Is there ever an alternative to firing an employee?

June 14, 2017

Is there ever an alternative to firing an employee?

If you treat your job as a cold, administrative function, then letting an employee go should be easy business for you. All you have to do is process some files, hold a few meetings, and raise a new vacancy with recruitment, right?

But not all HR managers are cold paper pushers. And while there are certainly situations where you really have to fire an employee, dismissal doesn’t always have to be the answer.

A few numbers to consider before you replace a bad employee

For a moment, I’d like you to forget how awful it feels to rip a person’s career from them. Instead, I’d like you to consider a few simple numbers.

According to Recruiting Times, it costs an average of £30,614 to replace a member of staff. Here’s how they work that figure out:

  1. £5,433 – cost of filling a new vacancy
  2. £25,182 – cost of bringing a new hire to full productivity

Oh, and that isn’t necessarily the full cost of firing somebody. In fact, if you put just one foot wrong during proceedings, you could find yourself landed with an unfair dismissal claim. And according to figures published by the Ministry of Justice, the average unfair dismissal claim for 2015/16 was £13,851.

That’s nearly 50% extra added to what you’re already paying to replace your employee. And if you really mess it up? Well, the highest unfair dismissal pay-out for 2015/16 was £470,865!

There are five things you should try before you go ahead and fire somebody

Financially, there’s a good argument for holding onto an employee, even if they’re not performing or behaving in the way you’d like – yet. Then, of course, there’s the moral argument. No matter what somebody is struggling with, do you really want to take their job away from them?

Even if an employee’s behaviour or performance might technically qualify them for dismissal, there are five things you should seriously consider before you start proceedings.

  1. Try a Personal Improvement Plan (PIP). Knowing where they stand and where they need to get to can really help an employee turn performance around. But make sure to back it up with any relevant training or support they might need.
  2. Get to know them as a person. Some people exhibit poor behaviour because they feel like nobody at work cares. Show genuine interest in your employees, and make time for them – you’ll soon notice a difference in attitude.
  3. Suggest flexible working arrangements. Poor behaviour might be caused by a situation at home. Things like school runs and long commutes can really become spanners in the works – do you really need this person to keep a strict 9-5?
  4. Consider an internal transfer. This can help you keep skilled employees who are not in the right job. It can also be helpful when two colleagues are struggling with a big personality clash.
  5. Try conflict resolution or mediation. It’s easy to just sack the person who’s causing most trouble. But if you get to the root cause of an argument or disagreement, you might find that two warring forces may become very strong allies!

It’s worth noting here that it isn’t always good to hold onto a sour relationship. But if you’re searching for an alternative to parting ways with somebody, then these five suggestions are a good place to start. So let’s take a look at them in a bit more detail.

Counter poor performance with a Personal Improvement Plan (PIP)

If you’re considering dismissal due to poor performance, then a Personal Improvement Plan could help. This can show your employee where their performance stands right now, and then set out goals and milestones to reach a desired level of performance, by a certain deadline.

“It paints a picture of what performance needs to look like over a given time frame” explains Talentcraft founder Sherry Pedersen-Ajmani, who has been involved in termination decisions for hundreds of employees during her time as an HR Generalist. “The higher the management position, the longer the timeframe – it could be 6 months for a VP, 3 months for a manager, or even just a few days for somebody with a fairly transactional role like stocking shelves.”

Of course, you need to make sure the employee has all the support they need to reach this desired level. If it’s a simple lack of direction, they may need no additional training. But if there is a genuine skill gap holding them back from getting results, then fill that gap with the right training.

Get to know them as a person – it might help you find the key to their performance

Sometimes, the answer to fixing problems at work lies beyond the office environment. And getting to know a person in a non-professional way can help you unlock that door.

“One client I was working with faced such a dilemma” recalls team performance consultant Tom Borg. “Bob was a supervisor of a major automotive company. One of his union employees had been coming to work late on several occasions, not to mention the fact that he was also guilty of punching out early. Threats and write ups did little to fix the troublesome situation.”

Get to Know your employee as a personGet to know your employee as a person – for example, over coffee. Taking a genuine interest in their personal life shows them that you care. | Image by NimONia / Shutterstock, Inc

Borg’s advice to Bob, was to get to know the employee as a person – not as an employee. Bob took Borg’s advice, and over the next three weeks, he frequently pulled him aside on his break to buy him coffee. After taking real interest in him, Bob learned about his passion for bowling, his autistic son, and his situation at home – which turned out to be the reason for the lateness.

