A Bad Fit

Hugh O'Reilly (Not his real name) was well-liked at the recycling plant where he worked as an office manager. He was smart and energetic, but after five months on the job, he didn't seem to like the work.

“We needed him to do more work on the computer, re-organize our record-keeping system and find more efficient ways for us to deal with vendors, but he wanted to change the office layout and manage overtime assignments,” says the company's chief operating officer (COO).

Finally, the COO could see no solution other than letting him go. O'Reilly got severance pay and help with finding a new position. He now works in a different office environment that seems better suited to his interests.

Handling employees that don't fit can sometimes be more difficult than dealing with non-performers and troublemakers. Management training and continuing education seminars for supervisors tend to focus on the latter. But, employers often are stymied when it comes to coping with workers who satisfactorily do their jobs, but aren't the best fit for their position due to shortcomings in talent, interest or interpersonal skills.

Mismatched employees have some knowledge and ability, but are simply wrongly placed. Some stay with an employer for years because they seem to be making some kind of useful contribution, but no one seems to know what to do with them. Now and then, they end up getting fired when someone takes the time to put together a case for poor performance.

The trick is to promptly identify individuals and circumstances that are a bad fit, eliminate talk about fault and blame, and move these people somewhere else — without generating a recriminating lawsuit.

Private sector employees who are not covered by a labor contract or job-protection benefits in an employee manual can usually be let go without a reason. Still, courts are filled with cases where former employees charge that their firing was based on racial or other discrimination.

Consider the case of an individual who is performing well in his position. The company decides to “reward” his accomplishments by moving him up to a job with more responsibility. The downside for the employee, however, is the demand for greater communication skills, which he doesn't have. The job requirements, together with management's expectations, create stress for the employee that leads to extended disability leave. He eventually gets fired.

To stay out of trouble, human resource consultants suggest meeting with employees at the time of promotion or hiring and fully explaining what the position requires. Then, down the road, if a problem arises, the employer can refer back to that earlier conversation.

Next, the employee needs to understand the problem. Dismissal is not the only answer. The resolution may take the form of training, a new position within the company or a new boss.

However, if termination seems to be the best solution, the news must be delivered honestly and gently, including ample notice, severance pay, and, if your employment lawyer agrees, some mutually satisfactory description of the dismissal.

It's possible to sack an employee but preserve his or her dignity and respect.

Barry Shanoff Legal Editor Rockville, Md.