) this usually won’t be a problem. If your relationship with employees has been fair and humane all along, most people will assume you’ve treated the person leaving with the same respect and dignity. You are bound not to discuss personnel issues with other employees so your actions have to speak for you.

What if I get sued?

The short answer here is to follow your own employee handbook, which presumably your attorney has reviewed. Considering Washington is an at-will employment state you have more options, but you must still follow a process. An amicable end to an employment relationship may be negotiated by using retirement, a pay-out that may or may not include placement through a service and other creative solutions. Be sure you check with your attorney or a Human Resource professional before you begin the termination process. It can save you tremendous headache in the long run. A few years ago it was estimated that it might take about $10,000 just to stay out of court, so there is an obvious advantage to following your own employment manual, giving periodic feedback and requiring accountability by addressing issues as they arise. In cases of both at-will and bargaining unit terminations, the problem most arbitration professionals identify is management’s failure to supervise and then getting frustrated or angry and firing someone without following company rules.

Have I accommodated appropriately?

The issue here is to make sure you have accommodated reasonably. The government website offers guidance here. Many companies are quite good about this for physical situations, but managers get troubled when personal issues interfere with performance. Everyone has family, transportation, medical or life challenges. There is a difference between those who can manage for a short time and get past the difficult situations and those who have ongoing dramas. This is particularly difficult for compassionate bosses, so it helps to talk to a more objective third party just to get clear about how flexible you should be. While you should make accommodations, be reasonable about the length of accommodation for difficulties because you may be stressing the rest of the organization. While you’re bending over backward to help one employee you want to be sure you explain to others they will get the same fair treatment.

What if the business is damaged?

When letting someone go you may be concerned about proprietary information or customer relations. You may have agreements in place about this, which provides some protection, but be proactive. Contact key relationships so you can manage rumors and retain relationships.

Can’t I just avoid conflict?

If we had to point out the Achilles heel of managers it would be the inability to deal with conflict. As Malcomb Forbes put it, “work without conflict is a hobby.” Some people confuse conflict with cruelty; seen a different way it’s the genesis of creativity. Conflict management is a skill you can learn, just like learning how to read a balance sheet. You can learn to address conflict without being angry, and disagree while using compassion and openness. It is crucial to coaching and developing employees because there will be disagreements about what is required for a job. If you don’t address difficult situations as they arise you will not be managing. One of the simplest ways to deal with difficult situations is to get agreement about performance before anything goes wrong. It’s easier to discuss expectations and put them in an agreement and refer to it than it is to assume people think like you do and be angry and frustrated when they don’t.

How can I feel less guilty?

What was done in the past cannot be undone, but the future can be better. The question is to figure out what can be done now. Because you did not do well as a supervisor doesn’t mean the employee is a good or bad fit with your company. This is why asking the employee to explain her perspective is essential. If you are thorough in understanding the situation you can feel more confident you are doing the right thing, either offering more supervision or coaching, or terminating employment.

He’s worked here so long and been so loyal, how can I do this?

With this issue, and the guilt, it’s good to have a wise counselor, a peer or friend (not necessarily your spouse) to review the situation with. You not only have an obligation to this employee, you have an obligation to all employees. Particularly if this individual has to be ‘worked around’ or creates a toxic workplace you must act. Because you are not this person’s peer or subordinate you will probably not feel the impact of this person as much as other employees do, so your perspective may be ‘it’s not so bad’. Consider how other employees view this person. You don’t want to go on a witch hunt, but observe the person in question so you can objectively tell if the others are ganging up or if the person needs to move on or be coached into improved performance.

Compassion makes good managers, but when it cripples managers so they can’t act on behalf of a healthy workplace it’s gone from a strength to a weakness.

What about all the money he brings into the company?

We have never seen a situation in which a top rain maker who was hard to work with left a company and the company made less money. That’s an impressive statement. Usually people feel more free to work, appreciate having someone difficult taken from the scene and you discover you were spending a lot of money maintaining a condition that really wasn’t very functional for the company.

Can I save the employee?

Employee turnarounds don’t just happen. They’re usually inspired by some pretty straight talk and persistent oversight. Maintaining the energy and attention required is worth it because employees are an investment and terminations costly. We’ve seen some amazing turnarounds, but if you start and don’t follow through it increases the cynicism in the company and actually makes it worse. This is why it’s so important to think through both options and what each would take.

Breaking up is hard, but it may be the best thing for everyone concerned.

© Lunell Haught, PhD, CMC

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