HR Magazine, April 2001: Give Employees the (Gentle) Boot

By Paul Falcone Apr 1, 2001

HR Magazine, April 2001Vol. 46, No. 4

Convince underperforming employees to leave voluntarily.

Yes, you read the headline right. Even in the tightest labor market in three decades, from time to time it’s necessary to persuade employees to leave your company.

Why? Because employees who are experiencing performance and conduct problems often will stay “on principle.” In other words, they will rationalize that they will stay until they are good and ready to leave. “No one’s forcing me out of my job until I’m ready to go—especially not that boss of mine!” goes the logic of the disenfranchised and victimized worker.

Unfortunately, the results can be problematic for employers: worker’s compensation stress claims, union grievances or wrongful termination lawsuits. For the employees, it’s months or years of feeling unappreciated and having their egos and self-esteem bashed.

So the best solution, from the standpoint of employee relations, is to broker a peace agreement through a meeting where, at the end, both parties can walk out of the working relationship with their dig.nity and respect intact.

A caveat from the outset: Meetings such as this require a third-party facilitator. First, if immediate supervisors who are part of the problematic interpersonal relationship with disenfranchised em.ployees attempt to “talk them into” leaving their job, those supervisors’ efforts may be seen as insincere or self-serving at best. Second, whatever is shared with the employee in meetings like this may take on a different meaning two years down the road when the company is being sued for “constructive discharge.”

A constructive discharge claim is similar to wrongful discharge; however, in the constructive discharge case, the employee leaves. Still, a plaintiff’s attorney may argue that the conditions were so intolerable at work that any reasonable person would have left under similar circumstances.

Consequently, the plaintiff attorney will argue, “My client was forced into resigning her position, and the company had no right to create such an unfriendly environment. Her supervisor told her that she wasn’t wanted there any more and had no future with the company. Telling her that after a year of isolating her from the rest of the team, denying her a raise, withholding training and holding her to a higher standard than everyone else was just too much. She had to quit, but it was their fault.”

To avoid creating a record that could be construed as a manager forcing an employee to resign, the manager cannot be the deliverer of the message. Instead, a neutral third party must be used. An HR professional or a member of your company’s senior management team is the typical facilitator in such cases because an objective eye is needed.

When it comes to job performance problems, managers and employees each see only their point of view: Managers argue that the problematic employee is disrespectful, non-communicative and does not hold herself accountable.

As a result, managers complain, “I delegate as little to her as I can. Instead, I do the work myself or give it to the other members of the team. My other staff members resent that she doesn’t do her own share of the work, and they’re tired of my cutting a wide swatch around this employee for fear of upsetting her or making matters worse.”

The disenfranchised employee in this same scenario will argue, “My boss shows me no respect. She never makes me feel like part of the team and she constantly holds me to a higher standard than everyone else. I’m never in the communication loop, and I’m never told when I do something right—only when I do something wrong. I’m sick and tired of being worked so hard.”

Who’s right and who’s wrong in these situations? Both parties. Employees too often take the easy road out and justify their irresponsible behavior by arguing favoritism and blaming their bosses for their own unhappiness. Managers, however, are indeed responsible for creating a working environment in which employees can motivate themselves and make a positive contribution to the department’s goals. In essence, if the working relationship has reached this point, both the manager and worker have failed. Sometimes, however, trying to fix these problems just becomes an ongoing battle of wills where little good results.

Third-Party Facilitators To the Rescue

Here’s where HR or senior management steps in. This third-party facilitator needs to attempt to fix the problem with the help of both the affected manager and employee. When progressive discipline or an employee transfer isn’t feasible, then the facilitator/broker may attempt to gently inject respect, dignity and professionalism back into the working relationship by allowing the employee an “easy out” exit strategy:

    “Mary, you have worked as Sue’s secretary for the past two years, and I don’t believe that you or Sue has felt that this working relationship was a ‘love connection.’ In other words, sometimes it’s just not the right personality mix or the right timing in people’s lives, and the working relationship suffers. Would you agree that it hasn’t been ideal for you?” [Yes]

    “Sue, you have shared your frustrations about Mary’s substandard job performance and inappropriate workplace conduct with me privately. I have also recommended that you speak with Mary directly, and you have done that on multiple occasions. So you are frustrated too, right?” [Yes]

    “OK, then it’s time to lay down our shields and extend the olive branch. There’s enough work around here to tire the most energetic of people. When you add the interpersonal friction that you both have been experiencing for the past year or so, it becomes very difficult.

