Pruning poor performers

Pruning poor performers

Legally, you can terminate an at-will employee at any time. Of course, there are some exceptions.
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Jan 01, 2006

Legally, you can terminate an at-will employee at any time. Of course, there are some exceptions; for example, you can't terminate because of sex, race, age, disability, or national origin, for refusing to violate a law, for exercising a legal right, such as filing for Workers' Compensation, or for reporting an employer's violation of the law in good faith. Other than these few exceptions, you can just decide this employee isn't a good fit.

Yet it's wasteful to terminate an employee whose problems could be corrected with a little guidance and training. So how do you know when it's time to prune? Here's my rule: Never continue to employ a worker who's lost your confidence. Allowing a poor performer to stay sets a bad example and lowers the morale of other employees. Take these steps to make the cut.

Announce your decision



Arrange a meeting at the end of a workday or workweek, so you avoid disrupting the workplace. Ask a neutral employee, preferably a supervisor or manager, to listen and take notes. A third person in the room discourages false claims, faulty memories, and inappropriate behavior.

Tell the employee of the decision but not the reasons for it. Discussing the facts, circumstances, and details creates animosity, provokes debate, and gives false hope that the decision's negotiable. In a few southern states, an employee's entitled to a written statement of the reasons for discharge. Yet even in those states, you can deliver the written statement after the fact.

Provide logistics

As soon as you've delivered the news, move on to the concrete details, such as the employee's last day, last paycheck, and continuing health insurance information. Collect any practice belongings, such as keys and credit cards or a pager, immediately. Offer to walk your employee to collect his or her things now or schedule a time for him or her to come back for them later.

Walk your employee out

After walking the employee to collect his or her things, escort him or her out of the building. Never leave a terminated employee unescorted in the building or give the employee access to the computer or other records. And be sure to deactivate the employee's remote access to the computer system.

If the employee behaves threateningly, call the police. Don't provoke any confrontation, even if the employee's uncooperative. For example, if the employee doesn't return the keys, don't make a scene, just change the locks.

After the employee's gone, let your staff know that the person no longer works there, and ask them to direct any questions from the person or others to you. Likewise, inform any third-parties that the employee worked with of the termination, and introduce them to a new contact. Don't go into details with anyone, even if they volunteer opinions or information.

Kerry M. Richard, JD, is a lawyer with Tobin, O'Connor, Ewing & Richard in Washington, D.C., and former president of the American Veterinary Medical Law Association. Send questions or comments to
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