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When, why and how to fire employees

October 28, 2009
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It’s as necessary as hiring, yet most business owners and operators don’t consider their plan for firing an employee until it’s too late.

And in an industry with such a high turnover rate, it’s crucial that carwash and car-care business managers have a concrete dismissal process ready to use at a moment’s notice.

Step 1: Figuring out the why

Before you go ahead and ask for that uniform back, you’d better decide if the termination is necessary.

Mike McKinley, an Eau Claire, WI-based business entrepreneur and advisor, recommended that carwash owners take a step back and look at the big picture.

“There is more to this than just a termination,” McKinley said. “This is a bigger insight on to how you run your business, how you set your environment, how you set your standards. You need to know why you’re firing this person to know how you’re running your business.”

So ask yourself that very question: why are you firing this person? Is there evidence of wrongdoing, proof of unproductivity or is the termination based on rumors and hearsay?

Gary Phelan, an attorney with Outten & Golden LLP of Stamford, CT, a legal firm specializing in employment law, said employers should also be aware of current employment regulations under the state and federal governments.

“You need to know common law principles, too,” Phelan said. “For instance, contract law. If the employee has a handbook or manual, and if the employer says that they’re going to provide them with progressive discipline, then they need to do it.”

Pete Nani, director of operations for Wash Depot, suggested that no matter the size of your business, be consistent in how you deal with all employees, regardless of their title or rank. That includes using the same criteria and judgment when deciding to terminate an employee.

Carefully consider the reasons you have for terminating your employee. Imagine if it were a different employee — would the end result be the same?

Step 2: Determining the how

All right, so Dave the Deadbeat is a goner, but hold those horses! Don’t call him into the room yet — you’ve still got to establish a plan for the termination.

Phelan offered one basic piece of advice: treat the employee in a way that you would want to be treated.

“That sounds real basic, but the logic in that is — in so far as avoiding a lawsuit — the primary reason a person has for going to a lawyer like me, is terminating someone in a callous, mean-spirited way.”

According to McKinley, the easiest way to go about terminating someone is to write it down.

“In a small business, you want it to be something that’s substantiated, versus an emotional termination,” McKinley said. According to McKinley, this process also helps with any legal problems that may result.

Written warnings are extremely important. McKinley suggests using a file folder to keep records of previous warnings and having employees sign-off whenever disciplinary action is taken.

Phelan also emphasized the importance of written documentation before the termination.

“Don’t just say ‘We met and I terminated him,’” Phelan cautioned.

The documentation should address the specific performance issues or problems that happen along the way.

The actual termination meeting is the culmination of problems, or performance concerns, or attitude concerns, throughout that process leading up to the termination,” Phelan said.

“That’s when the employer should be documenting any performance issues. But again, they need to remember to do it in an even-handed basis.”

Tony Melchiorre, director of human resources for Delta Sonic, knows that having a cool head during the process helps to diffuse a tense situation. That’s why Delta Sonic’s policy is to let the employee know a day ahead of time that there will be a meeting, and to have three managers present during all employee terminations and reviews.

“In the heat of whatever’s going on, you want to be sure you’re not just terminating a person through frustration,” Melchiorre said.

Melchiorre said Delta Sonic managers cannot fire someone without giving prior notice to both the employee and fellow supervisors.

“You can’t just fire someone; you can only suspend them temporarily,” Melchiorre said. “And you know that you’re going to have to justify the termination not just to the employee, but to two other people as well.”

“I’ve always advised my clients that you want it simple, you want it direct, and you want it documented,” McKinley said. “You should be able to take a step back and say, ‘I am terminating this person for these particular reasons.’”

Phelan suggested that the employer say as much as necessary, but don’t ramble.

Step 3: Finding the where

The meeting should be conducted in a neutral location; such as a private office or conference room, not on the detailing floor or in the company break room. If your business is too small to allow for a conference room, use your office.

McKinley emphasized the importance of privacy.

“Closed door — always. You don’t want to do it in the lane, you don’t want to do it in any public place,” McKinley advised. “You want it always behind a closed door and away. Because it can be a very emotional thing and you don’t want that around other people.”

Step 4: Choosing the when

It is widely agreed by experts that terminations should not happen on Mondays or Fridays, or at the beginning or very end of any business day. Also, keep in mind any holidays or important events in the employee’s life.

But don’t put it off for too long. McKinley noted that most people can sense a termination is looming in the future.

“I find very few surprise terminations,” McKinley said. “I think that the employee usually knows it’s coming. And when the time has come, the time has come. You’re usually six to nine months too late to terminate someone.”

Find a time where the least harm will be done, then hold the meeting as planned.

Step 5: Reviewing the what

As the terminated employee collects his things and you finally step back into your office to breathe a sigh of relief, you say a silent prayer that you never have to relive that moment again.

But wait — what improvements can be made? Reviewing the termination is an important part of the termination process.

Galen Haddock, owner and operator of Pro Car Washes, Smithville, MO, learned his lesson the hard way. Haddock fired his friend and long-time employee after realizing his performance had fallen to below acceptable standards.

Haddock first had a private meeting with his friend, pointing out his inconsistencies and warning him that it would no longer be tolerated.

When the circumstances didn’t change, Haddock went ahead with the unpleasant task of terminating his friend.

From here on out, Haddock says he will avoid hiring family and friends after reviewing the termination process of a friend and employee.

Haddock said before terminating an employee, an owner should sit them down and look them in the eye and have a talk about what’s expected of the person on the job.

McKinley also reiterated that terminations can often be avoided if employers are honest about the job in the beginning.

“Doing a better job of hiring, and better investigating, and better interviewing, will help you to avoid terminations,” McKinley said. “And being very honest with them about the expectations of the job. Those are surefire ways to ensure that you won’t have to terminate employees as often.”

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