In most states in the United States, employment is “at will,” meaning that an employee can be fired for any reason, unless the reason is specifically prohibited by law. Sometimes, employees have access to a union, which provides more protection for them, but generally businesses that have reached success and started scaling have hired employees who do not have access to those protections. Much of what a union enforces, though, is simply transparency, and this can often be as much of an advantage to an employer as to an employee. For example, it can seem more efficient to be able to fire someone without jumping through the hoops of clear discipline and setting transparent expectations, and that is technically legal in the majority of situations. The problem is that following that practice inevitably creates insecurity and gossip in the rest of the company. As we talked about earlier, this insecurity can contribute to not only the sense of victimization and being targeted, it can also contribute to encouraging insecure employees to harass others.
While this type of fear about others’ perceptions may be internally motivated and controlled, there are also work environments that foster this type of insecurity. When rewards and punishments appear unpredictable and leaders use favoritism in an attempt to motivate competition, it also
fosters an environment of harassment and discrimination.
Having clear, transparent, externally measurable expectations, disciplinary steps, and guidelines for behavior (both behavior that deserves promotion or reward and behavior that deserves discipline) nurtures the kind of job security that can significantly reduce or stop harassment and discrimination. You may not know what these are right away, and part of transparency is being open about your own process in developing what your business structure is.
You will get this wrong. Have clear, compassionate expectations for yourself like you would for another employee you care about. You are your own boss, too. Learning how to be a real leader is supposed to be hard.
I recommend following these three rules, and expecting your employees to do the same:
1. Be kind.
2. Be respectful.
3. Do your work.
In the Employee Handbook I offer at www.ErisResolution.com/handbook, I explain and give examples of what it means to be kind and respectful in case that seems vague. Some people were raised with different expectations about what it means to be kind and respectful, and I always encounter conflict situations expecting those definitions to be varied. But if an employee understands your definition of what the rules mean, she can decide whether a shared definition works for her. If she is not a good fit for an employment situation where she is expected to be kind, respectful, and do her work (and you as a leader/employee are expected to do the same), then it may be better for her to work somewhere else. If she believes in the values of kindness, respect, and hard work, a transparent culture can be a place where she is allowed to make mistakes, learn, and grow, without being ostracized from the community.
I also recommend that an underlying expectation of “no touching” without affirmative, active consent be the expectation of the workplace. This makes your workplace oriented to be a safe place for employees who may have experienced physical trauma in the past, rather than catering to employees who may have bad boundaries. It does not completely prohibit anyone from touching, although in general touching co-workers seems unnecessary and often is just creepy. But there are instances where a warm hug between co-workers is totally appropriate, and this rule just designates how to do that in a way that feels safe for everyone. It lets an employee, who may feel uncomfortable with touching in the workplace, know that if she declines to be touched, she will be respected rather than ridiculed and retaliated against.
Are transparent expectations and discipline a cure-all for turnover in employees? They are not, and I actually think that is a good thing. Sometimes, it is appropriate to terminate someone’s employment or for that person to quit. This is generally a painful experience, and that is okay – it is not meant to be exciting or happy. You may have concerns around hurting someone’s income, and the amount of power you have around that. Those concerns are fair and helpful to own. But it does not have to be a traumatic or horrible experience. Ultimately, when you are active about creating an inclusive, safe workplace, a good enough reason to separate an employee is that one of you wants that. If you like your job-related reason for retaining an employee, do it. If you like your job-related reason for separating with an employee, also do it.
Often, when we think an employment relationship is not working, we only let ourselves end the relationship after things have gotten so terrible that they are intolerable. You see this in romantic relationships too. “It’s not bad enough to get a divorce, we just don’t talk or have sex anymore.” Then, you see each person unconsciously working toward making the relationship more and more intolerable. We go to friends and try to prove that the relationship is bad enough to leave, and we develop a narrative about the relationship being terrible. That narrative contributes to a worse and worse experience, in a relationship that was already bad.
Let yourself end any relationship that is not working, romantic, platonic, or business, just because you want to end it. You don’t need any excuse. If something is not working toward what you want in your life, it is okay to let it go.
The hard part about letting yourself end a relationship because you want to is that you have to take responsibility that it is what you want. Ending any relationship does have an impact. But ending a relationship because you want to is a responsible way to take care of yourself and take care of your work.
Know why you want to end the relationship, and if you like your reason, that is good enough. Don’t let yourself be satisfied with reasons like, “There’s just something wrong,” or “this is just a bad fit.” Those reasons are surface level and tend to be a cloak for our brain’s unconscious bias. A vague sense that there is something wrong, without digging deeper, often is a signal that we have a different cultural background than the other person. Sometimes, though, it is our unconscious brain signaling that there is a danger. Many times, after significant fraud or safety issues at work, people look back and say they knew there was “something wrong” with the perpetrator of a crime. Even more often, though, women and minorities are fired because they are the “wrong fit” with a culturally homogenous group of white men. It is not only white men whose brains have unconscious bias; they just tend to have more power and privilege in our current culture. All of our brains have unconscious bias and as a leader in your business, your unconscious bias has impact.
