Staff Management

Legally Safe Employee Termination: Drop Sub-Par Staffers While Protecting Your Practice

By Pamela Miller, OD, JD

You can safeguard and strengthen your practice by identifying under-performing and dangerous employees, and letting them go in a legally sensible way.

Stipulate Terms of Employment
When you hire new employees, let them know from the start the requirements for keeping their jobs. Igive each staffer an office policy manual that reminds them that their jobs are “employment at will,” which means I can terminate them at any time if they do not meet their job requirements. In addition to meeting role-specific requirements such as properly handling coding and billing, efficiently conducting pre-testing or, say,boosting dispensary sales, the manual lists what I expect of all employees. They are given fair notice that termination may occur for any of the following reasons, but not limited to: theft, abuse of patients, continual lateness, not wearing acceptable office attire and not following rules such as the ban we have on in-office cell phone use. A key phrase to include in this alert to new employees is not limited to. Including that phrase gives you leeway to terminate the employee for an unforeseen, or never-before-experienced, issue.

Get theInformation You Need
in Hiring Interviews

You oftencan head-off employee problems during the hiring interview.

Ask about availability
After reviewing the requirements of the job with the candidate, ask “Is there any reason you won’t be able to fulfill those requirements every work day, and throughout the year?”

Identify issues you will have to accommodate.

If they inform you that they have a disability, you will have to provide “reasonable accommodation” to allow them to work. That means, for example, that if they can repair frames, except that they need a particular kind of screwdriver, you may have to provide that to them. If an employee informs you of a disability, and you decide to hire them anyway, you will be responsible for accommodating their impairment so they are able to get their work done.

If they are in the military, you will have to hold their job for them indefinitely if they are called to active duty. The military are a protected class of workers, so you will not be able to terminate them as easily as you would other employees.

If they inform youof a religious requirement, such asgetting home every Friday by sundown, and notever working on a Saturday,consider that you may need to permanently alter yourstaffing schedule. Decide in advance if you can handle theirscheduling requirement.Youwill run into legal difficulty terminating an employeedue to a religious requirement that they informed you of prior toemployment.

Pyramid Discipline
The employees who trouble you usually do not intend to harm your practice. They simplyare not competent in the job they were hired for. The first step in these cases is to meet with the employee and directly inform them that they are not meeting your expectations. Then ask the employee what they think the problem may be. You may be surprised at how self-aware your employees are. Many of them are as dissatisfied with their performanceas you are, but are not sure how to improve. Often, the sub-par employee is dependable and intelligent but is in the wrong job role. Rather than keeping the employee in back office operations, for instance, see how they fare in a patient-facing role like working in the dispensary if you see they have a knack with people and an interest in sales.

Along with misplaced job roles, employees sometimes fall short of expectationswhen theydon’tfollowpractice rules. That’s when you begin pyramiding discipline. Let’s say Linda is chronically late. The first level of discipline is to speak with Linda: “Linda, you’re a great employee and patients love you, but we open our office at 8:30 a.m., and you need to be there then so we can run the office efficiently and keep our patients happy.” Then, let Linda know you’ll be giving her a chance to correct her tardiness, and that you will meet with her again in a specified period of time, such as 30days,to discuss whether she’s corrected the issue. It is essential that you document the date you met with the employee and precisely what you said to them. If the problem persists after the 30 days has passed, it’s time for the next level of discipline–a penalty plus probation. You might decide to cut the staffer’s pay, or to cut their hours. Like the initial discipline discussion,document the dateof this second meeting, along with the penalty and the period of probationyoustipulate.

Inform of Termination
After the 30 days of probation has passed,and the staffer hasn’t improved,you need to have that final,unfortunate conversation with the employeewho has become dead weight to the practice (with the documentation to back up your words): “Linda we’ve gone over this [referencing previousdiscussions],I’ve given you ample warning and thechance to improve, and you weren’t able to, soI’m going to have to let you go.” Don’t give theemployee who haspreviously been disciplined time to linger on your payroll. The longer the dismissedemployee stays inyour office the longer they have the chance to bad-mouth the practice to otheremployees or patients,or intentionally sabotage your business. Immediately after informing them of their termination, collect their keys, and any other officeproperty they were given, say goodbye, along with giving them their final paycheck,andeliminate their access to all practice computer and securitysystems.

Know When to Terminate Immediately
The ideal is to try your best to work with an errant employee to fix the problem and turn them into a long-lasting staffer. But when your practice is in danger, there is notime for multiple conversations and warnings. If an employee, for example, is embezzling practice money, stealing from other staffers, or is dangerous to patients, terminate them right away. Get ready the night before for the termination. Have documentation proving the offense, along with the staffer’s last paycheck, ready to go. Before you terminate them, you should already have them locked out of your computer system. In addition to documentation supporting your case for terminating them, have another employee, such as the office manager, in the room with you to serve as a witness.

Giving employees fair notice, right from the start, about what you expect from them, helping them meet your expectations whenever possible and letting them go when they are unable to improve or pose a risk to the practice, will keep your business running smoothly. And don’t forget to document every step you take with an employee to protect both your interests and theirs.

Related ROB Articles

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Decisive Hiring: Put Time on Your Side forEffective Staffing

Total Staff Buy-In: Involve Entire Staff to Reach Practice Goals

Pamela Miller, OD, FAAO, JD, DPNAP, whohas a solo optometric practice based in Highland, Calif., holds a therapeutic license, is California State Board-certified to prescribe eye medications, and offers comprehensive vision care, contact lenses, visual therapy, and low vision services. To contact her: drpam@omnivision.com

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