The exit strategy

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iStock_000043054276_Double_PPHow you manage staff out of your business is just as important as bringing a new team onboard. So, why do so few practice managers get it right? John Burfitt reports

Firing a staff member is unlikely to ever make it to the top of the list of what a practice manager enjoys most about their job. In fact, it is often credited as the thing many managers hate the most.

While hiring new people is part of a manager’s role, so too is the other end of the cycle—letting go of the people who are not performing or do not fit in.

Once warnings have been issued, negotiation meetings held and performance management plans put in place, sometimes the only outcome is to tell the staff member it is time to go.

“That is a conversation so few business owners like to have and they are actually scared of performance managing that employee,” HR On Call director Melissa Behrend says.

“Many managers simply do not know how to say to people, ‘you are not performing in your role as expected’, and instead will put up with a lot of behaviour that is detrimental to the business.

“This is a principle of life and of business—deal with it head on and deal with it immediately. If you don’t, it will only get worse and you can not predict the outcome of having that person remain in your business.”

The term for this process is ‘directioneering’, which covers how an organisation retains, and releases, its people and the critical role it plays in sustaining company performance. Even the best of intentions, not to mention the best of management practices all the way along, can end up with staff not performing to expectations. If all attempts at improvement have broken down, there can only be one solution.

“It can all come down to cultural fit and anyone in business will tell you this happens all the time,” says Graham Catt, chief executive officer of the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA). “Sometimes that person just does not fit into your business—for a wide variety of reasons—and they need to move on.” The AVA offers members a human resources advisory service, which attracts over 200 calls per month, many of them about the issue of fair and legal dismissal.

“It is not about pointing fingers or laying blame; it is about how do you move from this point in a way that is best for both parties,” Catt says. “Often the best and most simple thing is to admit there has been a mistake made and allow that person to move on to a place where they fit in better.”

The starting point of the process is for the practice manager to know what are the legal obligations and also, their rights as an employer. A clear understanding of what are the steps to follow and how to comply is essential.

As is standard across most Australian businesses, an employer must take part with the staff member in three formal discussions and written warnings.

If those attempts have not resolved the situation, the employer has the right to dismiss the employee. Allowing the staff member to bring in a support person for that final meeting is crucial.

“If it ever ends up in a court or tribunal, and if you did not allow the employee to have a support person present, I know of many cases when they ruled against the employer just because of that,” says Dr Peter Higgins, lecturer in the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney.

“They are not there to challenge or say anything, just to witness and support the person in the meeting.

“And this isn’t something you say to someone in passing in a corridor. It has to be a formal situation where you sit down, take notes and those notes are handed to the employee. Legally, these are called ‘contemporaneous notes’ and they can be presented in court as primary evidence.”

One way to assist with the process, adds Behrend, is to bring in an outside HR consultant who can offer impartiality to what is possibly a tense situation. “By bringing in an external party, the employee realises the situation is more serious,” she says. “It is also a matter of steering this the right way. There is often an existing relationship within the business, but the external person has none of that and can help both sides process what needs to be done.”

One of the best ways to achieve a smooth transition is by offering the employee the opportunity to leave on the spot, with a payout.

“I suggest you give them a cooling off period so they can think about it,” Dr Higgins advises. “But in my experience, they usually want to go and they are at this point just looking for an authority figure to tell them they are a good vet, but they are not fitting in here.” One important law of the Unfair Dismissal Code is to know in what category your business falls and how long the employee has been employed. If your business is classed as a small business (less than 15 staff members) and the employee has been in the role for 12 months or less, it will be difficult for them to claim unfair dismissal. Making the most of noting performance within the probation period can also help save this situation evolving later on. Letting go of a team member can challenge the managerial procedures of even the best employers.

Dr Deborah Osborne of the Alice Springs Veterinary Hospital recalls one staff member who wouldn’t take responsibility for poor performance. It was always the fault of someone or something else.

“I was trying to coach this person to accept these situations were within their control and to take charge of their life. Eventually, a business mentor said to me, ‘You are not their mother and you don’t have time for that’,” Dr Osborne recalls.

“It was great advice, as the situation was unfair to that employee as well. The sooner you let them go, the sooner they can go on to another role that they are a far better fit for. Most people won’t see it like that at the time, but they might later and a lot of that has to do with how you conduct yourselves through the process.”

One of the best ways to manage the exit from the business is through offering services with an employment specialist and career counselling to help the dismissed employee determine a course to their next role.

“One of the best ways to be positive about this is to support the employee to find a new job,” Behrend adds. “If a person has been dismissed and offered this kind of outplacement service, the result will be more positive for both parties.

“Managing someone on the way out is just as important as on the way in. This could prove to be one of the best things you can do for the reputation of your business brand and company culture.”

In the case of a crisis, like theft, fraud, gross or negligent misconduct or physical assault, then the laws are far simpler. “In those cases, there is no reason to give warning; you can dismiss them on the spot,” Dr Higgins says. “However, the legal side of anything you do with your staff needs to be at the forefront of your mind at all times.”

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