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"You’re fired?": Handling staff discipline

October 24, 2015
by Pamela Tabar, Editor-in-Chief
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It’s no secret that long-term care companies see plenty of staff turnover. But keeping those staff relationships healthy involves good hiring strategies upfront and better management strategies later on, says Martha Abercrombie, SHRM-SCP, SPHR, vice-president of strategy, Vikus Corporation, in a recent webinar. 

Making a good hiring decisions from the beginning can reduce risk in the long run, but new hires can still fail for many reasons, she says. While about 11 percent of new hires fail because of a lack of skill, most (89 percent) fail because of character or attitude reasons, she says. “Look beyond what that candidate has on a resume. Many candidates will have a license or certification, but there’s a lot more to it than that. They can have all the right credentials and say all the right things, but they may not be the right ingredient.”

When making new hires, consider renaming the probationary period to a “training period,” she adds. “That way, new employees don’t think they have a green light once the probationary period is over.” This also gives a company the time to assess the "cultural fit," which Abercrombie says is key to a new hire's success.

Many long-term care workers are hired under an “at-will” employment arrangement. But, just because the company can fire someone “at will” doesn’t negate the need for employees to know why and how their performance is not cutting it among their peers, she says. “You may be able to fire someone for any reason, but there still has to be a reason… and the employee needs to “see it coming.”

When an employee is terminated, diligent documentation both before and during the termination is important, but so is an awareness of the social effects, she adds. “Ex-employees talk a lot, and there’s also this wonderful thing we call social media. How we handle sticky issues is important.”

Tips for handling employees with performance problems

First, supervisors need to realize the intrinsic value difference between counseling and formal disciplinary actions, Abercrombie advises. “There’s a time and a place for a formal write-up, but in some cases you can just have a conversation,” she says.

The goals of counseling involve making the employee aware that something is deeply amiss in the job performance, but also asks the employee to take the lead role in fixing the problem.

Counseling goals:

  • Communuicate concerns
  • Determine cause
  • Identify avenues for improvement
  • Improve employee performance
  • Stop a negative behavior

If the informal counseling approach doesn’t achieve the desired changes, the next step is a formal action, which goes on an employee’s permanent record. For this, many companies use a Performance Improvement Plan or “PIP” to formally document an employee’s shortcomings and require the employee to contribute to an agreed-upon plan to correct the deficiencies within a set timetable. The overarching goal for both counseling and PIPs is to fix the problems, not terminate the employee, Abercrombie notes.

When termination seems imminent

Some employees still do not improve, even after supervisors have given them counseling and even a PIP, including emphasis on why it’s crucial to repair the employee’s job-related deficiencies. At this point, look deep into the previous documentation, and then look beyond the documentation, Abercrombie suggests. “Don’t act in haste. Review the documentation: Have they complained about something recently? Are you setting yourself up for a whistleblower? Listen to their side: Are there extenuating circumstances? Give them a chance to explain or tell their side.”

If no other interventions work, then termination may be on the table. During a termination process, make sure to document every conversation and let the employee know he/she will be able to see your notes, Abercrombie says. When that employee views your notes, make sure to get a signature proving he/she saw them. Give the employee a chance to write down his or her own statement in an unfettered way, and keep all documentation long after they’re gone, she advises.

Don’t dodge the exit interview

Exit interviews can be extremely awkward when they involve terminated employees, but they can teach an organization a lot. If possible, have exit interviews conducted by someone other than the direct-report. At the exit interview, be sure to ask employees if they’ve ever seen any workplace violence, Medicare/Medicaid fraud, cheating on timesheets, etc. Then weigh what you hear, but hear it, she suggests.

The whole goal, of course, is to hire quality employees who won’t ever get to the termination point, Abercrombie notes. But, when an employee needs to be let go, how the situation is handled is everything. “Poor hiring decision coupled with poorly handled employee terminations can stimulate more turnover and it affects productivity.”