Who is Doing What?

“A couple of my employees don’t finish their tasks or miss deadlines fairly frequently. They always have a reason they aren’t to blame. How can I get them to take responsibility for their job?”

Your HR Survival Tip

We have met people who were very good at moving paper around and looking very busy but who were not productive. We have met others who appear relaxed and easy-going but were extremely productive. How productive a person is may vary but you can help by holding people accountable.

Before holding your employees accountable, you must first look at yourself. Are you very clear about what is needed and when? Do you make sure the employee has the tools and skills to complete the work? Can your employees ask you questions without you rolling your eyes or looking impatient? Since every company does things just a bit differently, have you taught the employee your preferred method?

Once you’re sure “it’s them, not you,” you’re ready to make a plan:

  • Make a list of things each employee is responsible for on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. It can be as simple as checklists but is not intended to include the employee’s every movement. This is about their responsibilities for that time period. For example, a receptionist’s daily list might include “distribute mail received that day,” “check the info@company.com email and forward any emails to the appropriate person,” or “distribute any phone messages hourly.”
  • Go over the lists with each employee and discuss the items until you are both in agreement about what each item means.
  • At the bottom of each list, have a place for the employee to sign and date it. Have them turn them in to you each day, week, and month. Actually look at what they turn in and have your own system in place to spot-check things to ensure everything was actually done, not just checked off.

Let everyone know they will be personally accountable for completing their tasks. Your lists have built-in deadlines… the daily list means everything on that list should be done that day, etc. If they have an excuse for not doing something, make sure it was truly out of their control, such as the power going out. If they start to blame others, stop them and tell them it wasn’t the other person’s responsibility… it was their responsibility to ensure it was done.

It has been our experience that, when asked nicely, employees will help each other out with requests. Where it fails is when an employee makes it a demand instead of a request or invokes your name to get things from others. Both are cause for resentment and make them less responsive. Sometimes an employee will be focused on accomplishing their own responsibilities and refuse to help others. If you hear any of this is happening, you’ll need to work with the employees so they understand how to accomplish their work in a way that allows them to remain friendly with their coworkers.

Employees must work together to keep your company on track but you are driving the train. You need to set up your own accountability process to ensure everything is moving smoothly. Otherwise, you’ll spend even more time dealing with employee finger-pointing and an uncomfortable work environment.

Know When to Walk Away

“One of my employees got mad and pushed another employee. I believe the one who got pushed was deliberately trying to make the other employee mad. What should I do about this?”

Your HR Survival Tip

Although there is more conversation about violence in the workplace, it doesn’t seem to be stopping it. In fact, we’ve heard about more employees verbally and physically attacking one another than ever before.

There are a few things you can do to prevent this and ways to handle the situation if prevention doesn’t work. The first is recognizing that you, as the business owner or a manager, absolutely must take action. You need to make sure this type of behavior is not condoned or allowed.

There are a variety of possible disciplinary actions you can and should consider, including unpaid suspension, termination, a write-up, anger management classes, harassment classes, probation, etc. How you handle the situation depends greatly on what exactly happened. Make sure you have witnesses write up what they saw and heard.

Here are a few fictional examples and what we might recommend (depending on the details):

  • Sam and John are yelling at each other in front of others — Write them both up for unprofessional behavior and maybe consider a day’s unpaid suspension for the one who started it. Also, find out what caused it and consider how to avoid this in the future.
  • A supervisor gets mad at a direct report and punches him — Termination of the supervisor because, in that position, he now poses too big of a risk to the company. Maybe write up the direct report, depending on what happened before the punch.
  • A lead has told a newer employee to work rather than watch others. Later the employee threatens the lead. — Terminate the employee. This wasn’t a heat-of-the-moment response; he waited and then made the threat.
  • Sam is verbally abusing John and eventually makes John mad enough that he takes a punch at Sam. — Terminate John for violence and write up Sam for potentially harassing behavior. Possibly even put Sam on probation if this is a common behavior for him.

The point is, once emotions start escalating, someone needs to be smart enough to walk away before things get out of hand. Screaming at each other doesn’t solve anything… and rarely even makes them feel better. You just can’t have someone in your workplace that believes a punch is okay.

Once emotions have cooled, then both parties can discuss the problem and find a solution. If the conflict is about work, everyone needs to recognize a solution must be found and work toward that end without hot tempers. If the conflict is due to a personal issue, tell them to resolve it outside of work. Make sure your employees understand what professional behavior looks like and give them ways to resolve any issues calmly. Also make sure they know there will be consequences, and potentially severe consequences, for unprofessional behavior.

