Unfair Firings Can Be Costly

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Author John Towler, Ph.D.
Original Publication Exchange Magazine

How to fairly terminate employees without incurring lawsuits.

Something happened recently that left one of my friends boiling. His daughter got fired. It was only a part-time job, and it wasn't the fact that she lost it that bothered him, but rather the way it was done.

When the girl appeared for work, her supervisor told her that his manager was insisting on her dismissal and that he agreed it was necessary. Teenagers being what they are, a certain amount of excited protest demands for specific reasons, and exclamations of "it's not fair!" quickly followed. When pressed, her supervisor claimed that despite her excellent performance reviews, no previous suggestions of discontent, and his written commendations, the firing was taking place because of poor work and a bad attitude. As the girl so aptly put it, "This stinks!"

In a unionized environment or in the case of a full-time worker, this would have been grounds for a full-scale grievance or a lawsuit for wrongful dismissal. But aside from these consequences, this is a good example of how not to fire someone, how not to manage, and how not to develop trust in your employees. Let's take these in order.

People cannot be fired these days on somebody's whim. There must be good reasons, and those reasons must be substantiated and backed up with documented proof. In addition, there must be evidence that the employees have been made aware of their shortcomings and that they have been given enough time and coaching to enable them to rectify the problems.

After all, it really isn't fair to see people doing something incorrectly, not tell them, and then lie in wait so you can trap them. Not only is this a dreadful waste of someone's potential, but it's also a most unfair way of treating people. No one is perfect, and we all learn best how to perform a task by having someone teach us, coach us, and help us correct and improve our performance. Good managers do this all the time. Instead of waiting for employees to do something wrong and then jumping on them, they carefully train them in how to do the job and then reward them for doing it that way.

And, speaking of rewards, giving people a raise or a good performance review just before you fire them ruins your argument that they are no good, destroys your case against them, and can land you in court. It is hard, if not impossible, to give employees raises every few months and then turn around and argue that you really weren't satisfied with the job they were doing all along. Common sense and the courts are bound to find that you didn't really give the person a chance and that you, not the employee, are guilty of not doing your job.

Second, everyone being dismissed deserves and can demand to know the exact reasons. Fudging the answers, being vague, or blaming someone above you simply won't work. Employers must have good reasons for their actions and must give them to their employees. Of course, this means that your reasons must be good ones, able to stand the light of impartial examination. Even if the employee is being fired for being the most miserable, argumentative, disruptive, and hateful person in the company, you must be able to prove this. You must have documented examples and be able to show that you warned him about the consequences of continuing this behaviour and tried to help him change.

What about the management issue? In this case, it was obvious that either the supervisor didn't see anything wrong with the employee or that he was too weak or unskilled to point it out. If he didn't see it and gave good performance reviews, he wasn't doing his job properly. If he did notice problems but gave good reviews anyway, he was setting himself and his firm up for potential and costly problems.

The supervisor may have been a very nice, kind individual who couldn't bring himself to reprimand anyone. However, being too nice can also be a drawback. No one likes to chastise anyone, but this is often part of the job of a supervisor, who must be highly skilled to do it properly. Pinpointing poor performance and coaching employees until they can do their jobs right is what supervisors are supposed to do. This means adequate and appropriate training, coupled with proper supervision and support. Ignoring a problem and hoping it will go away because you are unwilling to hurt someone's feelings doesn't work. Not only are you letting down your firm, but you are also letting down an employee who looks to you for assistance.

Finally, look at the effect of the way this girl was fired on the people who still work for the organization. Do you think they still respect and trust the supervisor and his manager? Certainly not! With this one action, both people have clearly told their employees that performance reviews are meaningless, that the supervisor cannot be trusted, and that he will not or cannot support his workers.

So, one small incident involving a part-time student caused a ripple of discontent throughout the firm. How much better it would have been had the supervisor known how to do it right.

John Towler is a Psychologist and the founder of Creative Organizational Design. Please send comments about this article to jtowler@creativeorgdesign.com. For more information, please contact us.

Re-printable with permission.