Be slow to hire and fast to fire . . . Is this really wise advice?

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hire slow fire fast?

There’s a phrase in business management advice: “Be slow to hire, fast to fire”. A Google keyword search on this topic takes us to a top ranked article from the Harvard Business Review, advising this strategy, followed by (to my relief) a contradictory article in Forbes by Liz Ryan.

The reality in business, I think, should be the answer that doesn’t really help very much if you are looking for a one-size-fits-all answer: “It depends.”

First, let’s address the legalities of “fast fires”. Obviously, if there is serious misconduct (theft, sexual abuse, anything criminal) you can and should waste no time in showing the evil employee the door. However, even in these situations, you can get caught in murky problems.

Here’s an issue that for example has started troubling some Canadian construction businesses. Say your employee shows up under the influence of cannabis and presents a safety danger because of the equipment he is operating. Can you fire him on the spot?

Probably not in Canada, at least — especially if he can prove he has been using the drug under Canada’s current medical marijuana laws; and the story will get even crazier next year when Canada truly legalizes the drug for recreational purposes.

Canada and many US states allow employees quite significant “rights” if you aren’t careful about how you dismiss them. And even in the US, you can run into anti-discrimination problems, especially if you try to get rid of an older worker because he/she has become unproductive. (The worker could cry: Age discrimination.)

If you are an employer and are fortunate to have workers in so-called “right to work” states, you don’t have quite the same problem as in others with stronger employee-rights laws. You can indeed axe most employees quite quickly for any reason you like.

The solution to this problem in Canada and certain US states: Make sure your new employee signs a proper employment contract before he or she starts work. And of course you should have the framework contract prepared by a lawyer familiar with the employment laws in your jurisdiction.

Employers are often blindsided — in Canada at least — when they discover the employee they want to dismiss quickly has common law rights which are far greater than provincial or federal employment standards legislation. For example, an employee who works with you for eight years in Ontario (if you operate a smaller business with less than $2.5 million annual payroll) no right to severance pay, but has the right to eight weeks notice before dismissal.

If you fire “quickly” and you have a proper employment contract, you’ll need to pay eight weeks pay, and if you give proper notice, in this situation, the worker can be expected to stay on the job for the full two months, and receives nothing more on dismissal when it is time to leave, relatively slowly.

BUT if you don’t have that carefully drafted contract, the employee could — depending on age, and responsibility — demand eight months or more in severance pay (or at least the equivalent amount of notice.) Imagine firing someone quickly, then getting a lawyer’s letter demanding tens of thousands of dollars in severance pay — on the threat of a wrongful dismissal lawsuit (which your own newly hired and expensive lawyer will tell you that you will probably lose!)

That said, there is an argument for speed in making intelligent hiring and firing decisions, and I’ve been guilty of dragging difficult departure issues when I should have moved more quickly.

The advice on speed in hiring and firing could be summarized this way: Be fast, but be prepared. In other words, make sure you have clear contract provisions in place to protect your interests before hiring anyone, and when you have confidence in your systems, you can move quickly when the time is right. And you’ll know when some patience and care makes far more sense than any rash hiring or firing decision.

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