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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Firing with a delay

I am the manager of an administrative team of seven people plus myself. Next year I am going to have to lay off one of my people for poor performance and inability to work as independently as the job requires. She's been informed of her poor performance but doesn't seem to understand that we are serious.

She has been in this position for about six years. Because of rules in our state institution, we are required to give her at least three months notice. We are allowed the option of moving her to a different position once she has received notice, but we don't have any other position open at this time. Sending her home and paying her for three months isn't an option. She can certainly leave earlier if she gets another job, but I can't count on that happening.

My question is, what is the best way to work with the rest of the team, who will definitely be shocked and surprised and unhappy that she is being let go? Her performance issues aren't evident to them. I can't cite budget issues because we will actually be hiring two people to replace her (each will handle half of her job and take other duties as well). I'm reluctant to tell them that her performance is poor, because that seems, well, pretty nasty, like kicking someone when they are down.

I really don't want the rest of the team feeling like their jobs are in jeopardy, and I can't imagine what it's going to be like to keep going for three months with her still working there knowing she is leaving. Any advice on how to handle this?


First of all, I don't like using the term layoff for someone who is being terminated for performance reasons. It makes people leery of hiring people who were terminated for no fault of their own. But, that's neither here nor there.

I hate terminations with advanced notice. I'm of the "today is your last day" philosophy for precisely the reasons you outlined. It's hard for someone in that position to come in. The co-workers don't know what to make of it and it makes for a tough time for everyone. I much prefer payment in lieu of notice.

But, as you said, that's not an option here. First of all, if you don't think she's aware of how serious you are, do you don't have her on a formal performance improvement plan? If not, put her on one now. She needs to be totally aware. (Now, truth me told there are times in which you will tell an employee, "If you are late to work/miss an assignment/swear at Bob one more time you will be terminated." And then when the employee does just that they are in utter disbelief. But that doesn't seem like the case here.)

You seem to think that her co-workers will have no idea that her performance is low. I seriously doubt it. They suspect it. And if she has friends at the office, she's talked with them about the performance meetings you've held with her.

I think you are absolutely correct in informing her co-workers. Rumors are always worse then the truth. Notify her of her impending termination, with a clear statement of her last day of work. (And please be clear that this her LAST DAY OF WORK. "March 15, 2010 will be your last day of work. You will be terminated as of end of day on March 15." You'd be surprised at how many people don't process the fact that they are actually being terminated if you are not absolutely clear.) Then have a meeting with the rest of the staff. "Stephanie is going to be leaving us. Her last day of work will be March 15, 2010. We wish her well. The nature of the job duties are changing and we will be recruiting new people for the department."

Yes, you'll be asked a bunch of questions, none of them relevant. Stephanie will tell them all that you're a big meanie who is firing her for no good reason. But, don't stoop to the level of trying to justify your decision.

Now, one more thought before you terminate. If her co-workers truly don't suspect, it means that she's doing at least an adequate job in many areas. I don't know what her problems are, but if it's a case of non-willful non-performance, have you thought about dividing the job responsibilities now, giving Stephanie responsibilities for the things that she does well and hiring someone else for the remaining responsibilities?

It takes a lot of work to bring people up to the same level as someone with 6 years of experience in the organization. I have no idea what her issues are, but this may be something to think about.

You also mention that she will be looking for another job (duh!) but I kind of got the feeling you meant internally. If this is the case, please, please, please be honest with the potential manager about her inadequacies. Please do not play the "shuffle the bad employee" game. It is a bad game with no winners.

15 comments:

Ask a Manager said...

Agh, this misuse of "layoff" is becoming my new pet peeve! I think people say it because they fear "firing" sounds too harsh, but a firing is a firing. It is not a layoff.

Anyway, rant over. If you are worried about the other staff worrying their jobs are in jeopardy too, this could be a good time to let people know that if they have performance problems so serious that it could get them fired, they will hear that explicitly while there's still time to fix those issues. (And assuring them of this has the added benefit of subtly underscoring that Stephanie must have had warnings herself.)

R. May said...

Actually I'm a curious about the poor performance.... did anyone else catch that they are hiring TWO people to replace her (and yes take on some additional duties)...so perhaps her performance is poor because she is doing a job that requires more then one person to perform satisfactorily?

Lana said...

Have to say I thoroughly agree with your analysis of the situation and I would also like to stress the fact that if her peers haven't noticed her lacking performance, then perhaps the situation isn't as clear-cut as it may seem.

As her manager, you have a responsibility of doing everything in your power to enable performance at an acceptable level. The performance improvement plan gets a big Yay from me.

Furthermore - courteous honesty is always the best approach in communication. Be as open as you can when communicating with the team.

Anonymous said...

I agree with R. May -- layoff and hire 2 more people is a very bad game of semantics. And her co-workers are totally unaware of her poor performance? People who work closely with a bad employee know right away, and will say something right away.

