How to fire someone ethically and legally

Don’t waste time dealing with employees that make the work atmosphere toxic

We have it all wrong. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” is a terrible expression.

In a business setting, the saying essentially means that employees who are the loudest (i.e., complain the most) get the most attention. Since nobody likes a squeaky wheel, we tend to dedicate resources to fix the problem.

Does that make sense to you? Should we really be spending time focusing on the whiners, catering to the toxic and consoling the grumpy?

According to Dan Sullivan, a business coach and strategy guru, the correct expression should be “The squeaky wheel gets replaced.”

The Real World

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings wrote in a Business Week article, “At most companies, average performers get an average raise. At Netflix, they get a generous severance package.”

As a consequence, managers find it easier to fire average performers. In contrast, Netflix rewards high achievers much more generously than the competition.

Of course, most veterinary professionals would rather have a root canal with no pain relief than fire someone. Termination is an emotionally charged, stressful, even draining event. Even when it is obvious that it’s the right thing to do.

Yet the process can be simple, ethical and legal. Management consultant Shawn McVey reminds us of a simple three-step technique for letting nonperformers go effectively and legally.

It’s the classic “three strikes and you’re out” policy.

McVey writes: “No one gets up in the morning and plans to disappoint you. No one wants to fail at his or her job. But not everyone is going to be a good fit for your company.”

There is a logical process for confronting performance problems and “getting the wrong people off the bus,” as Jim Collins1 would say.

Easy as 1, 2, 3

The first step is to make sure the employee embraces your basic, nonnegotiable core values, such as honesty, hard work and reliability, and your hospital’s core values and mission statement.

The second step is to follow Gino Wickman’s lead and make sure the employee “gets it, wants it and has the capacity” to do her job.2 For example:

  • Does she get it? Ask yourself whether she understands her duties, her position within the team and your expectations.
  • Does she want it? In other words, does she really want the particular job? Or is she only there to log hours and get a paycheck?
  • Does she have the capacity to do the job? This encompasses multiple criteria: enough time, proper intellect, the right skills, enough knowledge and even physical ability.

If the answer to any of the three points above is “no,” then you need to ask yourself whether the person is in the wrong seat. If she needs more training, can you find a more appropriate position for her or is it time for her to explore other exciting horizons? Someone else may have a seat that is a better fit for that employee.

Take Action 

The third step is the confrontation. Assuming you want to give her a chance to improve, take some Imodium and tell her, Rico Suave-style, about the issue (strike one). Give her 30 days to improve. In that month, she will either improve, leave the practice or show no improvement.

Several legal requirements are associated with termination, so make sure you follow what your state requires.

If she improves, congrats, it’s a win-win situation.

If she leaves, then she wasn’t a good fit and everyone can move on.

If she doesn’t improve, that’s strike two, and an evaluation should be conducted again after 30 days.

If there is still no improvement after one month, consider it strike three. At that point, it is in everybody’s best interest to part ways.

It’s tough, but it’s the right thing to do for all involved. Remember: It’s not personal; it’s business.

Focus on the Assets 

Chandler and Richardson3 write about poor performers: “You do all kinds of heroic things for them and waste all your time on them when your time could be better spent with your producers.”

In addition, “The time you spend helping a producer helps your team … more than the time you spend with your nonproducer.”

According to Chandler and Richardson, some managers spend over 70 percent of their time trying to help “nonproducers to produce.” But here is the cruel irony: Superstars tend to quit their job because of a lack of attention, feelings of being underappreciated or when they are not able to grow in their position rapidly enough.

So, employers and managers can build a stronger team by spending much more time with productive employees.

Obey the Rules

Several legal requirements are associated with termination, so make sure you follow what your state requires. (Consult with your human resources specialist or legal counsel.)

Document everything before, during and after the process. It is always a good idea to have two staff members involved. One can do the talking as the other does the writing.

Because termination can be emotionally charged, use a checklist of the points you need to cover. This is not a negotiation, so you need to get to the point.

At the end of the discussion, a letter summarizing the main points you just covered should include the reasons for the termination and its effective date.

As soon as the termination is over, it’s time to regroup, take a deep breath and focus on your remaining employees. Inform them that the employee was let go, but no explanation, no discussion and certainly no defamation.

In the end, a termination is not fun for anyone. The best way to handle it is to do everything you can to avoid the situation: Hire the right person, place her in the right seat, train her well and provide whatever is needed to help her shine.


  1. Jim Collins. “Good to Great” HarperBusiness, 1st ed. 2001.
  2. Gino Wickman. “Traction” Portfolio, 2015.
  3. Steve Chandler and Scott Richardson. “100 Ways to Motivate Others” Career Press, 3rd ed., 2012.

Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and serial entrepreneur. His traveling surgery practice takes him all over eastern Pennsylvania and western New Jersey. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

Nikki Schneck, a veterinary technician near Pottsville, Pa., contributed to this article. 

Originally published in the October 2016 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today! 

Post a Comment

3 thoughts on “How to fire someone ethically and legally

  1. I don’t understand how you have two staff members involved in documentation “one to do the talking and one to do the writing” and then after the termination “regroup and no discussion, no explanation, no defamation”. How do you prevent office talk or gossip if more than one person is involved in this process?

    1. You have to get the manager and someone that you trust, someone that you know will not talk about what occur in the meeting. We do that at my place of employment and it has been working so far.