Terminating an Employee: When Is It Time?

On television, terminating an employee looks easier than it really is. The employee makes a big mistake and boom—that's it. However, in the real world, managers agonize over if or when they should let an employee go. They know that, by firing someone, they are taking away that person's livelihood, which can be emotionally draining. However, sometimes it has to happen. After all, your restaurant can't run properly, and may not succeed, if you're staffed with bad employees. Here are some tips to help guide you in making the right decisions.

Firing an Employee Immediately

Having to fire an employee immediately should happen pretty rarely. Most employees are good people who deserve a second or even third chance, but there are certain behaviors and scenarios that may require you to take quick action. If you catch any of your employees doing the following, consider letting them go on the spot.

  • Stealing. Note that taking food isn't the same thing as stealing money. If you have a strict policy against employees eating food they haven't paid for, make the first offense a warning. But if they take cash, they should be asked to leave immediately.
  • Fighting. You'd think that people who are old enough to have a job would be old enough to control their tempers, but this is not always the case. If you have an employee who gets physical with other employees or patrons, you're better off without having them on your staff.
  • Sexual behavior at work. Sure, you've heard stories about the crazy stuff that goes on behind the scenes in the restaurant business, but you shouldn't let this happen at your business. Sexual activity in the walk-in or restroom may sound funny, but this behavior is unacceptable, unsanitary, and could even open the door to sexual harassment lawsuits.

Giving an Employee the Benefit of the Doubt

You'll note that being rude to a customer wasn't listed above. Why? Because customers can be difficult. On the other hand, that doesn't mean you should allow your employees to treat people rudely, but you should give your employees the benefit of the doubt in this scenario. If a customer complains about how awful an employee was, there's a good chance that the customer was simply looking for a discount or a free meal. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does the complaint sound like your employee?
  • Have there been similar complaints in the past?
  • Have you already repeatedly talked to your employee about these issues?
  • Did you or other staff members observe the inappropriate behavior directly?

When you get a customer complaint, you should always ask yourself these questions. Yes, you should let go of an employee who is repeatedly rude to customers, but always keep in mind that the customer isn't always right. If your waitress has been a consistent top performer and suddenly someone is complaining about how awful she is, don't fire her. Ask her what happened, listen to her, and consider that the customer could be at fault.

Putting Employees on Probation

If you have an employee who needs to improve, consider putting them on probation or on what is called a performance improvement plan (PIP). These are structured plans where you write down how your employee needs to improve and timeline for necessary improvements to be made. For instance, if your sous chef comes in late frequently, you might need to talk to her and write out a formal plan about coming in on time. If you don't see improvement in the timeframe discussed, then you should consider letting her go. Similarly, if your hostess has a bad habit of wandering away from the hostess stand, or your busser keeps eating off plates as he's clearing tables, make the necessary improvements known and check in with them consistently during the probation period.

These employee issues can often be fixed if management gets involved and guides the employee. Remember, hiring and training a new person is expensive. If you can salvage a current employee by talking to them directly and documenting how they can improve, you can save yourself turnover costs and preserve someone's job, which is a win-win.

Remembering Laws

Firing an employee for no reason, or for any reason at all, doesn't usually pan out well. You can't legally fire someone because of race, gender, religion, pregnancy, or any other protected reason. Additionally, you should be consistent in how you fire employees. For instance, if you give one employee a second, third, or fourth chance, you need to give all similarly situated employees the same number of chances in the same situation. Otherwise, you could find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit.

Some managers get frustrated with laws, such as the Family and Medical Leave Act or the Americans with Disabilities Act, because they require employees to be given time off. While it's hard to operate when you're short-staffed, you need to follow the law in all cases. When in doubt, consult an employment attorney.

Terminating an employee is sometimes necessary to keep your restaurant running smoothly. Use these tips and bits of information to guide, and remember to think through your decisions carefully in order to react in the best way possible.