Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Hiring is hard, but firing is harder...

Letting people go is one of the hardest decisions I had to make as an academic. Not only because it came with the feeling that I had failed as a mentor, but also because of the overall HR stress associated with it.

As a student and postdoc I often observed situations where principle investigators (PIs) would not fire an unproductive and disruptive element for years, leading to infighting in a tense and unwelcoming workplace and tens of thousands of grant money lost. In many cases, these were large laboratories where the PI was aware and upset about the situation, but mostly ignored it and let it play its course. When this happens in a small lab things can get much worse. There is nowhere to hide and the $40-60K in salary lost in keeping someone who does not do their jobs can mean reduced resources for the lab, less support for other people, and delays in getting grants and papers threatening the long term survival of the entire group.

I'm not talking about when someone is struggling and needs coaching or a different communication approach, but when after multiple discussions and interventions someone is unable or refuses to follow instructions or reach objectives. When everyone else in the lab has decided that they do not want to interact with the person, or when the person has shown no respect for other people's work or animal welfare.  In general, managers take longer than they should to fire employees because it is uncomfortable and this can take even longer in science. As an educator, I consider everyone in the lab, including the technicians, as a trainee. They have to do a job, but it is my job to train them and help them succeed. So, everyone I had to let go felt like a personal failure. I mostly think that the lab is a better environment because of it, but part of me always feels that I could have done more as a boss and as a mentor to find the one thing that could have motivated and inspired them. I'll never know. The additional damage they could have done to our progress and finances could have been catastrophic and I couldn't take the risk to let the situation progress any longer.

In some cases the decision will be mutual and the situation so uncomfortable for both parties that the employee decides to leave, but sometimes you will have to have the dreaded discussion. It is critical to have the entire process mapped out by HR and know exactly what you can and cannot say. HR does not take these situations lightly and has a lot of rules. Many of these rules are in place to protect the institution and you. There are some good primers out there, but the bottom line is that the interaction is all about the employee and easing them through the transition. "Your feelings are irrelevant" and you need to prepare (a helpful list of questions from Monster). An HR representative will likely want to be there with you and they can coach you through the interaction and the exact words to use. Since research staff positions are attached to grants, poorly performing individuals can be let go when grants end and lab salaries need to be reshuffled. In this instance, performance should not be included in the termination narrative at any time and the only explanation given should be about funding. Otherwise, an employee can request a performance improvement plan (PIP) or sue the university for wrongful termination.

It's not easy and it shouldn't be, but ample warning, a clearly defined course of action, and a steady demeanor can make this incredibly stressful event go smoothly. 

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