This has "not telling the whole story" written all over it.

HRLeigh said...

Why is the employee getting 3 months notice she is being fired for performance? Or is she required to be put on a performance plan for three months before she can be let go? (I think this is the most likely scenario.) My next question is then have you said, "If these performance issues do not change to meet expectations, YOU WILL BE FIRED."? (capitalization for emphasis only, don't actually shout this part) Is she getting updates on her performance on a regular basis? Or is it written that there is nothing that this employee can do to earn back her job?

I agree with R. May above. If you need two people to replace her that could be part of the problem. Go ahead and hire the first person now and split the job. If she still underperforms then you have one person already trained before you hire the second.

As far as talking to the rest of the department, this can be done without even referring to this employee's specific situation. The situation should be kept confidential and the manager can say that to the rest of the employees. Call a meeting, state that the employee no longer works here and here is what we need to do to cover tasks. Then the manager can discuss the current state of the company and department, including the hiring of two new positions. If the manager communicates the information they can and shows that they will keep personal situation private, I think they will be more likely to keep or earn the trust of the rest of the employees. If some individuals are particularly upset, the manager can meet with them one on one and discuss their concerns, of course without promising future employment, legal disclaimers, etc.

Anonymous said...

I think HRLeigh's idea is excellent; hire one person now and see if her performance improves. At one point I had a job that required enough work to be split between at least two people and when I was the only person doing it I am sure my performance was lacking. Of course then they hired someone to help me and my performance didn't improve but it was because I was miserable and pretty sure my boss was embezzling money. But that's irrelevant.

Ben Stone said...

I've always enjoyed the tone of the Evil HR Lady and it helped inspire me to start this Facebook Page to take the conversation further. Fight the power!

Anonymous said...

To R. May and others, having worked for a "state institution" years ago, I would guess that the reason the position is being split is so they can hire two people part-time and not offer benefits.

Firing with Delay said...

Ow ow ow! You folks are merciless!

The position is being split because it currently encompasses high-level, independent tasks as well as routine clerical and bookkeeping tasks. We have a naval reserve vet returning to our office and we have to provide her with a job. She is much better suited for the independent tasks, and can take them plus another large project in a similar area.

The second position would be 100% routine clerical and bookkeeping and the other half of that job would be from the two people on my team who are currently both working 10 to 15 hours overtime - taking the routine stuff from them so they can focus more on the administrative side. The overtime is with them and not her because they are much more productive than she is.

So, no, we are not trying to be nasty and hire part-timers to avoid benefits.

The reason for the long notice period is that our class of employees have annual contracts. Every year, if we are to continue, we are re-appointed for another year. If we are not to continue, then we are "non-re-appointed". That is in contrast to most places that are at-will, where you can be let go at any time for any reason. To terminate someone mid-year there has to be a significant problem like insubordination or illegal activity.

The rules for our class include a required notice period. For employees who have been here less than a year, the notice period is one day - you can tell someone on June 30th that June 30th is their last day. For those employed three years or more, a letter of nonreappointment has to be given by March 31st.

I will say that due to everyone's comments I am thinking that it would be fair to possibly retain her for the bookkeeping position. She hasn't been doing well at the bookkeeping part of the job, but it is possible that is because her attention is being split by the needs of the different parts of her position. I have time to do a formal improvement plan with her, and if she can somehow get her stuff together than I would retain her. There is no way that she could improve to the point of being able to do the higher-level position, we have been trying to improve her on that end of it for years.

I thank EHRL and all the comenters, you have given me a lot of good ideas.

Marsha said...

I like your solution - the better fit should make the job work for her and you don't lose 6 years of knowledge. 3 months' notice - ugh!

R. May said...

FWD - That sounds like a plan : )

Anonymous said...

Oh my...this is giving me a headache. But all very good stuff. You need to watch Tabatha's Salon Takeover on Bravo to see what a real Evil lady can do! I admire her honesty and direct communication. Being in HR for 20 years, I have so much to comment regarding this situation, but most everyone gave similar advice. Bottom line: Be direct, honest, and do the right thing for the team. Evil HR lady is okay in my book!! That's what they call me sometimes!

Anonymous said...

Firing with Delay said... we are re-appointed for another year. To terminate someone mid-year there has to be a significant problem like insubordination or illegal activity.

I do not even have words for the above situation. This is why our country is so messed up. If someone is not performing, that should be enough to terminated them. Period.

Anonymous said...

As far as other employees not being aware of her performance level, that could be because she "does her own thing" on independant projects. They may not even realize what all her job entails and thus wouldn't know how she's doing.

I had a coworker in this situation recently fired, and we were all shocked. But honestly we had no clue what she really did all day.

Sue Anne said...

I think it's bad form to spread too much dirty laundry to the other co-workers about why the employee is being terminated. It's unethical and puts them in an awkward position. It's better to just say that she's leaving the position as of a certain date and that new people will be coming in to take over her responsibilities.