I terminated an employee, now my team hates me

How can this veterinary practice manager bring their team back together?

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A practice manager writes:

I terminated a toxic vet tech last week.

When I started working at the practice about 6 months ago, I came into a really negative team culture. The new owner hired me and the team was scared of change, so they blamed everything on me. I have been fighting an uphill battle since. Every change I try to implement, regardless of how minor it is, is met with criticism and negativity. There is always a reason why something won’t work and why the old way is better. Most of the time it’s just because “we’ve always done it that way.”

One aspect of this culture is tardiness and gossiping. The team members claim they are all very close, they are a “family,” yet there is a lot of backstabbing and gossiping that is just accepted and not dealt with. Some of the team members are unreliable and chronically late for their shift, even if it’s just 5­ to 10 minutes.

One particular team member, a vet tech, seems to be the common denominator in a lot of drama in the practice. She is also one of the worst offenders of tardiness. I have spoken to her about it a number of times over the past six months. She gets really defensive, makes excuses and says that she always stays back late and is doing a better job than everyone else, so she doesn’t see what the problem is. After giving her numerous warnings and writing her up for this, I decided to terminate her employment last week.

It went horribly. She walked out of the office, and a few minutes later a vet came and resigned as well. She is threatening legal action and has been contacting the other employees. I come to work in the morning now, and no one even says “hello” to me. I organize a team meeting and no one shows up. I have to chase them around the practice and herd them into the meeting.

I have tried talking to all the team members individually, with mixed results. There have been tears of frustration on their behalf, some have actually sympathized with me, and others are just so set in their ways that I don’t seem to be getting anywhere with them. The tech who was terminated has obviously been telling them all sorts of lies, and nothing I say seems to change their mind.

Did I make a mistake terminating her? What am I doing wrong with the rest of the team and what can I do differently? I don’t know how much longer I will last in this environment, it’s really taking a toll on me.

Oh, I really feel for you. I hope you know that none of this is your fault and you didn’t do anything wrong. In fact, I doubt that there is much you could have done differently, or that anything would have yielded a positive outcome.

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The problems this practice is having are rooted in fear of change. Your role is viewed as a driver of that change, so you will be blamed regardless of what actions you take. Rather than addressing how to deal with this specific situation, I want you to consider a long-term strategy.

Broadly speaking, there are two leadership styles and change management techniques you can employ. One is a more authoritative approach, where you draw a line in the sand and ensure there are consequences for anyone who crosses it. For example: Tardiness. You could write a policy, share it with everyone and explain that anyone who does not follow the policy will receive a verbal warning, etc.

This is how that course of action is likely to play out: People won’t follow the policy (or any other policy; I’m using tardiness as an example to illustrate this management style), you will terminate a few of them, a few will resign and you will be left with a couple of good employees. You will replace the ones who have left with new team members and eventually you will have a ‘new’ clinic, founded on YOUR policies and culture.

What are the cons? Well, you may also lose a few clients in the process. With a lot of new faces around, some old clients are bound to leave your practice. Things will get chaotic for a few months. You will have to train the new team members, and you will lose a lot of the knowledge employees who have been at the practice for a long time. You know what I mean:­ That tech who knows where everything in the hospital is; knows what insulin syringe that patient needs as soon as the client walks through the door, etc.

This process is likely to take around 12 months. That’s 365 exhausting, difficult days. The old team members won’t like you and they won’t hide it. The new team members won’t know you and you’ll have to work hard to gain their trust.

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The second approach you can take is more inclusive. Prior to making any change, you would consult the rest of the team. You wouldn’t write a policy and share it with everyone — you would include them in writing the policy. When they are not following the new policy, you wouldn’t say anything until the second or third offense, at which time you would gently point out to them that there is a policy. You wouldn’t dream of writing them up for breaching it.

Here is how this second approach is likely to play out: You will spend hours discussing minor changes and debating why, for example, it would be a good idea to admit surgery patients during appointed time­slots rather than have them come in whenever they want. You will feel like you are making very slow progress. But as far as clients are concerned, the change will be minimal as most of the faces in the hospital remain the same. And that tech who knows where everything is will still be there. (Although when you suggest that you start ordering different surgical drapes because they are cheaper, she will fight you to the death.)

This process is likely to take a lot longer, so that’s really the primary negative to this approach. I’m talking years. Sure, there will be some positive changes and glimmers of hope along the way, but if you want to see real results, you have to be in it for the long haul. With this approach, the old team members still won’t like you, but at least they’ll try to hide it.

Sorry, there is no silver bullet here. You have to pick an approach that suits your management style and is aligned to the strategy of the practice owner. Once you have chosen your change management strategy, you’ll know how to deal with the fallout from terminating this vet tech.

