I Can't Fire Her - She Knows Too Much
We’ve heard the phrase many times… “Familiarity breeds contempt.” The new employee “Rita” comes on board. She is bright and enthusiastic. Her responsibilities increase over the years. She has her way of doing things. Before you know it, she’s been there 15 years and knows the practice better than the doctor does.
The problem: That once bright, young, enthusiastic employee has turned into a stubborn control-freak. She challenges the doctor and staff regularly. She’s negative, difficult, and regularly refuses to comply with routine requests - and the doctor has finally had enough. He spent the better part of the last two years - yes, two years - making excuses for her to the remaining staff who actually didn’t quit in disgust. “She’s going through a difficult time.” “She really is (was) a good employee.” “You just have to look past her shortcomings.” “You have to admit, she’s very good with the schedule.”
According to Mike Moore, Director of McKenzie Management HR Solutions, this is a common scenario. “The doctor hands over so much responsibility to a key employee that the individual becomes central to the continued operation of the practice. This person, over the course of weeks, months, years, begins to change and the issues surface.”
In the case above, the doctor wanted to dismiss the employee. Somehow Rita learned of the doctor's desire to terminate her and threatened to sue him for 15 years of back pay and overtime. The doctor was terrified. Sadly, he spent months paralyzed from fear and trying to convince himself he could just live with her disruptive behavior. He couldn't. This one employee was running his practice into the ground.
Eventually, he sought legal counsel and learned that he lived in a state where an individual had only one year to sue for back wages. But even at that, it was still far more than the doctor wanted to pay. Moreover, the entire ugly situation could have been avoided if the doctor had established office policies and procedures in place. He didn't think he needed them, until he needed them.
Difficult employer/employee relationships can also surface when a doctor buys a practice. “We recently worked with a doctor who bought a practice and discovered early on that one of the staff was a very poor employee. The doctor was in the process of implementing policies and procedures. Suddenly he was hit with an OSHA complaint and received a call from the state board of dental examiners. It was never proven that the disgruntled employee was the source of the complaints, but she didn’t like the direction the doctor was heading. For three months the doctor had to document the employee’s performance and give her the opportunity to improve. Eventually, she was terminated,” explained Mike.
When faced with situations in which an employee must be terminated, first and foremost, practices must have established policies and procedures, emphasizes Mike. Second he urges doctors to offer severance agreements. “Severance agreements in which employees give up all rights to sue are valid in every state. Offer a severance agreement with a modest amount of money to put the issue to bed and send the employee on his/her way.” Additionally, notes Mike, the agreement is an assurance that the employee will not disclose confidential practice information or trade secrets. “If someone has been in your practice for a considerable amount of time, they are privy to information that could be useful to another doctor. Unfortunately, we see this in litigation - an employee offers another doctor information in exchange for employment.”
This can be taken care of up front when the employee is hired and confirms that they have read the policies and procedures manual with their signature. “There’s a confidentiality provision in the handbook and they must sign off that they are aware of it and agree to follow it. The same thing can be applied in a severance agreement.”
Mike notes that the amount of severance awarded will vary based on the employee’s position in the practice and how long they have been there. “You may be paying 3-5 months’ salary, but when you’ve been dealing with ‘the employee from Hell’ most doctors would cut their arm off to be rid of this person. A few months’ salary is well worth it.”
Next week, dress codes and other key policies.
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