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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

firing an employee of 27 years

A reader writes:

My husband is a wonderful dentist, but has not been exactly the best manager. He has a small office with one employee who has been there for 27 years. When she started 27 years ago he sent her a general confirmation letter that stated her salary at the time and time off. The rest was pretty general.

I am a computer consultant who came in to update his office. What I have found has been unbelievable – to both me and my husband. The books were off by $9,000, recalls weren’t being made, etc. On top of that, she can’t even understand the fundamentals of computers so she can’t do many elementary aspects of her job.

She has blatantly ignored instructions I have given her, she has lied, and more.

She is good with patients. That is her redeeming quality.

I think we should fire her. I have documented everything. After the last conversation, I wrote everything down and asked her to sign or to write her version that we could staple to the appraisal. She refused to sign and did not write up anything.

My husband is concerned that she will try a lawsuit since she has worked there so many years. I say she doesn’t have a ground to stand on.

I know people can collect unemployment if they are incompetent. How about if they have lied or if they have just ignored instructions?

Since we sent her the initial employment letter – is she still considered “at will” or is she under contract?

Your husband is worried that she will file a lawsuit based on what? You're allowed to fire people for being incompetent, or for pretty much any other reason you want, as long as that reason isn't discrimination based on a legally protected category (race, religion, sex, disability, etc.). That's not to say that some people don't file frivolous lawsuits, but there's nothing you can do about that, and you certainly can't be held hostage to a bad employee by fear of that.

Now, normally I would advise you to see if you can figure out why this woman's performance is so bad. Does she need additional training? Better guidance on priorities? Some other sort of help? Plenty of struggling employees can be turned around. However, in this case, it sounds like there are deeper problems, particularly in light of the lying and the refusing to sign the appraisal (which indicates she's deeply out of alignment with you and not doing anything constructive about it, at least not from what I can see here).

Frankly, if she's lying about things, that's grounds for firing without a warning. But this woman has worked for you for 27 years, so I recommend proceeding a bit more deliberately that that.

Sit her down and say something like, "We've had some recent conversations about some serious performance concerns, and I haven't seen the improvement that we discussed. I need to let you know that these issues are now at the point where your job is in jeopardy. We will need to replace you if these issues aren't immediately corrected."

Be explicit about the fact that she's in danger of being fired; too often managers mess this step up because it's hard to tell someone their job is in danger. Believe me, it is much kinder to say it explicitly than to give no warning. Tell her explicitly: "Your job is in jeopardy. We need to see immediate improvement or we will need to replace you." Do not hint around; come out and say it.

While you're not required to explicitly warn someone before firing them, this post explains why it's a good idea.

From there, you don't need a long, drawn-out probationary period; if there's going to be improvement, you're going to see it quickly. Keep a close eye on her, and if you're still seeing serious issues a week or two later, then it's time to take action. Read this post for specific advice on how to conduct the firing.

Regarding unemployment, she'll likely be eligible for it. To prove her ineligible, you'd have to show deliberate misconduct, which you probably can't do here. (But also, why fight her on unemployment? You're firing her; showing some compassion in this area is not just kind, but also smart -- angry ex-employees denied unemployment are more likely to harass you with frivolous lawsuits.)

Regarding the initial employment letter 27 years ago, it sounds like a pretty standard at-will offer of employment. Unless she's signed a contract with you somewhere along the way, or unless you have an employee handbook that says employees are anything but at-will, she should indeed be an at-will employee, meaning that you or she can terminate the relationship at any time.

Good luck!


Anonymous said...

AAM - though I generally agree with your advice here, I find it curious that you did not address the books being off by $9k. Was this money actually missing, or was it an issue of the books not being properly balanced? If the money is missing, there is a much bigger issue to address than her performance. If she's skimming the books she needs to be fired, prosecuted, and denied unemployment.

Also, the writer mentions that recalls weren't made. Did these recalls put the patients' health or safety at risk? If so, I also think that is worthy of immediate termination.

Ask a Manager said...

That's a good point. I had assumed the $9K was an error (sloppy record-keeping), but if we're talking about embezzlement, then yeah -- that's immediate termination and prosecution.

Laura said...


I have ten years of medical office experience. I am a great worker, I keep meticulous records, I follow directions, I'm a dream to work with. There are many other people like me out there- so why are you keeping on a woman who can't even perform the basic functions of her job?

Anonymous said...

To the OP - it sounds like you want to fire her but your husband has reservations. If he is her employer, the appraisals and warnings should probably come from him. You run the risk of looking weak if you threaten termination and your husband doesn't follow through.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the response and feedback to my questions.

In answer to your questions regarding the $9K. I don't think it was embezzlement. However, I think some of it is a combination of sloppy record keeping AND no follow up. For example, I asked her to call an insurance company about a payment that had not been made. After she called the insurance company she told me that it had been paid on such and such a date. The date was after I was keeping the books and since I keep meticulous records, I was confident to say that we had not received payment nor cashed the check. I asked her,"Did they send the check to us?" She called the insurance company back and it turned out they mailed the check directly to the patient. I think in the past she would have gone no further and just changed the books to say that it had been paid and assumed she had a made a mistake earlier for not crediting the patient. So, yes, it is money my husband lost but I don't think it was deliberate. However, you think someone that had been working for 27 years would think to ask such a basic question to the insurance company.