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One thought on “I terminated an employee, now my team hates me

  1. Let me preface what I’ve written to state that I’ve actually spoken to groups about how toxic employees can bring down a business. I have seen this happen in a business environment and wanted to share my experience and some advice, and I hope that’s okay. I’ve never run nor consulted for a vet practice but I’ve got a lot of management experience and consulting experience I hope will help you.

    First, my first experience with a toxic employee: I was a supervisor for a top notch team of 30 at a large customer service provider. My co-supervisor and I worked hard to get this team where they were, and we felt we had succeeded, and our numbers showed it. Then “Susan” came to our team as a new hire. (At this company we were not involved in the hiring process – HR did the hiring and training, then new hires were distributed throughout established teams).

    Our team was pretty equally divided racially, and up until that point we had never had an issue with racism. Our team had assigned seats in our area but were free to make arrangements to sit where they wanted within the area – i.e. if two people wanted to sit together in the same pod or back to back in adjacent pods and came to me about it, I would do my best to accommodate them. This resulted in a team that was racially mixed within their pods, not something we insisted on but were proud of. Once Susan came on the team, within a few weeks I started getting requests to move groups, not individuals, of workers together, and noticed that it was primarily those of one race who were doing so. After a few more weeks, I began to see our quality scores dipping, primarily due to rudeness and lack of taking ownership of the call. We started holding meetings to address these issues, and I was amazed at the hostility I was receiving from a segment of the team, something I had never dealt with before from them. My co-supe was experiencing the same. In the meantime we dealt with pretty much the same issues from Susan you were dealing with from your individual.

    So we decided to hold individual meetings with each team member, and we both would meet individually with them at different times, then once we were done my co-supe and I met together to talk over our perspectives, and we then met with our Manager to go over what we had learned and what ideas we had to improve the team.

    What we found was that when Susan joined our team, she came with a great deal of racial bias and prejudice, and as she was of a different race than we were, she focused much of that toward us and other management. This was rather sad as she actually presented a very polished and professional front. However, she had been spreading rumors and outright lies about things we had supposedly said about team members, as well as team members who were friendly with us or who were of a different race, and the resulting gossip and hurt feelings created a rift in our wonderful team.

    With our manager’s blessing, the first thing we did was terminate Susan. Her quality numbers and attendance had already been addressed in a couple of write ups, which she of course challenged, and we had legal recourse to do so. This upset a number of our team members and we received several immediate letters of resignation as a result. Then we held a team meeting with the rest of the team, including those who were resigning. During that meeting, we avoided talking about Susan at all. Instead we talked about numbers and our jobs, and we talked about how much fun we all used to have, how much we all enjoyed our jobs, how we were the number one team just three months ago and now we were #20. We challenged every team member personally, by name, to bring our numbers and quality scores back up and make us the team we were before, and we signed a letter, in front of them, that was our personal guarantee that we would work as hard as they did to help them and to get us all back to where we belonged.

    It worked. It took some time, and we did lose some members, but we brought new people in, put them with good mentors, and in time we did regain the number one spot. But it wasn’t fast and it took a lot of hard work. Our biggest obstacle was convincing our team that we WERE still a team, all of us, and all of us would sink or swim together.

    I don’t like the second recommendation above in the article, and I would never have made that recommendation. My personal opinion as a professional is that you did the right thing in letting the toxic vet tech go, because what they were doing was challenging your authority. Every business needs a boss and, in the end the boss must hold the power. When you let your employees try to control the situation, you’re letting them run the business and do your job in your place…in other words, you are ceding control to them. If you don’t change that dynamic you might as well leave, because they will find a way to get you out if they think they control you. This doesn’t mean you don’t want their input. Your team needs to feel that you are listening to them, and considering their opinions in what you do. In the end though, you are, if not the captain (that is the owner), the Executive Officer, and the XO must run the ship and only the captain (owner) can be in control of the XO. Anything else will certainly lead to failure.

    My personal recommendation is this: Sit down by yourself and write a brief profile, from your gut, of each of the people who work there. No one will ever see this but you – do it at home, not on your work computer or one you even take into work with you, because you are going to be brutally honest. You may use language that could get you fired if ever seen, but do it. Once you’ve done that, examine what you’ve written critically, as if someone else had written it. Once you’ve done so, then you will know who needs to go, who can stay but will need to be worked with, and who you can expect will become an ally and be in your corner. Then get to work. (Don’t forget to destroy the document, or better yet, never save it. I can’t stress this enough – DO NOT KEEP THIS DOCUMENT. You do need to write it, but it is only a way of helping you get your thoughts in order, and you do need to see them written down.)

