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Your hardest task.

Firing an employee is arguably the most difficult task most employers face, and it is particularly tough on physicians. We hate doing it so much that many of us prefer to tolerate poor and marginal employees rather than replace them with good ones.

That exacts a heavy toll on the efficiency of many practices. And the longer you procrastinate, the more difficult it becomes as the mediocre employee begins to form relationships with other employees, and with you. So it is important to recognize poor or marginal performance early on, and, if it cannot be improved, to replace that employee with one who is capable of performing up to your expectations.

First, make sure your reasons for termination are legal. Federal law prohibits most employers from firing an employee because of race, gender, national origin, disability, religion, or age (if the person is older than age 40). It also prohibits firing someone because that person is pregnant or has recently given birth, or because of any related medical conditions.

It is also illegal to fire employees for asserting their rights under the state and federal antidiscrimination laws, for refusing to take a lie detector test, or for complaining about possible OSHA violations or other illegal conduct. And, of course, you can't terminate someone for refusing to commit an illegal act, or for exercising a legal right (such as voting, public demonstration, or other political activity).

You cannot fire someone for alcohol abuse unless he or she is caught drinking on the job. However, many forms of illegal drug use are legitimate cause for termination. To find out more about your applicable state laws, contact your state labor department or fair employment office.

Next, make sure you have all the documentation you need. When you give verbal warnings, be sure to document them. In today's litigious society, without proper documentation you may very well find yourself in a wrongful termination lawsuit, with the former employee claiming he or she was fired for one of the illegal reasons listed above.

After you have all your legal ducks in a row, don't put it off. First thing Monday morning is a much better idea than the traditional Friday end-of-the-day termination. This will spare you from worrying about the dreaded task all week long, and keep the fired employee from stewing about it all weekend.

Explain to the employee the performance you have expected, the steps you have taken to help him or her meet that level of performance, and the fact that it has not been met. Do not say more than you have to. I try to limit the conversation to less than 5 minutes, and I make it very clear that the decision has already been made, so begging, pleading, or crying will not change anything. Avoid a shouting match at all costs.

My "speech" usually goes something like this: "I have called you in to discuss a difficult matter. You know that we have not been happy with your performance. (This is where specific examples are inserted). We are still not happy with it, despite all the discussions we have had, and we feel you can do better elsewhere. So today we will part company, and I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors. Here is your severance check, along with any other monies owed you. I hope there are no hard feelings."

Be sure to get all your keys back (or change the locks if you can't), back up any important computer files, and change all of your passwords. (Most employees know more of them than you think.)

Afterward, call the remaining staff members together and explain what happened. You don't have to give them all the specifics, but you should explain how it will affect them, the responsibilities that will be shifted, and when you plan to hire a replacement. If you are asked in the future to give a phone reference or letter of recommendation, make sure everything you say is truthful and well documented. Anything else could trigger a libel suit.


DR. EASTERN practices dermatology and dermatologic surgery in Belleville, N.J.
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Title Annotation:GUEST EDITORIAL
Author:Eastern, Joseph, S.
Publication:Clinical Psychiatry News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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