Doc Your Thoughts

“We have an employee, Sam, who’s been a problem lately. His manager and I talked about firing him on Friday. However, today he filed a workers’ compensation claim. The injury may be valid but how does this affect our ability to fire him as planned?”

Your HR Survival Tip

This is one of those “it depends” questions. The most common legal concern is that any disciplinary action after an employee has entered into that protective bubble easily appears retaliatory. In your case, the protective bubble is workers’ comp but this also applies to pregnancies, other disabilities, etc.

We receive numerous calls throughout the year about a manager just waiting until the next week to terminate an employee. Then, inevitably, the manager gets word from the employee about a workers’ comp claim or some other protected status before a termination meeting is scheduled. The “it depends” answer looks at what you’ve done to document your talks or thoughts regarding any upcoming disciplinary actions.

Even if we haven’t previously convinced you to document as you go, you absolutely should document your thoughts regarding terminating or disciplining an employee. This can be as simple as emailing your manager (or yourself) something like, “I want to talk with you about Sam and my recommendation that we consider terminating him” or “I definitely agree we should terminate Sam so let’s discuss the timing.”

Why are these emails important? Because now you have an official time stamp (the email date) of your intentions and/or problems you are having with Sam. It potentially pulls a retaliation claim off the table. It may also let you move forward with your intentions. You will be saving yourself and your company a lot of time and energy by picking up this habit immediately.

The other side of this answer is you’ll need to work with an HR professional or employment attorney to help you go through the steps to discipline or fire Sam at the lowest possible risk to your company. The steps depend on how well you’ve documented up to that moment. Timing is everything.

Surprises in the Drawer

“I have an employee who went on a leave of absence and others needed to complete or do his work. However, based on what we’ve found, we don’t want him back!”

Your HR Survival Tip

Once an employee is on leave, a fairly high percentage of managers are surprised to learn the employee did not complete assignments, tasks, or projects. In a flash, your feelings toward that employee change and you dread their return. However, it’s illegal to use this surprise to prevent his return.

The biggest question to ask yourself is how this happened. Why did you only discover the employee’s failures when they were off work? Many times when we hear complaints from companies about what they’ve discovered, they are upset at the employee for not doing the job. However, let’s turn that question around and ask why it takes digging through an absent employee’s files to discover that the employee isn’t doing the job.

Rather than blame the employee, it may be time to look at your training, protocols, and processes. Do you have checks and balances in place to ensure that required (and necessary) work is actually being completed? Have you ever randomly looked through a project folder and reviewed the work? Are you holding people accountable for their tasks and assignments? In other words, how are you making sure the work is being done and done to your standards?

It’s easy to throw blame around but it’s a company’s management team who creates the processes, trains the employees, and expects results. If you were teaching employees how to do a complicated dance move, you’d be able to witness the employee’s stumbling and understand they didn’t quite have it down yet. However, you hand them a complicated job to do, then nod and walk away. What if they are stumbling when you aren’t looking?

Many industries have random audits of one type or another. Protect your company by considering what types of audits (aka checks and balances) you might implement. Not only will this ensure necessary work is being done but that it’s being completed with the consistency you need and want.

How to Terminate

“I need to fire an employee but it’s my first time. How do I do it?”

Your HR Survival Tip

Firing an employee can be an emotional experience for both of you. This is one reason we prefer to keep these meetings very short. The first step is to plan the timing and prepare the needed documents.

Although Friday afternoon has been a favorite time to fire employees, it’s not really the right time. If the employee is upset, they now are dwelling on it all weekend instead of talking to people about a new job. As a rule, first thing in the morning, during lunch when there are fewer coworkers around, or at the end of the day seems to work best.

The documents you are required to give the employee include the following:

  • Change in Relationship form;
  • Your electronic paystub must include all the legally required information.
  • EDD unemployment booklet;
  • Their final paycheck, which includes at least enough pay to cover the termination meeting plus hours worked previously and any unused vacation/PTO hours;
  • A wage statement (pay stub) that details all their pay and every deduction. We don’t recommend a termination letter because it’s too easy for anything you might write to potentially be used against you;
  • Plus any documentation needed regarding their employee benefits.