    Then, hold a team meeting. Hold it away from the office, and make it mandatory. It sounds like you’re going to have to hold people personally accountable, so announce the team meeting by memo and have everyone sign off and date the memo. Give two weeks notice, offer to compensate for time and offer to compensate for child care with a written receipt from a caregiver. I would hold it over a meal, or after a meal. Something about eating together forges a bond. Maybe rent a conference room in a hotel and have the meal catered, or a meeting room at a local buffet house, but someplace where you can eat together and be away from everyone else. Turn it into an event – offer a door prize, a $50 gift card to a local business or something similar. Make it something besides work, although work needs to be your primary focus. You will have those that give you some excuse for why they can’t be there, especially those who have vacation time already scheduled (it goes without saying block that day off from vacay time). Inform them that the OWNER, not YOU, expects them there, and that nothing short of a verifiable emergency will be excused, and anyone who doesn’t attend and doesn’t have a verifiable emergency will be written up. Don’t announce this publicly though, only discuss this privately with anyone who challenges you over mandatory attendance. Be firm – this is a business meeting and they are expected, not invited.

    Then at the meeting, I would give a speech and admit that things have gotten off to a rocky footing, and that your goal is to make your practice the best in the area, and that to do that means you need the best team players, and you are working hard towards that goal. Tell them that you believe those in the room can be that team (whether you believe it or not – make them believe it. This is important). Introduce new goals that you would like to see met. Tell them your vision of where you see the practice in a year, in five years. Talk about what is good within the practice now, and what can be improved. Go over current office policy, in detail, and include current expectations. Don’t get critical here, use generalities like “I think we can improve our client return rate if we focus more on one-on-one interactions”. Don’t let things get bogged down at this point with criticisms. If someone becomes critical, ask them to rewrite the policy as they would like to see it and submit it to you by a certain date, then move on. Don’t let anyone take over the meeting, this is YOUR venue. NEVER mention the person you let go, and if someone else brings up their name, use this phrase: “We are not here to discuss past business decisions, especially personnel matters. We are here to find out what we can do to make our practice the best it can be going forward.” However, at some point in the conversation, whether it is in the initial speech or the subsequent discussion, I would make sure to point out – sympathetically – how disrespectful it is to THEM individually and as a team when someone is chronically late or out, because it means that those who were there on time have to take up the slack for their co-worker, and it should make them feel disrespected when their co-worker makes a habit of doing this. (I’ve seen this tack work wonders.) Emphasize how hard they all work and how you hate to see anyone taken advantage of by a fellow employee. They may disagree at the time, but this sentiment will stay with them. Peer pressure is your friend. Everyone feels cheated by others, and sometimes it is good to play into that feeling. Praise those who are there as a group for being so diligent in cacting and treating each other professionally, again, whether this is true or not. You can make the suggestion become the deed this way.

    I would then let them know that you are either working on an employee manual or revising the current one and go over the current policies of the practice – official and unofficial (unofficial is something like two or three workers step outside every morning about 11:00 a.m. for a smoke break while other employees who do not smoke do not get that break) – and ask for opinions for revisions, but make sure they understand that the final decisions regarding policy is in management’s hands, not theirs. Expect things to get heated at times, but don’t let it get disrespectful to anyone, including yourself. Have someone there as your support and backup who is willing to escort an employee from the meeting if they become too much of a disruption – do not do it yourself nor try to talk them down. It would probably be good for this person to not be an employee of the business, maybe invite a large male friend who agrees to attend in return for a free meal. Other than this person though, do not allow outsiders such as spouses and children to attend the meeting. Their opinions will muddy the waters and you don’t need that. You can introduce this person as an outside consultant at the meeting – covers a lot of ground.

    Next, if your office doesn’t have an official employee manual, write one, taking into account any suggestions that were made at the meeting. It doesn’t have to be fancy, it can be just a list of the rules if necessary, in an official document approved and signed by both you and the practice owner, and make each employee sign a copy of the manual stating that they will abide by the policies, as well as a document that they have received a copy of the employee manual and understand the policies. (I will throw in here that documentation is always your friend. A management friend won a lawsuit brought by a former employee because he carried a little notebook around all the time and documented everything. The judge in the case, in his ruling, said “Documentation trumps no documentation in court every time.”) This manual should lay everything out in simple terms – hours of the business, tardiness rules (are you late after five minutes or fifteen, is lateness okay if you call ahead, etc., how many times can you be late before you are written up, how many write ups before termination, etc.) Have an employment attorney review it before it is issued. If your company already has an employee manual, review it and make any changes you deem necessary, (and even if you don’t make any changes) reissue the manual and have everyone sign it and an acknowledgement of receipt. File a copy of their signed manual and the acknowledgement in each employee’s file. This will save your butt later.

