The Not So Fine Art of Firing

Paw Inspiring

By Missi Salzberg

Well, it happened. I had to fire an employee. I’ve had to do it only a few times over the last 20 years, thankfully. This firing was a little different than the prior situations, but firing someone is never pleasant. It is especially tough if you are one of those people who want to give someone chance after chance much to the detriment of your business. I have personally hung on to employees much longer than I should have, based sometimes on the needs of my business and physically needing the people power to get the job done, and more often, honestly, because taking away someone’s livelihood is just not something I take lightly.

Let me say this, though: if a few of my former employees cared as much about doing me right as I cared about doing them right, things would have most likely been different. However, when you put out the invitation to let someone into the heart of your business, especially when you truly love that business, and there is dishonesty, drama, or consistent issues that affect your business, it is sometimes better to let go and move on quickly than to hang in there and suffer through a long, drawn out “breakup.”

Over the years, the firings I have had to carry out were due to theft of company property, mishandling an animal in our care (there was no written or verbal warning with that one, trust me!), poor attitudes, poor grooming, and as of late, dishonesty. Regardless of the “why” you release someone from your employment, here are some tips to keep the process focused and minimize legal issues down the road:

First and foremost, don’t take firing someone from their job lightly. Most of the time, an employee can improve their work quality with guidance, and there are no legal ramifications that I know of for giving a verbal or written warning. Firing someone, however, can lead to legal issues and cost you a lot of money.

Be certain to document issues along the way. I know it takes us away from the task at hand, which is caring for our customers, but in the end, those paper trails will be invaluable if you ever need them. Make a quick Employee Warning form. Have a line for the date and name of the employee, the type of warning you are giving, whether it is a verbal first warning, verbal second warning, a probationary warning, a voluntary quit by the employee, or a final termination. You should have a folder on every employee with their W4s and other pertinent information. Add this sheet to their employee file. If you so much as pull a bather aside and tell them their baths are unsatisfactory, jot it down and put it in the file.

If you sit an employee down and give them a true verbal warning related to their job performance, be ready with a plan for them to succeed. In other words, don’t leave the window for them to improve wide open. Be specific. “You have 30 days to show me that you understand what we have discussed and implement these changes. We’ll meet again at the end of that time and review your progress.” Let them know that at the end of that probationary period you will discuss their improvement in the position. Otherwise they will need to move on.
Have a script ready. Prepare what you need to say ahead of time, because confronting people can be quite scary and it is easy to get off the subject. I actually have read from a sheet to be certain that my details were correct and because I can easily get too emotional. Whether it is a punch list of specifics you need to cover or an actual word-by-word presentation, be prepared and be to the point.

If you know you are definitely going to fire someone, have the proper paperwork ready to go. This may include the employee’s final paycheck and the Cobra Health information for them to continue coverage at their own expense. You may also have something for them in writing stating that they understand why the termination is happening. If they refuse to sign it, make it part of their folder as well.
Be kind. With this latest firing I had to manage, it was not easy to remain kind, because I felt so angry about what had happened. I had to dig deep and stay professional; behaving poorly only reflects badly back onto you. I also believe that the grand majority of reasons people need to be fired are not personal in nature, so don’t make them personal!

When in doubt, call a labor attorney. There are people who handle termination issues every day, and asking your question ahead of time may save you money in the end. It never hurts to ask.

When it is actually time to fire someone, be succinct and to the point. Don’t let things drag out and leave space for “getting into it.” State your facts, thank the employee for all of their hard work, a quick handshake, and we’re done.

Have a witness if you have any concerns about the employee becoming angry or you have any intuition that things may not go well. Running a small business is tough because we tend to not always have the clarity of boundaries that we should have with our employees. Whether it is personal or not, it will most likely feel personal to them.

Lastly, after the meeting, have the employee gather their equipment and belongings immediately and leave the premises. Don’t drag this out. The longer someone has to sit and seethe, the more likely there will be words exchanged. Stay on point.

These last 10 suggestions are probably at the core of the very least favorite part of being a business owner for me. It took me years to detach when necessary, but I had to learn this skill because the stress seriously felt like it would swallow me up. My wife recently said something to me that I found to be very clear and insightful. I was whining and carrying on about how this employee did me wrong. She was most likely tired of my wonking and said, “Anytime someone is successful, whether they are the owner or a manager, it’s only a matter of time before they’re going to deal with employee issues. It’s not personal.” Thanks, babe. I needed that reminder, because it was really eating me up that day. Detach.

On this specific occasion, the issue surrounding the termination was not performance related. It was based on issues of dishonesty and reliability. It may have seemed quite sudden to the employee, but I have a very short fuse when I think someone is not being truthful. The employee denied my version of what happened, but I had texts and statements from another employee to back up what had happened. What does the disgruntled employee do these days when they feel maligned? They take to social media to air their grievances. Ah, technology!

What to do now? First, I blocked the person from being able to post anything on my Facebook page. I then blocked their ability to contact me on my cell phone. The post they put up was on their own page, and we all have the freedom of speech in this country, so there really wasn’t anything I could do about that. What I could do was put it in perspective.

I decided immediately not to respond at all to the post. It’s kind of like pouring kerosene on fire in hopes that it will snuff out the flames. There is absolutely no positive outcome to responding to rants. Just don’t do it. There’s no way to make the situation feel any better for that employee. It just needs time to run its course. I did, however, copy the rant and add it to the employee file. The late, great Keith Whitley said, “You say it best, when you say nothing at all.” Sing it!

In the end, your business will move on. The former employee will become an employee again—somewhere else! This too shall pass. In the moment, though, when faced with the issue of confronting an employee that is not working out, it can be truly overwhelming. As crazy as it may sound, sometimes I just sit back, feel very grateful for all that I have in my life, and think, “God bless them.” After all, I don’t want to fight and struggle with people. As for resentment, I love this little ditty: “Resentment is like swallowing poison and hoping the other guy dies.” It’s just a waste of energy.

Try to detach. Business is business, even though it doesn’t feel that way when things go poorly. All you can do is do your best, treat people with respect, treat people the way you want to be treated, and train people to do things the way you want them done in your business. That doesn’t mean it’s always going to work out.

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