You’re now ready to have the meeting. As mentioned above, keep it short and keep it focused. “Sam, we’ve had several discussions previously about your poor attendance but things are not improving. I have decided it’s time to part ways, effective immediately. Let’s go through the termination paperwork.” Don’t let this turn into a major discussion or negotiation. If you’re willing to negotiate, you shouldn’t be doing the termination yet.

Obviously, this discussion could easily go sideways on you if you haven’t actually been talking with the employee about poor attendance, poor performance, etc. It’s poor management on your part if this termination is a complete surprise to Sam. You really should have already let Sam know that whatever he’s doing could lead to termination… that knowledge will often motivate the employee to try to do better.

Disliking having to fire someone is not a good reason for holding on to an employee that you should terminate. That person can easily bring down the productivity or motivation of your other employees. Be kind and respectful during the process and you’ll both survive the meeting.

Rewarding Sticking Around

“Every year on an employee’s anniversary I give them a pay increase of $1.00 per hour. However, now their pay is getting a little too high for the work they are doing. How do I manage this better?”

Your HR Survival Tip

There is a difference between rewarding employees for sticking around versus rewarding them for their work. Your method is just paying employees for sticking around… and nothing more.

Rewarding employees for taking on more responsibility, helping you reach your goals to grow the business, doing their work faster or better, or learning a new skill makes more sense. When you reward employees this way, your company also does better because your employees are bringing more to their jobs.

For several years, increases were only 2-3%, which is barely noticeable to non-exempt employees and could even tip them into a higher tax bracket, resulting in lower net pay. Tiny increases aren’t viewed favorably by employees overall and barely make a dent in their rising expenses. However, you can’t keep paying more significant increases without eventually overpaying for the job itself.

A raise should never be about the fact that they’ve just stuck around and managed NOT to be fired. Decide if you want to provide merit increases as a reward for doing a great job on a consistent basis or cost of living increases. When the employee is close to hitting the ceiling for the pay range for their job, it’s time to talk about what they can do to be eligible for a higher-level position or a bonus. Once that ceiling is hit, the only change the employee will see is when the entire range increases to stay current with the market.

Paying for What You Wanted

“I’m hiring an assistant and have found a really good candidate, Jane. I had planned to pay $19 to $22 per hour but Jane was only making minimum wage at her last job so I know she’d be thrilled by $17. Do I have to offer her something within the range, even if she doesn’t know the range?”

Your HR Survival Tip

You’re just assuming she doesn’t know the range. Current California law requires you to post the range on any ads so it’s hard to get away from paying within that range. Even if you could get away with paying below the range you created, there are several reasons why you should stick with your original range, regardless of how low Jane was paid previously.

The best plan is to pay for what the job is and then hold the person accountable for doing the job. You created that range and it should represent the level and quality of work you expect. Offering a lower amount just lowers those expectations.

In addition, no matter how confidential we like to believe wages to be, employees talk… and those conversations are protected by California law stating you cannot stop them from discussing wages. Even if there are no other employees, it seems confidential information is rarely totally secure within the company. What happens when Jane learns you had planned on paying more or discovers other employees with fewer responsibilities are earning more?

Starting a position at too low of pay often means, to retain Jane, you’ll need to provide an “equity increase” to bring her up to the level in the marketplace. The conversation about an equity increase is very hard because you are admitting you originally lowballed her. If you don’t eventually pay in the range of other companies, you take the risk of losing her to another company.

This mindset of paying only a little above what you must pay, instead of what the position is actually worth, has been the reason certain laws are currently in place. Even if you’re only focused on the money, keep in mind the cost of replacing Jane will be far greater than paying her a fair wage from the start.

We like knowing we can hold the employee accountable for the work itself because she’s receiving a fair wage for the level of her skills and responsibilities. What do you like knowing?

Electronic Paystubs

“My payroll service allows my employees to go online and review or print their paystub. This saves me the cost of having paystubs delivered. But one of my employees is asking for a printed paystub. Can’t I just tell him to go online and print it?”

Your HR Survival Tip

You can’t say no and expect it to end there. The law actually states you must provide paystubs “in writing” with ink but the Labor Commissioner has provided an opinion stating electronic versions are fine under certain circumstances.

I know many companies love both direct deposit and electronic paystubs for the cost savings and ease of using them. However, you can’t force an employee into using either of these. It requires their permission.

