What You Should Know About Firing Office Staff

Stephanie Wasek, Special Projects Editor

Terminating an employee is never pleasant but you can ease the transition and safeguard your practice in the process. This author speaks to practice management experts about recognizing significant offenses, the best methods of letting employees go and how to protect yourself from potential legal issues.

You are stunned when it happens. An employee has been stealing from your practice. At first, when another employee tipped you off, you were not sure. After all, the daily amount she was taking was so small the theft was easy to miss. But you started digging and you have pieced together documentation and unrecorded patient payments that prove her guilt. Not to mention, you find yourself out thousands of dollars. Now what?

   In this actual scenario, management confronted the employee. She cried and insisted she would never steal from the practice. When faced with the paperwork proving her guilt, her crying turned to anger and she blamed co-workers. Fired on the spot, she threw her key at the practice’s physician-owner and left in an emotionally volatile state. Her husband phoned the office later to call the staff and physicians “liars” who had “falsely accused” his wife.

   It is not a pleasant situation for anyone — manager, employee or other staff. Without a doubt, this case necessitated immediate action. However, there are ways to smooth the process of confronting an employee or terminating employment, even when the potential for fallout is huge.

Understanding Minor And Major Offenses

There is a great range of behaviors for which an employee could be fired. Minor offenses generally are not a problem on their own but if there is an accumulation of these offenses over time, they may present a major issue. According to practice management experts, these offenses include habitual absenteeism, tardiness, insubordination, inappropriate language/verbal abuse, incompetence, disregard for policies and procedures and carelessness.

   “If, after being counseled multiple times, the employee does not improve job performance in ‘minor’ areas,” firing may be appropriate action, says Bruce Werber, DPM, a Fellow and Past President of the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons, who practices in Scottsdale, Ariz.

   Major acts include lying, stealing, doctoring timecards (paper or computerized), verbal abuse of a patient, forgery of prescriptions, sexual harassment, carrying a weapon, using or being in possession of illegal drugs, and fraternizing with patients, according to practice management experts. In many cases, these types of offenses require immediate action.

    “In an at-will-employment state, theoretically, an employee can be fired based on lack of performance, because of a ‘challenging’ personality or because he or she does not fit well in the job,” says Lynn Homisak, PRT, the president of SOS Healthcare Management Solutions and Fellow of the American Academy of Podiatric Practice Management. “However, that doesn’t stop the employee from claiming he or she was fired unfairly.”

   Indeed, how you handle the hours, days or weeks leading up to a firing can be very important.

Getting Clued In On Inappropriate Behavior

There are a variety of routes by which you can learn of inappropriate employee behavior.

   • Let staff know that if they see an issue, you will listen. “When we had an employee who was stealing, I found out from another employee,” says Eric Feit, DPM, a Fellow of the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons who practices in San Pedro and Torrance, Calif. “We emphasize that employees are the eyes and ears of this office and that, if they see something inappropriate, they should communicate.”

   Homisak recommends that you create a formal grievance system for filing complaints in case employees are not comfortable talking about potentially sensitive information or are nervous about being blamed for “ratting out” a colleague.

   • Make yourself aware. Dr. Werber has an open-door policy with all staff but also cautions you cannot rely solely on hearsay.

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