    “Sometimes it’s fair to say that it just isn’t a right fit. What’s important to me is that both parties feel like they are being supported and treated with dignity and respect. I don’t want people feeling like their egos and self-esteem are being trashed. Life is simply too short for that.

    “Mary, as an executive secretary, I need to share with you that Sue isn’t going anywhere. She is a vice president, she is under contract for several more years, and senior management believes she is doing an excellent job. That’s an important point for you to keep in mind. As an objective third party, it appears to me that you are not happy here. You seem to be disappointed in the management team. You appear not to enjoy your work. And I’m sure you feel like you are not appreciated or part of the team, at least at certain times. Am I correct?” [Yes]

    “OK, so tell me your thoughts: Would leaving now on your own accord allow you an honorable exit strategy? Would exploring other opportunities outside the company while you are still employed make sense for you at this point in your career? We would be willing to allow you to begin interviewing at other companies as long as you make sure that our work comes first and that we are given at least 24 hours’ notice of an upcoming interview. I am only mentioning this because I don’t want you to feel like you need to feign illness or conjure up doctors’ and dentists’ appointments if you have an interview coming up. I would rather we all be above board and that you let us help you.

    “One other thing, Mary. I want you to know that this is strictly up to you. If you would like our support to either resign on your own terms now or to begin looking for other work, then we will help you. If not, that’s OK too. We will do everything we can to help you reinvent your working relationship with Sue to ensure that you are given objective performance standards and to feel more appreciated for your efforts. I just want you and Sue to feel better about working with each other if you choose to stay. I also want to give you these additional options, Mary, because it’s better that we discuss these things openly than leave them unsaid. What are your thoughts?”

This velvet-glove approach typically lowers the tension in the relationship immediately. The logic to this intervention is simply this: It’s always better to tell people where they stand. When people are treated professionally and respectfully, they will respond in kind. Although delivering a message like this can be confrontational, it’s therapeutic. After all, most people would feel better if their managers said they would prefer that they take their marbles and play in somebody else’s game. That’s a much better alternative than having to “divine” from managers’ actions that they don’t want an employee around anymore.

Are there downsides to this intervention technique? Not really, as long as you are careful to ensure that the employee understands that this is his decision (thereby avoiding a constructive discharge claim later down the road) and you advise the employee of the objective performance standards that he will meet if he chooses to stay. People need to hear how others feel about them. Workers are responsible for their own “perception management,” and perception is reality until proven otherwise. Most employees will ap.preciate the opportunity to hear about problems concerning them in an open and honest forum.

Just remember that it’s your meeting, not theirs. In other words, tell them that anything’s open for discussion as long as what is said has the other party’s best interests in mind and a spirit of constructive criticism prevails. There’s no attacking and no need for defending, and the meeting will be stopped if you sense that either party is breaching that rule.

The question is how often does this approach work? It depends. In my experience, it’s an 80–20 game: Twenty percent of the time employees choose to resign on the spot or agree to look immediately for other work. That may not seem like a great track record, but if you consider it from the long-term view, you will find that many employees will leave the company within three or four months after a meeting like this.

After all, no matter how angry employees are at the company, they will come to realize that fighting an uphill battle makes no sense. When angry people are treated respectfully, their anger dissipates. And when the anger is gone, they feel less inclined to stay with your company “on principle.” More importantly, they will leave quietly on their own terms—without all the histrionics and threats of lawsuits.

You can tell anybody anything—it’s how you say it that counts. Both the involved supervisor and employee will appreciate your caring and objective approach to a difficult meeting like this. After all, involved management is all about getting to the truly human concerns at hand—issues that were not addressed for far too long. You will simultaneously support your management team and allow your employees to take back control of their careers. That’s one of the definitions of enlightened leadership.

Paul Falcone is director of employment and development at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, Calif. He is the author of three books published by AMACOM, including 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems: A Guide to Progressive Discipline and Termination (1999) and 96 Great Interview Questions to Ask Before You Hire (1997). This article represents the views of the author solely as an individual and not in any other capacity.

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