Thursday, October 30, 2014

Katie Tuttle

Katie Tuttle, GCI


When it’s time to cut

Business Management

How contractors approached firing a family member or friend.

October 28, 2014

It’s hard enough to fire an employee. But what if she was your mother?

Rob Garpiel, president of Garpiel Landscaping Co., had that very experience at his company.

Garpiel’s mom worked in the office, doing tasks such as filing paperwork. He hired her because she was at a place in her life where she was stuck in the same routine and needed to try something else, he says.

“Like many entrepreneurs we’re the first one to jump on the grenade, so I offered her a position helping out in the office,” he says. “It took about two or three months before my office manager had enough nerves to say, ‘This isn’t working, she’s not doing what I ask.’ It wasn’t bad stuff. I just think that’s not where she wanted to be in life.”

After talking with his mom, they both realized they weren’t happy with the arrangement. “She ended up thanking me,” he says. “Personally, I know I helped my mom go to another level in her life where she could transition.”

Dynamics like that can make bad situations even worse, but Garpiel says it’s important to put the business first. If you can’t confidently sign that individual’s paycheck, you need to think about what they’re really contributing to your company.

Letting go.

While it can be hard to fire family, it can be equally as hard to fire a longtime employee. But even they can outlast their usefulness in your business.

“A lot of people are limited in their growth,” says Michael Thackrey, vice president of Fieldstone Landscape Services. Someone hired to manage a small group of people might excel, but as the company expands, that person is unable to handle more.

“What happens is we grow and that same individual that was perfect is now wearing pants that are too big for him,” he says. “We learned from that experience, because essentially what you’re doing, in a positive way, you’re setting them up for failure. It’s positive because you grew the company, but you failed them. That’s the casualty right there.”

Fieldstone experienced this recently when the company had to fire a long-term employee who Thackrey and President Chris Eastman felt was holding the company back. The employee did his job well, but they wanted to go to the next level and they knew this employee wouldn’t be able to take it there.

“In a nutshell, we hired someone who could fulfill a need, the need grew to a bigger need, and that individual couldn’t fulfill,” Thackrey says.

He says it’s a lot harder to fire someone in this situation.

“They’re not breaking rules, they’re just not meeting standards,” he says. “It’s not moral issues or integrity; that’s a different story. In (this) situation, I think you’re looking more at a process of trying to help them develop.”

Keeping standards.

Garpiel says it’s important to have job descriptions for every position, because that’s the best way to evaluate how someone is doing their job.

“If there’s a job description, look at the job description you have for that person and measure that person’s role,” he says. “Don’t think about the person or any element other than, ‘Are they doing the job the way it needs to be performed?’ If someone has an excuse and you accept it, that’s on you, not them.”

Sometimes you hire employees that you think will be a good fit, but after an amount of time with the company, you realize they’re just not living up to your expectations. Sometimes this can be noticed in a few months, or sometimes it can go years.

“Those tough decisions need to be made,” Garpiel continues. “If you think you have one person holding you hostage, don’t let that person have that much control over your organization. Don’t allow them to keep you from growing because they have a bad attitude. Stay focused with what your critical successes are going to be for the company.”

Thackrey says there are two kinds of firings: a fire quick and a fire slow. Fire quicks are when someone does something wrong. It should be a no-brainer that that individual needs to be let go from the company. In situations where someone is underperforming, it’s important to talk to that person and give them a chance to step up instead of just immediately giving them the boot.

“Every relationship is based on communication,” he says. “Good communication equals a good relationship. Nobody should ever be surprised. It should always be communicated along the way that if they’re not meeting expectations, here’s what to change. I think that’s probably the number one failure, people not speaking up along the way.”

When it came to firing his long time employee, Thackrey kept to that mantra. His business partner was present as a witness, and Thackrey made sure to keep the dialogue short.

“I let him know that as previously communicated, he was not meeting expectations, and we would be terminating our relationship as of now,” Thackrey says. “Typically, and in this instance, too, there is silence, and then the person asks a few questions, even if they are not surprised. Such as, ‘Is there anything I can do to change your mind?’ etc. Less is more in this situation. In this case the individual shook my hand and moved on.”

Thackrey says the only “bad” firing situations he’s been in are ones where there is no communication leading up to the firing. Any negative situations involving the employee should be documented and communicated, so the person knows what is wrong, what needs to be improved, how much time has been given for the improvements and what happens if those improvements aren’t made. You may need to consultant with an attorney or HR manager to make sure you are following labor laws when it comes to dismissals.


After the firing conversation is held, it’s up to each individual company how they want to deal with everything that follows. Thackrey says he offers the ex-employee the chance to leave as quietly as possible.

“One thing I’m big on is respect. Integrity is my number one core value,” he says. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, we try to say however you’d like to exit this building, we can assist you with that. For instance, if it’s embarrassing, I don’t want to embarrass them. On that level, we almost always give them an option to exit quietly. We can worry about that tomorrow if you want to just grab a couple things and get out.”

When it comes to what happens after they leave the company, that’s up to the individual company as well. Thackrey likes to end it with as little communication as possible, in order to give both parties a clean break.

“Although it might not be a complete surprise, it’s still an emotional event for everyone,” he says. “The least amount of words, crystal clear, to the point, this is what’s happening, this is our decision.”

And when he says clean break, he means it.

“I’m not confident in writing a recommendation for someone that I let go,” he says. “That’s tough to do. I’m not saying that doesn’t exist in unique situations, and I’ve had people ask for them, but it’s not something I do.”

While Thackrey and the company don’t speak directly to the long-time employee they fired, they have heard good things he’s said about them.

“We’ve been successful with (how we fire), and I think that has been a big reason that guys such as this guy go to a competitor and we hear good and respectful things,” Thackrey says. “They may not like us, but they respect us.”

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