A reader writes:
I am a partner in a small, family-owned small business and financial services firm with 9 employees and 4 consultants in northern California. I’ve always handled all the back office/HR issues – hiring, firing, performance evaluations, training, disciplinary issues, etc., with no problems for the last 10 years.
My situation is that I will be terminating one of our full time admins, who happens to be family. I’ve terminated family before, again with no problems. My question is this: do you think I should give her “notice” before I terminate her this week? My father, who’s the other partner, wants to because she’s family (his niece’s daughter) and he has been stalling for the last month.
I am also a bit concerned because we’ve let her slide without formally saying anything – no verbal or written warnings – for things that I would have terminated her on the spot for, but we were in the middle of an unusually busy and stressful tax season that we are still trying to recover from. My father didn’t want me to do anything until we were finished with taxes.
I want to know if I should tell her that she will be losing her job this week due to poor performance (there’s a laundry list of things!). Also, my father wants to give her 2 weeks severance as well. “We are firing you because you’ve been an awful employee who has taken advantage of your situation, but we’re going to pay you too.” Yes, I know that this is dumb (my gut instinct along with several years of corporate HR management tells me so). I need a professional’s opinion.
Well, you’re not legally required to warn her in advance that she’s in danger of losing her job — unless you have an employee manual that spells out specific steps that must be taken before someone is fired, in which case courts have held that you must adhere to your own written policies.
However, it’s still generally a good idea to warn someone before actually firing them, for the following reasons:
1. The person may actually make the improvements you need, if you spell them out for her. People often don’t realize what they’re doing wrong, and they frequently have no idea that the problems are severe enough to jeopardize their job, unless you tell them explicitly. People can and do improve when you set out clear expectations — not always, of course, but you can’t always predict who will and who won’t.
2. It’s simply the kinder thing to do. You’re talking about a decision that will impact someone’s livelihood; she deserves to have a chance to fix the issues first. If your boss was unhappy with your performance, wouldn’t you want to know and have a chance to improve before you were fired?
3. It removes a lot of drama. If you have clearly told the employee about the problems, your expectations, and what needs to change, and have explicitly told them that their job is in jeopardy if specific changes don’t occur, then when the termination conversation happens, it’s more a matter of following through on that agreement than an out-of-the-blue shock. I’ve seen numerous situations where a manager gives lots of negative feedback to a struggling employee but never explicitly says that the person’s job in jeopardy, thinking they’ll just “get it” — but the employee ends up stunned when they’re ultimately fired.
4. If you don’t warn people when their job is in jeopardy, it can create significant anxiety among other employees, who may begin to fear they’re on the verge of being fired every time they receive negative feedback. You want your staff know that they won’t be fired without first knowing that their job is in jeopardy and having a chance to improve.
Now, obviously there are some offenses so egregious that they warrant firing on the spot, like, say, embezzlement or punching someone, but those situations are pretty rare. Most of the time, you can afford to give the person a warning ahead of time.
(That said, after a warning conversation, you should expect to either see improvement quickly or know pretty quickly that it’s not going to work out. Don’t let it drag on for weeks and weeks at that point. The employee doesn’t need to become great overnight, but you’ll want to see a fast and steep climb in that direction.)
As for severance, it’s not crazy to offer some. Companies handle this in different ways: Some give no severance when someone is fired for cause, some give a couple of weeks, and some are more generous. It’s up to you, but I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. This post discusses some advantages of offering it.
You seem to think severance would be an outrage in this case, but you also say that you haven’t spoken to her about the problems. So, frankly, your and your partner bear some of the responsibility here — you haven’t been good managers in this situation.
I’m concerned that you’ve suffering from what a lot of small, family-owned businesses suffer from: inattention to or lack of knowledge about good management practices. I’d use this situation as the impetus to focus more on that in the future.