Managing a team of employees is one of the hardest parts of being a business owner, particularly for interior designers who naturally form close connections to the people they collaborate with creatively. When your close-knit team feels like a family, terminating one of those employees can be extremely challenging. The sudden economic stress many small businesses are experiencing due to the COVID-19 crisis means the time may soon come – if it hasn’t already – to make some difficult personnel decisions.
Even in the best of times, small businesses are vulnerable to the pitfalls of personnel problems, as employees need to perform at a high level and work together seamlessly in order for the company to thrive. That’s why every business leader needs a plan for how to handle Human Resources (HR), including employee onboarding, oversight of conduct and performance, a standardized work-from-home policy – and termination. Interestingly, when the first three elements of an HR employee management plan are well executed, the fourth, termination, is far less frequently called upon. But, the unforeseen coronavirus pandemic has caused some business owners to shift course, making certain positions redundant, and accelerating the termination of employees who were on the cusp.
This article will explain how to establish HR practices that promote team productivity while providing a straightforward path to removing non-performing employees that won’t compromise liability status, team morale, or your reputation. It will also address the right way to handle terminations remotely, as meeting face to face is no longer a luxury employers can count on for a smooth parting of ways.
Start Off on the Right Foot
The first thing a business owner should do before hiring any employees is work with a Human Resources (HR) expert and an employment lawyer to craft an employee handbook that outlines company policies and procedures.
“Just like when you started your business you created a business strategy and a business plan, you should have a people plan,” says Lauren Trichter, HR Consultant and Coach. After 25 years of working as an HR leader at companies ranging from start-ups to large corporations, Lauren started her own consultancy, Choosing and Changing, to help business leaders learn to embrace and enact sustainable change.
In addition to taking thorough measures to select the best candidate during the interview process, Lauren stresses the importance of providing a robust employee onboarding experience to create a trajectory toward success.
“The onboarding process should not only describe the role and performance expectations, but exactly what that looks like at your firm,” she says. “In addition to any relevant software or work flow training, provide information on how you want people to interact with each other and as a representative of your firm. How you fire people generally relates back to the way you hire them and set them up to succeed.”
Live by the Employee Handbook
The employee handbook that you provide in writing and verbally explain during the onboarding process should describe ethical and behavioral guidelines and conditions that prompt a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) should employees not live up to expectations.
That PIP should include a timeline for evaluation, and the different possible outcomes after evaluation. It should also describe grounds for immediate termination. Having clear guidelines will help keep you from wavering or prolonging your decision to fire an employee, since termination will be compulsory. Keri Ohlrich, PhD, CEO of HR consultancy Abbracci Group, says a universal understanding of these guidelines benefits employers, but also employees, and creates an atmosphere of integrity and positive morale.
“Policies and procedures show employees and potential employees that leaders are serious about the workplace,” she says. “People management is not based on the owner’s or leader’s whim or who is the favorite that day. There are procedures in place for investigations, promotions and discrimination – as in, everyone is treated the same and fairly.”
As a business owner, you, too, must adhere to the ethics and behavioral standards set forth in the Employee Handbook and lead your team by example. This includes being an effective communicator with your staff. There are many ways to do this:
- Have frequent check-ins with each of your employees is a great way to identify problems before they can fester.
- Don’t wait for a formal performance review to engage your employees in a conversation about their experience at work.
- Build a friendly rapport with your team by smiling, presenting a composed and reasonably relaxed demeanor, and saying hello and goodbye everyday.
- Periodically take individual employees to coffee or lunch to get to know them better and create an open channel of communication about work. Take these opportunities to ask questions that are empathetic to their point of view, understanding that they may feel intimidated by your authority. When a conversation becomes about a problem that person is experiencing, listen with an open mind and a compassionate heart.
If you’re doing these kinds of things right, you will create a culture where your team feels respected and valued enough to come to you with problems versus you having to blindly investigate and uncover them for yourself.
Even if you aren’t letting any employees go, these informal check-ins are the perfect time to address how COVID-19 may be impacting their family or their ability to work at the level you have come to expected from them. While HIPAA laws prohibit you from asking detailed questions about an employee’s health, it is okay to ask about how the coronavirus virus pandemic may be affecting them and how they are feeling both physically and emotionally. You want to take care of your employees and sometimes prevention is the best medicine. If your employee is feeling overworked, maybe giving them a few days off to rest is a smart investment in their future productivity. Ultimately, it will cost more to fire and then rehire and re-train new staff when business resumes at its normal pace.
When an Employee’s Position Becomes Precarious
As a leader, you should be communicating frequently with your team, individually and collectively. You should celebrate their accomplishments small and large and give immediate feedback when something goes wrong. If you prioritize day-to-day communication, you will have a much easier time dealing with an employee who is facing possible termination, because they will be well aware of the problem and the direction it has been moving over time.
Formal Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) are a good way to protect your business from a legal liability angle, because they create an opportunity to document a problem, outline the timeline and necessary path to maintain employment, and then document the outcome. But PIPs can also backfire by exacerbating an employee’s anxiety over poor performance and fostering alienation from the team. It’s better to have a conversation at the first sign of trouble and explain to the employee how the problem might grow if not rectified, how that may lead to grounds for termination in certain scenarios, and what you can do as a manager to help them overcome the obstacle. Lauren Trichter agrees, saying,
“Once you go to a PIP, it might be too late. It’s better to foster a culture of feedback and have candid conversations about what’s working and what’s not with the situation before a PIP would be appropriate. In the absence of information, people create their own. If you're not clear on what the problem is, they will fill in the blanks for themselves, and often with incorrect assumptions that may fall into the category of wrongful termination.”
Keep records of your conversations with employees about their performance, whether formal or informal. As Keri Ohlrich says, “document, document, document. Yes, we are at-will employment, but documentation helps businesses with the termination in terms of a fair process and a potential lawsuit.” With that said, stay compassionate in the way you deal with employees facing the potentially devastating prospect of losing their job. You hired this person because you thought highly of them on both a personal and professional level, so depending on the infraction, try to remain a person invested in their personal growth and happiness. That may involve offering a positive reference or even helping that person find a new job in a role that suits them by connecting them with people in your network.
Also keep in mind that terminating via Zoom or any other videoconferencing app is going to make the experience more emotionally challenging. At least opt for video over a phone call, where you can make eye contact with that person. Carla Yudhishthu, a longtime veteran of the HR industry, suggests, “Write your employees a thank you note to express your gratitude and appreciation and say goodbye,” she says. “At a time [like this], it’s a gesture that will be remembered.”
With that said, once you make the decision to terminate, proceed with confidence:
- Follow through without delaying, and stand firm in your position
- Consider having this conversation of final parting at the end of the day when fewer people are in the office.
- Consider relieving them mid-week; Lauren says that choosing to let an employee go mid-week instead of on a Friday gives that person a chance to immediately begin networking and job hunting in full force instead of leaving them with two days to wallow in their misfortune.
As a business owner, you will eventually face a time when you need to let an employee go. It will never be a pleasant experience, but it doesn’t have to be excruciating for either party. While the close-knit environment of an interior design office makes employee relations all the more personal, if you command and demonstrate a culture of integrity, honesty, and accountability, you and your team members will be empowered to either resolve problems as they arise, or to eventually part ways in an amicable and professional manner that keeps everyone’s reputation intact.