However my husband's income is up significantly since I have been there. Combining that fact with the missing funds, there has been more than once that I have questioned if I am naive in thinking that it is just bad record keeping.

When someone has been employed that long, it is very difficult. We do care about her. Otherwise she would already be gone.

If I hadn't been an Executive Director of a nonprofit and had many wonderful employees, I might assume I was expecting too much. But I know there are very good people out there as Laura mentioned. Not to mention that she is paid VERY well.

When she refused to sign the appraisal that only outlined specific actions that we had discussed, I was shocked. I had never encountered anything like that before.

I have sat down with her for HOURS trying to help her with the computer. I have taught 80 year olds that were entirely new to the computer and always been successful. She calls me at home with a computer emergency when I am "off" for the morning and it turns out she didn't plug in the laptop, etc. etc. It has been very frustrating.

I liked your input to be very direct that her job is in jeporady and to expect immediate improvement. We have been very specific in our conversations and she is fine for a few days, then goes right back to her previous unacceptable performance. I wasn't sure the amount of time we should give her - a couple of months, etc. So your blog has helped immensely.

Thanks again for the input!

clobbered said...

Am I the only person that feels sorry for the employee?

27 years is a long time to work for somebody, especially in a customer-facing position where the patients know you and like you.

Clearly, for 27 years things were good enough that they didn't bother the direct employer (husband). Suddenly another person comes in and declares the situation intolerable? Seems strange to me.

Also, I have to find that the interest in making sure this person won't even collect unemployment bordering on the vindictive.

I worry that there's more than meets the eye here.

Anonymous said...

I'm kind of with you, clobbered - I also feel a little sorry for the employee, and I've fired many people without losing any sleep.

All the following is assuming there's not actual embezzlement going on. If it's embezzlement, forget the rest.

There did seem to be a bit of mean-spiritedness about the unemployment, and it's curious that her actual employer doesn't appear to have been unhappy with her work until his wife came into the picture. Whose idea was it to update the office?

Does she do sloppy work and is resistant to change? Probably. If she's been running the office alone for 27 years, she's probably is pretty set in her ways and doesn't appreciate someone else disrupting "her" office and routine particularly if she was computer-illiterate and getting tutoring from someone who is pretty obviously disgusted with her.

And you said she's good with his patients? Don't underestimate the amount of goodwill that you'll lose with them who have known and liked her for all that time when word gets out (and it will) that you fired her.

Anonymous said...

From the employee's side, I see two things here:

1. Someone from outside the company (a "consultant") thinks she can tell me how to do a job that I've done for 27 years?

2. And someone I have known as "the boss's wife" for many years is this consultant?

No wonder she is having issues. The news would be much better received directly from the husband.

TheLabRat said...

I do feel a little bad for the employee, assuming that the 9k and recall issues aren't as severe as they sound. The OP wasn't kidding when she said her husband wasn't a very good manager. This woman has worked there for 27 years and had no reason to think there was a problem with her performance because dude couldn't be bothered to do HIS job.

However, if her skills are that out of date, some of the responsibility to realize and rectify that is on her. Sure it would have helped to have a heads up from boss man but it sounds like he's so uninvolved in that end of the business (which I get, no judgment on that score) he wouldn't really be aware.

Justin said...

The problem I see is that there is too much weight assigned to the fact that she has worked there for 27 years. Years of experience do not translate directly to competence. She could have been a subpar employee for most or all of that time and the husband did not have it in him to drop the ax earlier(or he was too busy to notice her incompetence). Also, jobs, workplaces, and entire industries change over time, and after 27 years you had better have learned new skills to keep up with those changes if you want to be a competent and employable member of the working world.

theolderepublicke said...

re: denying unemployment benefits

I have never worked in HR or been a manager of any sort, so I'm a bit puzzled why someone would want to deny an ex-employee unemployment (unless it's a question of criminal misconduct).

Do the unemployment benefits come out of the employer's pocket in some fashion? Does the employer get a rebate on the share of unemployment insurance he or she has paid for the employee?

Charles said...

If the wife was brought in to be a computer consultant; She should stick to that role and nothing more.

Consultants (computer or otherwise)generally are NOT there to discipline employees; and that is even more true for firing employees. That should come from the employer.

Or is, in fact, the wife now the Office Manager? I'm not clear on this so how can we expect the employee to be clear on it? Maybe that's the reason for the employee to ignore her instructions. How do we know that the dentist isn't giving contradictory instructions?

How do we know that the employee isn't feeling that the dentist's wife was "brought in to fire her"? And that is part of the reason for her lack of enthusiasm? I mean, come on, from the empoyee's point of view this OP was brought in to help upgrade the office system and is now finding all sorts of faults with her. Does anyone seriously think that this won't cause problems?

As a software trainer (I have trained on Medical billing systems in the past) I am aware that I know more about computers, billing systems, patient databases than most people care to. Maybe the OP needs to realize this and look for more good qualities than "she is good with patients." Perhaps, that she is good with patients is one reason why the OP's husband has such a sustainable client-based business?

