You're fired

Donald Trump makes it look easy, but firing is a delicate art
Tuesday, May 11, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:42 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

In recent months, millions of Americans have watched as promising young businessmen and women were eliminated from NBC’s “The Apprentice.” Donald Trump squinted his eyes, leaned forward, and pointed a finger at his next victim.

Then, he uttered the infamous phrase.

“You’re Fired.”

Firing in the real world isn’t quite so simple. In fact, many Columbia business professionals say they hardly ever use those exact words when letting an employee go.

“The show is entertaining, but the thought of terminating with those words is appalling,” says Lavonne Hamilton-Klein, vice president and chief operations officer of Stony Creek Inn.

Columbia employers have other ways of handling this delicate situation.

The Usual Suspects

The first step in the fine art of firing is identifying the employees who need to be let go.

Employees in a variety of businesses are terminated for similar reasons — poor attendance, insubordination, dishonesty, stealing and failure to properly complete tasks.

Clay Bethune, owner of Gateway Mortgage Group, says he can often tell whether an employee is going to work out very early on.

“There is usually uneasiness from the start — that you can’t trust them or trust the work that they do,” Bethune says. “I get sick of double-checking.”

At TLC Moving, customer relations are very important because people rely on workers during a stressful time. Manager Kent Bailey says if the customer is unhappy with the service a certain employee provided, that criticism holds a lot of weight. He also says because the movers often work in groups, failure to work well with the team is another warning flag.

“If an employee isn’t going to work out, I usually know pretty quick because the other guys in the crew let me know,” Bailey says.

Jennifer LaHue, head waitress at George’s Pizza and Steak House, says the most common reason she has to let people go is employees’ failure to find someone to cover their shifts if they have to miss work. Another common problem is employees’ failure to complete the checklist before they leave.

“I come in and the tables and floors are dirty, and then that means that I am behind in my day,” LaHue says.

Solving the Problem

Columbia employers say it is in everyone’s best interest to help the employee work on his or her shortcomings before they even think about firing.

Rosemary Stevens, owner of Tiger Tails Book Store and Espresso Bar, says the training and energy that go into a new hire make it worthwhile to try to keep the existing employee if at all possible.

“I am generally very vocal about ‘you have to change this,’” Stevens says.

Stevens added that she hardly ever uses firing as a threat in these conversations because that possibility should just be understood.

“People should know that a job needs to be done a certain way,” Stevens says.

Head waitress LaHue reiterated what Stevens says about training.

“I try to work with people,” LaHue said. “I hate training, and it can take up to two or three months for a waitress to really get comfortable.”

Employers stressed they would much rather help an employee who really wants to learn.

Bailey, for example, says he doesn’t mind working extensively with an employee who is having trouble completing his or her duties.

“I’d rather have someone teachable than lazy or rude,” he says.

Hamilton-Klein says she will go as far as transferring an employee to another position within Stony Creek Inn if she thinks that job might be a better fit.

“We will go a long way with an employee,” Hamilton-Klein says.

The Last Resort

After every other option has been exhausted, there is really only one thing left to do: termination.

Dan Turban, an MU business management professor, says there is a process employers should go through when letting an employee go. First, they should have documentation of all the instances that have led up to this point, and they should have already tried to work with the employee on their deficiencies.

“Firing should never come as a surprise,” Turban says.

Employers should pick a private location and present the documentation and reasons to the employee, he says. Ideally, termination should take place early in the week to give the person time to look for another job, and the employer should connect the person with an employment service to assist them.

“The aim is that they will be able to find a job that works better for them,” Turban says.

Columbia employers often follow Turban’s general outline.

Bethune says he explains the reasons very honestly and says he is going to have to “let them go.”

“People deserve the truth,” he says.

Hamilton-Klein says it is important to be sensitive. Just because the person being fired hasn’t been a good worker, that doesn’t mean he or she is not a good person, she says. For Hamilton-Klein, sensitivity means having the meeting in privacy and mailing them their personal belongings so they don’t have to pack up in front of their co-workers.

Kent Bailey says firing is often a result of an obvious break in the employer-employee relationship, so both parties know its coming, and hardly anything needs to be said. It comes down to a simple sentence.

“I know what you did, you know what you did, and I’m going to have to let you go,” Bailey says.

But even when the situation is simple, it’s not necessarily easy. Hamilton-Klein and several other Columbia employers stress they strongly dislike firing.

“Letting go an employee is one of the most unpleasant things a manager has to do,” Hamilton-Klein says.

Others say on top of not liking it, they lack confidence in their ability to fire.

“I’m not real good at it,” Bailey says.

Stevens has a similar comment.

“I am a coward,” she laughs.

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