Avoid being 'the terminator'

October 1, 2007

Terminating the employment of a worker may be one of the most stressful parts of your job. Here's how to lessen the chances of having to perform this task-and how to minimize the discomfort for you and your employees if you do.

Key Points

Kansas City, MO-Terminating the employment of a worker may be unrivaled as one of the most stressful, emotional parts of your job, according to Carol A. Poindexter, JD, partner, Shook, Hardy, & Bacon LLP, Kansas City, MO. Poindexter discussed personnel issues in her recent presentation, "Don't be a gambler when dealing with problem employees."

"You realize you're impacting that employee's life and possibly their family," Poindexter said. "You're also impacting the practice and yourself. You always tend to lose a little bit of yourself when you lose people, because you've invested your time, energy, and emotional support."

To keep personnel issues, such as terminations-in check, Poindexter advised, it's best to screen candidates before hiring. "If you screen your employees correctly, have clear objectives for employees, and confront problems quickly, those are key to keeping employee problems at bay," she said.

If you haven't been screening thoroughly, your practice may be infiltrated with what Poindexter dubs the "toxic" employee. No industry is immune to this type of problem employee, but if a toxic employee is allowed to remain on staff for any length of time, he or she destroys everyone in the office.

In describing one example of a toxic employee, Poindexter recounted how an individual once approached her and informed her that one of his employees was keeping a journal of office activities. Poindexter said there's a reason for that. "Nine times out of 10, destructive employees are going to keep some kind of written report about their activities. Why? They may be protecting themselves against a discharge. They may be setting you up for a lawsuit," she said.

That's why screening may be critical to preventing toxic employees from invading your practice. "Our biggest problem with staffs today is poorly screened employees. If you want to hire a loser, don't screen your employees," Poindexter said.

Start your hiring process by using a standardized application form. Legal counsel for your practice should review the form before it's used. When you begin accepting applications for a job opening, screen the submissions with a jaundiced eye. Look for any gaps in employment history.

"If you invite that candidate to give you an explanation for why there's a gap in the history, depending on the answer, it may set off an alarm in your head," Poindexter said.

Also check the application for signs of potential job hoppers. To avoid hiring a potential job hopper, always check references. "If a [potential] employee does not want to give you references, I'd thank [him or her] for [his or her[ time and file that resume. References are absolutely a must," she said. Poindexter recommended having employees sign an authorization allowing the employer to check references.

"That authorization gives the potential employee an opportunity to say 'Nope, I'm not going to apply here.' It also gives you coverage if you go to a former employer and ask about the individual. If they're candid with you, they may tell you exactly why that employee is no longer there," she added.

When conducting reference checks, be sure to ask one crucial question: Would you rehire that employee-yes or no? "If the former employer said no, the warning bells are off the chart," she said.

Get it in writing

Beyond screening, the most important way to avoid fostering a problem employee is through communication. Daily interaction with employees is a must, Poindexter said. More significantly, written communication is vital, starting with the employee handbook, which should be reviewed every 2 years because the laws change frequently. The handbook, according to Poindexter, serves two purposes: first, it communicates the practice's goals and objectives; second, it sets performance standards for employees.