    Then the fun begins. Some of your rebels will continue to do the things they are doing. So for the first few weeks and months, it will feel like a bloody uphill battle. You are building YOUR team though, so some bloody skirmishes are to be expected. I feel like you are letting this get personal and YOU CAN’T. It isn’t. It’s business, and it will be hard work but if you do it this way you will be successful in the end. There IS a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not a freight train.

    Speaking of hard work, schedule one “team building” exercise each month, but for heaven’s sake don’t call them that. Announce that you will be closing the practice for two hours one Friday (or whatever your quietest day during the week generally is) for a pot luck luncheon – two hours so that those involved in animal care can rotate and everyone can enjoy the food. Set up a bowling night or even a bowling league. Organize a skating party one Saturday afternoon where practice employees can bring their kids at a reduced rate – skate places love this and will give you a discount if you can guarantee so many. Make a deal with a local movie theater when a pet-centric movie comes out to purchase tickets for the entire office and their families for a night to see the movie together. Find something you can do once a month that brings your employees together, with and without their families, inside and outside of the office. The more you do that, the more they will start to see themselves as a family with you, not against you. If you don’t have time to do this yourself, look around for someone who seems to be socially active and ask them to become the “Morale Officer” and assign them the job of finding team building activities for the office. One office I consulted with started a running team that had the goal of running a 5K color run the next spring. Those who didn’t wish to run or couldn’t participated as “coaches” and were at the color run throwing colors. Their team came in second and everyone had a great time.

    As people continue to buck the rules, write them up. Be professional about it, if they claim you’re being personal, ask them to write a statement explaining their side of the story and you will file it with the write up and your answer to their statement, which they will receive a copy of. Be professional. I can’t stress that enough. It will be difficult, I have been there. Hold your breath. I found that worked well in dealing with a particularly difficult employee – hold your breath when you want to respond. Remember that this is the digital age, and you may be recorded at any time at work, unbeknownst to yourself. Act as if and expect that whenever you are in the building, someone could be recording you and your conversations, even in the bathroom, and act accordingly. Don’t say or do anything, even in private, that you wouldn’t want the whole world to see and hear, because it could happen. Be friendly, but remember that you have enemies. Everyone else in the place can have a meltdown in front of other employees BUT you. I know that’s a lot of pressure, but it won’t always be this way.

    Remember that gut essay about your employees? If there were any that you think you might be able to work with, now is the time to forge working relationships with them. Call them an employee motivational team, invent jobs and “promote” them with a small raise in pay. Team Leader, Vet Tech II, III, Head Vet, that kind of thing (remember “Morale Officer”?). Give them additional small responsibilities, like keeping an eye on inventories, being in charge of personally greeting and thanking new clients, that sort of thing. Make those you feel you can work with feel special, rewarded. They will be more inclined to work with you and against those who are trying to keep the toxicity going. And those who are easily led or who are on the fence will see that working with you has it’s rewards and will be more likely to lean your way as well. The golden rule is that those with the gold make the rules. You have the gold. Use it. A ten cent or .25 an hour raise for a vet tech, or even $50 more per week for a vet, isn’t much at the end of the week on your budget, but it’s a reward to the person who receives it, and if they believe there will be further rewards coming, then they will want to get those rewards. Oh yeah – a system for employee review and mentoring is key, with small raises as the carrot. Make it part of policy – quarterly or every six months. It may be a pain but I always looked at it as a chance to talk one on one with everyone I supervised to find out what their pain points were.

    You’ll lose some more people, don’t doubt that. Whether you let them go, or they leave on their own, it’s going to happen. That’s fine – each time one of these people leaves don’t look at it as a failure, look at it as the opportunity to fill the slot with someone who will be more beneficial to your business environment and your team. Don’t feel bad about the vet that left – they obviously were already unhappy and most likely were planning on leaving anyway, had been thinking seriously about it, and that was just the “straw”. If not that, something else would have happened to initiate their leaving. It wasn’t you, but you are probably better off that they are gone, because a vet is seen as part of the management, and management needs to provide a unified front when at all possible.

    And at the end of the day, the customers will take notice. Happy employees make for happy clients. Clients who don’t have to call multiple times because employees are arguing over who should have to answer the phone (yes, I’ve actually seen this happen in a vet’s office) don’t necessarily understand what’s going on, they just see things moving smoother. They tell their friends who start bringing their animals there, and your practice grows.

    I hope my advice helps. Good luck to you – I think you will succeed at this. The fact that you cared enough to write says volumes. The author of this article has my permission to give you my name and email if you would like to discuss this more in private.

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