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More successes, less messes: Coaching, correcting, and terminating compassionately

Sept. 22, 2016

One of the most challenging aspects of any business is managing employees that need improvement or, in some cases, termination. What I’ve learned over the years is this—you owe them the truth. Generally, but not always, they will be better for it. But your business always will.

It’s a family affair

Imagine if, as a child, your parents never scolded you and never gave you any constructive criticism, but also didn’t praise you. What if you knew there was this looming disappointment about you that was never discussed? How self-confident would you have grown up to be? Chances are you would have grown up feeling like a bad kid, never having the chance to correct whatever behavior it was that they didn’t like.

With that frame of reference, think of your employees as if they were family members. You wouldn’t want them to lack confidence. You would want them to understand what was expected of them and what was not satisfactory so they could correct it.

As hard as it is to give feedback, especially negative feedback, you owe it to your employees and your practice to provide it. Also, give it early; don’t wait until the problems stack up. If in fact there are several issues, choose the biggest one or two and focus on them.

Don’t make mountains

The challenge is that we often wait too long to review our employees. We save it up for the annual review because we dread it. We feel we are not good at it and so we put it off. The truth is we are not good at it for two reasons: lack of training and the sheer infrequency of it.

So when we find ourselves with employee issues, whether it’s about performance, work habits, or citizenship in the organization, we store them up. The employee suspects there is an issue, but without knowing specifically what it is, she feels like everything she does is wrong, or worse, that you just don’t like her as a person.

Give feedback early and often. And if an employee is at risk, he should be made aware of the fragile nature of his employment.

Right-fitting the position

If you believe in the adage, “hire for attitude, train for skill,” then you know that you can have employees that absolutely have the right attitude and are a good fit for the company culture, yet they are not succeeding. This often means they belong in the organization but not necessarily in the role they currently occupy.

As an example, in our organization we have been able to harvest skilled customer-service representatives who started in sales but were not succeeding. These reps were perfectly suited for helping customers, but may have lacked the instinct or drive to push for the close in a sale. It’s not hard to imagine a front office person in a dental practice who has been relegated to insurance collection but is far more suited for greeting and appointing new patients. Good people are hard to find. Always look to see if there is a different role where they might thrive.

Don’t just talk, document

Documentation will protect you if done well. Reviews, critiques, and probation all should be documented properly. Without proper documentation, you run a high risk of litigation upon termination, which you may very well lose. Remember, the “e” in e-mail stands for “evidence.”

No surprises

Terminations shouldn’t come as a surprise. The employee should have been given ample time and coaching to correct the terminable behavior. I’m not talking about offenses that involve dishonesty, stealing, harassment, or another employee’s safety. I’m referring to issues relating to work habits, performance, or citizenship. In other words, these are specific issues that can be corrected with some effort on the part of the employee and his or her manager.

The crying terminator

You will reach a point where an employee has to go. If you care about your employees, it shows. They generally know it and appreciate it. In many cases, the employees I’ve terminated were, at the very least, people I cared about. Often, they were friends. These are the most challenging terminations because of the emotions involved.

However, if the employee has been warned properly and given a corrective action plan and ample time, the termination is simply an outcome that has been brought on by the employee. It no longer feels like something you are doing to them.

A few years ago, I had a friend working for me whom I’ll call Jack. Jack was not succeeding at his job, nor was he putting in all of the effort necessary to succeed. After many verbal warnings and two written ones, Jack was at the end. He had not sufficiently corrected his performance. Termination was inevitable and Jack knew it. I personally terminated him and it was hard enough emotionally for me that I began to cry. Jack had the compassion to comfort me in the process, explaining that it wasn’t my fault. I learned a lot from that termination. For the record, Jack and I are still friends and occasionally have a beer together.

Get training

We are not born with the skills to coach, give feedback and warnings, and terminate humanely. These are skills that needs to be learned. In the film Up in the Air, actor George Clooney plays a character whose job it is to fly around the country terminating employees. Unlike Clooney’s character, we will never do enough terminations in our lifetime to develop the skills on our own. Donald Trump made terminating look easy in the popular TV show where his favorite line was, “You’re fired.” Real life is quite different. Get trained.

But don’t put off a termination when it is clear that the employee cannot be corrected or moved to a new position. Pull the trigger. My brother says he’s never regretted terminating an employee—only how long it took him to actually do it. This goes back to my earlier rule: give feedback, both positive and negative, often, and you will both know when the end has been reached.

Freeing them for future success

The reality is that no employee wants to be in a job that they are not succeeding in, but they are unlikely to quit on their own. There may be factors keeping them positions they don’t enjoy and they may never make the move on their own. Most employees deserve to be in jobs where they can succeed and flourish. If an employee can’t make that change, it becomes your responsibility to usher them to her to the next opportunity. It is the most compassionate thing to do.

In conclusion, being proactive with feedback, documenting it well, and being honest with employees and yourself about their strengths and weaknesses will make for a better workplace. Always be mindful if an employee needs training or needs a different role in the company to succeed. Finally, you will never enjoy terminating people, but laying the proper groundwork will make it significantly easier, and minimizes your legal risk at the same time.

Ron Joyal held the position of Chief Operating Officer (COO) at 1-800-DENTIST for 22 years, leading the company from its early start-up stage to over $40 million in revenue. Under Ron’s leadership as COO, 1-800-DENTIST matched millions of patients with dental providers and grew its national client base to over 3,500 dental practices. 1-800-DENTIST was acquired by Sirona Dental Systems in July 2015.

Ron was intimately involved in growing the 1-800-DENTIST organization from 20 to more than 200 employees during his tenure, training and coaching large numbers of direct and indirect reports along the way. He is known for excellence in coaching and leading successful sales organizations. Currently Ron splits his time between 1-800-DENTIST, where he continues as director of special projects, and Ron Joyal Consulting, which specializes in organizational development and sales execution.