“Something interesting started to happen over those three weeks” Borg tells me. “Bob’s employee started coming to work not just on time, but early! What changed? Bob’s approach. The employee sincerely felt he was cared about by his supervisor. And he was. It made all the difference in the world, and Bob never had to fire this employee.”

The employee who got sent on a trip around the world – instead of being fired

So how far should you take the ‘getting to know your employee as a person’ approach? And how far should you go to cater for issues they may be facing in their private life? For Huib Maat, company director and in-house perfumer at Pairfum®, the answer was however far he needed to – as long as he solved the problem.

“We had an excellent and very motivated employee” says Maat. “But after a few years, his enthusiasm dropped noticeably. He was doing less, and worse than required. It got to a point when we had to discuss letting him go – but we weren’t keen on this route. He’d done excellent work for many years!”

Instead of starting dismissal proceedings, Maat opened a discussion with the employee. , and found out that he was feeling ‘burnt-out’ by life in general. It didn’t help that the employee had just reached his 40’s, and was feeling like he was missing out on life. Maat sprang into action.

“Instead of firing him, we sent him on a one-year sabbatical around the world with his wife – with a small loan to help him along, of course. He returned full of enthusiasm, and reclaimed his place as one of our best employees, with exemplary loyalty.”

Maat concedes that this approach may not work in all organisations – and perhaps it only works in medium-sized, family-owned businesses like his own. But he hopes his story serves as inspiration for anybody working in HR to think outside the box when seeking an alternative to firing an employee.

Offer flexible working arrangements

Here’s something to think about. In both stories outlined above, behaviour was strongly influenced by conflicts with personal life. But if you can’t send employees around the world, then what can you do?

Well, you could consider offering a flexible working arrangement. That could be the option to work from home, or even to work flexible hours. Here are a few facts about flexible working, from CIPD’s 2016 Employee Outlook report:

  • Flexible working improves the work-life balance. 65% of flexible workers are satisfied with their work-life balance (only 47% of non-flexible workers feel the same)
  • Flexible working reduces stress. 10% of UK workers say that commuting to and from work is their biggest cause of stress
  • Flexible working increases employee retention. 28% of employees say flexible working arrangements encouraged them to stay with their current employer

Work - Life Balance65% – flexible workers satisfied with their work-life balance. 47% – non-flexible workers satisfied with their work-life balance

So before you consider letting somebody go, maybe you should ask yourself: Do you really need this particular employee to keep struggling with the standard 9-5 office arrangement? And would their performance or behaviour improve, if they had a better work-life balance, less stress, and a brighter outlook on their future with your company?

Explore whether the employee is in the right position for their skills

So, what if you know an employee is highly skilled, but they are not doing well in their current job role? Dismissal doesn’t have to be the answer, and you might find you solve the problem by exploring a role change.

“Ensure the employee is sitting in the right chair in the organisation that is aligned to their strengths” advises consultant Lisa Frame-Jacobson. “Unruly employees may just be frustrated that they are not applying their unique skills. Exploring potential options, while creating a joint developmental plan to help them toward a new role, can renew their soul and yield lasting outcomes.”

There’s an old saying that suggests a change is as good as a rest – and if you’ve already invested in an employee, wouldn’t you rather they continued offering their skills to support your organisation, instead of finding a more appropriate role elsewhere?

Two people at war could become your next big success story

It’s awful when employees don’t get on. But according to Emma del Torto, founder of Effective HRM, just because two people see the world differently, it doesn’t mean they can’t work together.

“I’ve mediated a lot of conflicts on behalf of clients” she says. “Often, one party is calling for the other’s dismissal. But ideally, you want to help them support each other – because different personalities can work well together, as long as they understand each other’s strengths.”

Psychometric testing tools can help you do this. Services such as Insights Discovery, for example, identify colour-coded personality profiles, which can help you find a better way to encourage two polar opposites bounce off each other, instead of bumping heads all the time.

I’m not advocating hanging on to a bully. But disputes aren’t always one-sided. And while it is easy to just conclude that a person who has behaved badly should go, it’s not always the right answer.

But whatever you do… don’t do nothing!

So before you go forking out £30,000+ to replace an employee, take a few minutes to consider whether any of the five approaches above could help you save their relationship with their career. But whatever you do, make sure you don’t simply do nothing!

“In my experience, the employer will put off and often delay the conversation” writes Emma del Torto in a recent article she wrote. “You need to be decisive, and putting off a difficult decision to let someone go in your organisation could be putting your business at risk.”

Sometimes, dismissal is the right answer. And if it turns out like that? Well, it doesn’t have to be a negative thing. Sometimes, letting an employee go – or ‘setting them free’, as Emma del Torto puts it – could be just the break they need.

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