If you are using electronic paystubs, check that you at least meet the Labor Commissioner’s requirements:

  • Employees can elect to receive from you a paper paystub (without you moaning about the cost).
  • Your electronic paystub must include all the legally required information.
  • Your employees must have easy access to their electronic paystubs AND they can easily print them.
  • You retain those pay records for at least 3 years and the paystubs can continue to be accessed by both current and former employees during that period. (This may require paying your payroll company for long-term access, especially if you change payroll companies).
  • You have safeguards in place to ensure the confidentiality of the electronic information.

This is one of those situations where technology is moving faster than the law. If your employees don’t have internet access all day so they can easily see their records, you should consider going back to paper paystubs or providing a generic workstation where employees can go online. It’s more expensive but at least you’d be compliant… and that’s definitely worth something. Also, recognize some employees may not be comfortable with or knowledgeable about computers.

Who Signs?

“As the owner of my company, I’m the only person who can sign checks. Am I required to have a second signer?”

Your HR Survival Tip

Many small companies have only one person authorized to sign company checks. This may not be a problem most of the time and it’s not legally required but you need to consider alternatives.

Some situations where a check must be signed are:

  • An employee turns in their resignation or is fired while you’re on vacation and their final paycheck must be delivered on their last day of work.
  • An employee walks out. Legally, you have only 72 hours to deliver their final paycheck.
  • Repairs or supplies are needed by your business and payment is needed.
  • Something happens to delay your return to work.

If you have a trustworthy employee, relative, or friend who could hold a blank signed check in your absence, you’d at least have a way to ensure your business has money when or if needed. Some business owners keep a few blank signed checks in the company’s safe or with their accountant.

Decide what your “what if’s” might be and what the consequences would be if money weren’t readily available because you’re on vacation or otherwise indisposed. Also, decide on either who else might sign that check or who could hold one for you. As your company grows, you’ll realize you can’t make everything wait on you so prepare now.

Are You Being SMART?

“I give employees goals but, when I ask about how they’re doing on their goals, I hear excuses about how they’ve been too busy or they are waiting on someone else before they can move forward, etc. How can I have them take their goals more seriously?”

Your HR Survival Tip

The first step in having employees take your goals seriously is to make sure you’re taking them seriously. While it’s fine for you to create the goals, you’ll find more cooperation if the employee has a say in what those goals might be.

There are three steps that will help you. You need buy-in from the employee regarding the goals to get them excited and in agreement with you; you need to structure each goal so they know what needs to be done and when; and you need a carrot.

Start with the initial buy-in by giving the employee a brief outline of what you are thinking. Then ask the employee to come up with some ideas about this. Set a time to finalize detailed goals. The structure of goals can make or break this project. Details will help both of you determine whether each goal was successfully accomplished.

  • Specific — Rather than saying you want significant, more, better, etc., say what you really want. Example 1: You must produce at least 25 widgets consistently each week. The work must be of high quality, with no returns. Example 2: You must increase sales next quarter by 5% and maintain that level going forward.
  • Measurable — Quantify anything possible. It creates a target for both of you, plus everyone knows what is being measured. Without something specific to measure, how does your employee know they have achieved the goal?
  • Achievable — Can this goal realistically be achieved or did you put the bar so high they don’t even try? It’s one thing to make the employee stretch a bit but it’s a problem if they need a ladder to reach the goal.
  • Relevant — Does the goal make sense to the employee and the employee’s job? Make sure the goal helps the employee move forward in gaining more knowledge, better skills, a higher level of productivity, or something else of value.
  • Timelines — I’ve seen goals written on annual reviews and, a year later, they wonder why the employee didn’t accomplish the goal after being given a whole year to do it. When you give employees too much time, they are more likely to procrastinate until too late. If the goal has value, it needs a deadline. Otherwise, you’re just making a suggestion. Don’t make due dates so tight the employee is completely stressed or has to work extra hours just to meet that date.

You and the employee should sit down and discuss any goal. Everything can be broken down into steps that will get you to the end result you want. Help the employee see this and work out smaller steps and deadlines to ensure the goal is reached by the final deadline. If an employee is new to goals, it’s also helpful to have weekly meetings to discuss any progress and problems that have come up.

Goals usually help your business grow. You want employees to have a successful experience in reaching their goals so the company meets its goals. However, most people need a carrot. What is the “carrot” for your employees to motivate them to achieve the goals? And what happens when they aren’t successful? Are you building the goals into your compensation or bonus programs? Give employees their “why” for achieving the goal and watch their faces… are they excited or are they trying hard not to roll their eyes and sigh? That look will usually tell you if you’ve created a good goal program for your employees.