Friday, April 27, 2012

Thoughts on Termination of Employees

The termination of an employee is never a fun topic and never a situation to take lightly as an employer. Although this particular post will focus on my father's trucking company, correlations to educational leadership will be clear, so bare with me.

While growing up, I watched my father struggle with difficult staffing issues a few times. He was a small business owner of a trucking company that hauled wood products from local saw mills to the pulp processing plant in Missoula, Montana. With 12 trucks running around the clock, he employed 24 full-time drivers, an administrative assistant, and a mechanic. 26 people relied on my father's decisions to make a living, and my father relied on them to make this living as well. It was not a relationship or responsibility that my father approached lightly.

Once I saw him sitting at the kitchen table late in the evening, something he rarely did unless he was working on the taxes, a job he loathed with a passion, or was considering a serious problem. I asked him what was wrong and he told me that one of his employees was causing some problems. Every truck had a machine which read the travel speed of the vehicle over the course of its journey. With this information, my father was able to determine if a driver was breaking the speed limit or stopping for routine breaks as scheduled. The driver in question was abusing the routine breaks system. The machine proved that the driver was stopping more often than other drivers and driving well below the speed limit. Driving below the speed limit didn't bother my father, in fact he encouraged his drivers to take it easy on the road. My father understood word of mouth and wanted people to recognize his company as promoting safe, responsible driving. But, with the added breaks and the slow driving, this driver was taking more than eight extra hours to finish the route; a normal time during the summer was about 10 hours, and this driver was often taking 18+ hours.

My father sat at the kitchen table that night, not because he was wondering how to fire this driver, but instead, he was considering why all of his efforts to correct this driver's behavior had come to no avail. When the problem had become apparent weeks earlier, my father met with the driver and discussed the situation. The driver assured my father that his behavior would change, and it did for a short time. The time dropped from 18+ hours to 12; fairly close to normal and acceptable in my father's mind. My father encourage the driver and made positive comments about the change in behavior; but the next week, the time began to lengthen again. After another week passed with the driver clocking around 16+ hours a day, my father moved into the second phase: a verbal warning became a written warning. My father wrote up an improvement plan for the driver with clear goals: the driver would stop for less breaks. The driver was stopping more than twice the number of times other drivers stopped, so my father focused on that point. The plan called for the driver to make three less stops per day, which would bring the driver closer to the normal amount of breaks. Correcting the problem and continuing the employment of the driver was the goal for my father. He didn't want to terminate this employee, if he could avoid it.

Over the next two weeks, the driver followed his improvement plan. He made less stops; again, his route time lowered to around 12 hours; again, my father was satisfied with the improvement. As the saying goes, old habits die hard -- in the third week of the improvement plan, the driver's time began to lengthen and he began taking extra breaks. At this point, many of you are probably thinking that the driver broke the improvement plan, so he was terminated. Nope! My father continued trying to help the driver. Another meeting to review the improvement plan was arranged and another letter went in the personel file. As you can see, my father was documenting the process. He was offering opportunities for improvement, but planning for the possibility that improvement would not occur. The behavior was corrected; the driver made less stops and his time improved, but it was short lived. This time the acceptable behavior lasted three weeks before the problem reared its ugly head. 

However, the problem was rapidly changing shape, because now other employees were talking about the situation. My father was running out of time to make the situation work out, because other drivers were beginning to question the performance of their colleague. All the drivers used the same route, and drivers had seen this driver stopping for long periods of time; he had been passed by drivers who should be hours behind him. His poor performance was public knowledge within the company. Things were beginning to spiral out of control against the driver, even with my father's support.

When the extra stops began again, my father took the action he had been trying to avoid -- he terminated the driver. It was not his first option, nor his second; it was not something he wanted to do, or desired to do. This man had a family; they needed the job to support them. By firing this employee, my father was negatively impacting this family's quality of life. He had done all he could to avoid it. Once it happened, my father knew he needed to explain the situation to the other drivers. He called a company meeting. When the other employees arrived at the meeting, he said, "Unfortunately, Mr. X, will not be driving for our company anymore. Please understand that I worked with him to correct the problems that existed, but in the end, it was in the best interest of the company to let him go." That was it! Short and to the point, but still respecting the former employee's right to confidentiality. The specifics of what was wrong were never discussed and the bottom line was communicated, "This was in the best interest of the company." And as employees of the company, it is in your best interest was the implied message. 

My father could have said anything, or nothing, to the other employees, but questions would have remained. He could have claimed that the driver left for personal or health reasons, but the truth was that my father fired him. My father is an honest man and he knew that in our small town of 30,000 people -- his employees would see this other driver again; at the store, at the cafe, at the bar. When his employees asked this former driver about the situation, he didn't want to be caught in a lie, because as a leader you want to display integrity.