Bring what is unconscious forward and examine it. Know your reason for ending the relationship before you do. Bring it forward with compassion for yourself, too. Many compassionate business owners allow employment relationships to go on for way too long in ways that impact their work because they are not willing to have a hard conversation. This does not help the employee or your clients. We often don’t want to hurt anybody else and we view ending an employment relationship (like breaking up with a romantic partner) as hurting them. The problem with this is that allowing either relationship to continue under false pretenses is also hurtful. Do you want someone to continue in a relationship with you out of pity? Most of us do not want that. Some of us do, and when that is the case, it is usually because we do not understand our own worth. Maintaining a relationship out of pity undermines someone else’s self-worth; it does not help them understand their worth.
Know where you offer charity and pro bono work. Offering gifts out of love is wonderful and has its own reward. A charity or pro bono relationship is different than an employment relationship. If your employee believes you are in a voluntary, reciprocal relationship, and you believe you are offering charity or pro bono work, there is a power imbalance infection that is unhealthy. This is an area where transparency can heal that infection instead of just covering it up and allowing it to fester until it’s unbearable.
How do you know if something needs discipline or if it’s unreasonable? First, you get very specific about your reason for wanting to discipline or fire someone versus not discipline and retain that person. Then you consider whether you like your reason.
One important consideration to make is whether your reason for discipline is personal and ego-related or whether it is job-related and consistent with serving your clients. Ego is not bad. Our ego tells us our preferences and our sensitivities. When we let ego take over, we become completely incapacitated and shut off from the world. We become unable to encounter anything that is different from our preferences. Pema Chodron describes ego as a perfect room in which everything is to our exact taste. The temperature is exactly right, the food is our favorite, our favorite music is playing, and the furniture is perfectly comfortable. Then, we hear something outside, so we shut the window. Smells still come from under the door, so we put towels down at all the doors. Our neighbors are loud, so we brick up the wall. Pretty soon we’re trapped in our perfect room. Ego becomes a trap, but it is also a signal of where we are and what our preferences are. Encountering employees who hook us and raise issues for us is a beautiful place to question our ego.
Disciplining someone can be a wonderful way to teach them how to better serve the company and help them understand consequences. If you can understand exactly why the employee’s behavior is not meeting expectations around serving clients, you can explain that to the employee and help them see the consequences.
Reinforcing, or rewarding, behavior and instruction have been shown to be consistently more effective in changing behavior, however, than discipline. When employees are afraid of a punishment, they are focused on avoiding the punishment, not focused on performing their work effectively. This makes their brain actually focus on the thing you don’t want them to do, rather than the thing you do want them to do. When I tell you, “Don’t think about a purple elephant,” what do you think about? A purple elephant. When an employee is focused on a reward, that is more likely to be consistent with getting their work done and serving clients. One way to understand effective rewards for employees is to do what behaviorists call a functional behavior analysis on the employee’s behavior. This means that you consider why the employee is acting the way she is, and provide rewards consistent with what she is looking for.
Typical rewards are tangible (food or money), attention (more interaction and praise for the employee), and escape (time off, reassignment of an undesirable project). People like some rewards better than others based on their individual ego preference. This is not a bad thing, but it is something to understand about the particular individual employee egos you are interacting with and also about yourself. Are you more comfortable giving certain types of rewards than others? Is it easy for you to arrange for time off for employees, but hard for you to see overtime on an employee’s timesheet? Is it easy for you to give a Christmas bonus, but hard when an employee doesn’t want to follow through with a tedious project? These are ego points for you to be aware of in yourself. They indicate where you have work to do on your own assumptions about your business and your business culture – not because any of them are wrong or right or because some rewards are better than others, but only because you will have employees who are motivated by rewards that you are uncomfortable giving. They may be valuable employees who contribute significantly to the important work you do. Where problems with an employee show you that your ego discomfort is getting in the way of your business being effective, it is worth questioning your assumptions and developing some space around your ego’s sensitivity.
Ultimately, if you do want to fire an employee and you like your reason for it, transparency is important in the firing process. This doesn’t mean that you need to have a public shaming of the employee, but only that you are honest with the employee about your reasons for the termination and that you take responsibility that you like those reasons and they are important to you. They can be any reasons (unless they are illegal reasons – but even then, if you choose to fire an employee for an illegal reason, at least be honest about it and pay the fines and remedies necessary to take responsibility for your decision to break the law). If you can stand in your own integrity about your decision to discipline an employee, reward an employee, or end an employment relationship, it honors your business and is respectful to the employee.
This is a selection from The Inclusive Leader's Guide to Healthy Workplace Culture. For a free copy of the book, visit www.HealthyWorkplaceCulture.com. Or you can purchase online via Amazon.