Maybe the OP thinks that everyone should be able to "sail through" the new computer system with ease, like herself, a computer consultant?

One of the things that makes me a good trainer (and yes, I AM bragging) is my ability to recognize that not everyone is going to learn at the same speed or to the same level. However, I have never met a person that I was not able to train to do, at the very least, the bare minimum computer skills. Is this employee really that bad that she cannot learn anything? Or is it a case where the consultant is not trying hard enough or being patient enough because she has other motives?

As a software trainer (with decades of teaching/training experience - mind you, not one year experienced over several decades) I question the OP's ability to train and judge someone else's skills and learning ability.

I think there is more to this story that the one-side AAM was told.

P.S. $9,000 is a meaningless number since the OP doesn't tell us how much the business usually generates.

P.P.S. Maybe the business's receivables are up because there are now TWO people doing the work that was once done by one?

clobbered said...

To the person who said that the later comments put too much weight on the fact that the employee has worked for 27 years: is employer-employee loyalty strictly a one way street in your world?

Here's a hypothetical question; if the dentist broke his leg and was off work for two months and didn't have money to pay the wages [okay okay, I know, a broke dentist, stretch your imaginations here] - would that employee have come in and taken a rain check, to keep the business going? If that's the kind of employee it is, maybe they are owed a little consideration for their loyalty. If they have not been trained through the years to keep up with techology, the fault lies with their long-time employer as much as them.

Are we saying we treat lifetime employees with the same consideration we treat 3-month probationers? What a world.

Anonymous said...

This is not an employee with 27yrs of experience, it's more like 1 year of experience 27 times. I only feel sorry that this underperformer wasn't canned a long time ago.

Rebecca said...

Let's not fantasize that all longtime employees are longtime employees because they do good work and employers value them and their good work. Plenty are longtime employees because they: know how to play the company politics, got lucky enough to have a string of gutless managers, work somewhere that's generally terrified of firing anyone, continually skirt the edge of being lousy enough to fire, are experts at pushing blame onto other people, did one good thing once and have been skating on that ever since, are someone's relative, or some other ridiculous reason.

That said, things are much more interesting and complicated in a 2-person operation... which is why this letter is so very juicy.

Anonymous said...

Maybe we're not getting the whole story here and the employee's not that lousy (the letter is so angry that I wonder. And I certainly wouldn't sign any list my boss's wife made of everything I'd ever done wrong.) BUT if you're incompetent, you need to go. Period. I've got too many friends whose savings are running out and who at this point would be the employee of your dreams for slave wages. So I don't have any sympathy for anyone who is lousy at their job but still employed.

also "$9,000 is a meaningless number since the OP doesn't tell us how much the business usually generates" ?! Meaning that if the dentist's operating profits were high enough, it wouldn't matter if $9000 weren't accounted for or disappeared?!

Anonymous said...

"Meaning that if the dentist's operating profits were high enough, it wouldn't matter if $9000 weren't accounted for or disappeared?!"

Correct. From an accounting point of view, deviations of less than 0.5% are considered insignificant. If things are off by only $9,000 (over 27 years?), when the business has been bringing in $5,000,000+ in the same time frame, then it wouldn't be considered all that significant.

Anonymous said...

Anon - It is ridiculous to use accounting theory to justify theft. The dollar amount may not be material to the business, but it is material in terms of the law.

If I worked for the Gap and stole a $50 pair of jeans, they have a right to fire me and have me arrested. Stealing something worth $50 (or $5000 for that matter) won't bring down a billion dollar company, but it's still stealing and it's still illegal.

theolderepublicke said...

Anon.11:03 pm,

Stealing is stealing and ought not be condoned. But if it's an instance of accumulated clerical errors over 27 years, it might be a different story.

When I was a bank teller, we were not written up for shortages/overages unless they exceeded $50. For whatever reason, the bank determined it could withstand a certain amount of loss. Of course stealing, even if it was "only" $5, would have been enough to get one fired.

If one had shortages of $49 dollars for, say, 5 days in a row, it might have been a different story, and a person might be written up, but I'm talking of single, or infrequent instances.

I don't know how things should work out in this business in question, or what percentage of the business's funds is represented by $9,000. But if it's not stealing, it is a more complicated matter.

Hazelthyme said...

Do the unemployment benefits come out of the employer's pocket in some fashion? Does the employer get a rebate on the share of unemployment insurance he or she has paid for the employee?

Unemployment regulations vary from state to state (and even more from country to country), but generally, yes -- in the US, UI benefits are funded by taxes paid by employers, and in general, employers with a higher rate of firing/ laying off employees pay a higher tax rate than those who rarely or never fire or lay off their employees.

Unfortunately, unless a given state has special rules for smaller employers -- this can mean a company with only 1 or 2 employees takes a big hit in terms of taxes if they fire a single employee, because percentage-wise, that's a large share of their work force. (My state only goes back 3 years, so it wouldn't matter if this is the first firing in 20+ years and if you don't do it again for the next 20.)