Firing Employees Who Are Unproductive

firing poor performers

Awhile back I received an email from a reader about how to let an employee go who is not performing adequately. It surprised me because I don’t know that I’ve ever actually written on the topic specifically before. I want to talk about some of the dos and don’ts, but first, a story.

The Time Thief

A few years ago a manager called me to see if I could look into an employee’s time card. The employee was consistently putting forty hours of work on his timesheet, but he was arriving late, leaving early, and taking long lunches on a regular basis.

So I reached out to the company managing the security access point to get the gate logs for this person. Mind you, this is just getting me the time that he swipes into and out of the gate outside the building, not the specific time he’s at his computer and actually productive.

A quick dump into Excel and a few calculations later… My jaw dropped.

The records showed that this person had worked six to six and a half hours per day on average for as far back as the gate checkin log showed (several months). I was dumbfounded that it took this long for the attendance to be discovered by the managers on site. Just in that one spreadsheet alone the employee had been paid for nearly 200 hours of work he never actually performed.

I quickly launched my investigation, talking with his supervisor and our site manager, gathering all of our time data to make sure everything was correct. You see, as a federal contractor, we were billing the government for all of the time the person supposedly worked. If it could have been proven that we were knowingly allowing this sort of behavior to continue, half of the company’s employees could have lost their jobs overnight–not to mention the fines and other penalties levied by the auditors.

So, after a few days to gather everything, I got the employee’s supervisor and the site lead to sit down with me on the phone from six hours away. The employee came in and I told him what I had found and asked if he had any questions. His only response was, “Can I file for unemployment?”

Then the real story began. The employee was quickly approved for their unemployment claim and started receiving checks shortly after being terminated. I spent the next four months fighting that unemployment claim, trying to get the investigator to understand that this wasn’t as simple as poor attendance or a “one strike and you’re out” policy–the employee put the entire company at stake with his behavior.

A final written appeal won the case for the company (felt like a personal victory for me as well) and the employee had to pay all of their unemployment compensation back to the state for lying about their reason for termination. What seemed like a slam dunk investigation and termination finally came to a close and the organization and I could move on to more meaningful activities.

Terminating Unproductive Employees

In some ways, these can be the “easiest” terminations to make. I absolutely hate having to drop employees who are productive, good people. But when someone has had chances, warnings, and other opportunities to make good on their end of the deal and have failed (willingly or not), I have to say that it’s easier to handle the process.

I’ve always thought of it this way: the employee chooses the path–I just help them walk down it. 

The most basic principles that have helped me through all of the terminations I’ve carried out are these: be courteous and respectful. If you have already built trust and rapport with the employee, it will help in this conversation. If not, there might not be much you can do to build it at this point. If you were sitting on the other side of the table, how would you want to be treated? It sounds trite, but it’s indubitably true.

The implication of the original question that got me thinking about this topic was that the person didn’t want to terminate the employee and wanted to give them “just one more chance” after already failing numerous times. This is dangerous and can set up a painful precedent for the organization. It can also damage leader credibility, so it’s important to make the call, take action, and move on.

What advice do you have for terminating employees?

 

3 thoughts on “Firing Employees Who Are Unproductive

  1. Great article and process, Ben! I have a follow-up question for you, that I’ve honestly never had answered despite seeing a few of these type of terminations in my time.

    What happened with the managers in question? Did anyone hold them accountable for allowing this to happen?

    From your article: “I was dumbfounded that it took this long for the attendance to be discovered by the managers on site.”

    From my experience, the answer is usually “Nothing,” but I’ve always felt and argued that although the misconduct was clearly on the employee, where was the supervision and management of that employee?

    I’m curious to hear if your experience was different and if so, how it was handled.

    Great read, as always!

    • Good question, Scott! You’re definitely not the only one to ask me that. The manager ended up “Leaving” a month later. There were other issues with him and this showed just how much he lacked in the leadership qualities we were looking for. In this instance, he felt no direct repercussions, but it started a chain reaction that led him out of the organization.

  2. Sadly, I have had plenty of experience with terminations in my relatively short time in HR. The best thing I ever did was create a progressive discipline process, train the managers on it, and made them stick to it. That includes documenting every coaching session and every warning. It’s due to my overly obsessive documentation that I have been able to win several unemployment claims for extreme situations like yours.

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