During my career in local government, there were numerous times individuals running for public office would boast that when they get into office they were going to clean house, get rid of waste, and fire unnecessary public employees to reduce the payroll. Man, that rhetoric sure sounded good during the campaign; however from what I have observed, 99% of locally elected government officials found terminating a public employee very unpleasant. Most agonized during the termination hearing. Many wanted to give the employee a second chance.
Some were concerned what the impact of the job loss would have on the person’s family. Some dreaded the thought of confronting them in the local community. Worst yet, some knew the employees either as a friend of the family or as a member of a local organization. Consequently, terminating local government employees took a toll on most local public officials.
As a County Administrator I had to wear the black hat many times and I came to believe there were only seven valid reasons to terminate a public employee. Whenever I based my decision to recommend terminating an employee on one of these seven reasons, I never missed a night’s sleep or had regrets. I share these reasons with you in the hopes that you can benefit from them. I know from personal experience, these seven reasons will pass any court or union test and I vehemently believe if public officials don’t enforce these reasons, they abdicate their responsibility to the public they serve.
1) Theft. Anytime a local government employee is caught stealing or misappropriating government resources, terminate immediately. Employees who steal from government are not taking from the corporate coffers; they are stealing from every taxpayer and resident in the community and therefore have no place whatsoever in local government.
2) Falsification of government records. Government records are public documents; they are part of a community’s official history and need to be accurate. If an employee falsifies public records, terminate immediately. Examples would be: filing false expense vouchers, exaggerating hours worked on a time sheet, and backdating or postdating government/department transactions.
3) Loss of license or certification. Many government employees, by virtue of their positions, are required to possess a state license or academic certification. Job announcements always state: must possess a valid XXX or YYY at the time of application (i.e. valid state driver’s license, CDL commercial driver’s license, a social worker license, appraiser certification, etc.). Should an employee lose his or her ability to maintain required licensing or certification, terminate immediately.
4) Inability to meet physical requirements of the job. This one gets a little tricky because of workers comp and ADA requirements. However if an employee is no longer able to physically perform their duties “with reasonable accommodations”, terminate immediately. Clear examples would be: a law enforcement officer who loses both legs in a car crash while in a pursuit or a clerical person who loses eyesight during a home accident. (Both, by the way, were real world issues I experienced.) A law enforcement officer without legs cannot chase a suspect nor can a sight-impaired clerical person file or type as required.
5) Incompetence. Some employees, public as well as private, find themselves in positions where they are academically qualified for, but ill-suited for, a particular job. Though they have the knowledge, they may not possess the personality or the temperament for a position. If training, mentoring or coaching cannot help an individual achieve minimum standards or performance expectations, terminate immediately. Working with irate members of the public or consistently being able to remember all required tasks are traits not every individual possesses.
6) Under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Units of local government have drug and alcohol policies. Should an employee return from lunch under the influence or engage in alcohol or drug consumption while on duty, terminate immediately. Never condone such incidents or let the person go home and sleep it off; I guarantee it will come back to haunt you.
7) Excessive tardiness or absenteeism. Every municipal government I know operates on a tight budget. When employees fail to arrive on time or show up when required, they put their government function in jeopardy. Oversleeping, car problems, unique home situations, etc. cannot take precedence over the stated job requirements. If excessive tardiness or absenteeism continues after an employee has been given two written warnings, terminate immediately.
I sincerely hope these seven reasons make sense and allow you to make good termination decisions.
To go along with #2 “Falsification of Government Records” I would broaden that to Lying of any kind. If an employee is not going to be truthful when questioned, their credibility is lost and that cannot be tolerated when as a government official one may have quite a bit of authority over others (such as the state Department of Corrections in which I work). I have seen several long time employees lose a job because they lied during an investigation when the work rule violation for which the employee was being investigated would not have risen to the level of termination.
Thank you Carol,
You are right on the money with your comment. I should have thought of that. Thanks for your valuable insight.
Gabe Gabrielsen, OEO
Better Public Officials
Of these, I think #5 “Incompetence” may be the most difficult one to pass the court/union test. This gets more difficult with internal politics, budget cuts, and hiring freezes.
You bring up an excellent point. However here is what I have found; if I clearly “documented” the concerns I had with an employees performance and create a management plan to work with that employee to improve their performance and the employee still fails to meet acceptable performance expectation termination was warranted and necessary. Yes unions complained and brought in arbitrators and I had to go to court six times with non union employees. But my documentation was clear where performance was lacking and I had the employees sign or initial the management improvement plan each time they failed to meet acceptable standards after we talked about them, trained for them and discussed them. All my termination were good and accepted by unions and courts as the right course of action.
Gabe, how did you document incompetence? This is a big deal.
Although incompetence is definitely the most time consuming reason to terminate an employee, it can still be done. The supervisor needs to be on top of things, though. In our 10,000 person department all staff sign a Position Description when they are hired, transfer, promote, change jobs at all. A “Performance Planning Development” (PPD) document is prepared using the Position Description to note the areas the employee is to be competent in. Each year the employee is evaluated in those areas and is rated as “meets standards,” “exceeds standards,” or “does not meet standards.” When there are multiple “does not meet standards” we can then do a more concentrated PPD which is reviewed much more frequently. I think it is fair to give an employee an opportunity to correct deficient areas when they are not maliciously doing things wrong, which would fall more into a work rule violation – thus immediate discipline. I will admit it is a little frustrating to spend time doing this work with an employee whose ‘incompetence’ is more due to lack of motivation and even hard when you know when one is really trying but just is not fit for the job, but it does offer the clear cut documentation needed to note incompetence.
#4: no no no no NO!
Let me be clear, NO.
Losing the physical ability to perform a job is not grounds for “termination”. It is grounds for removal from the position for which they are no long able to perform the duties. Ideally another position is found. As a supervisor it is part of your job to enable that.
I agree with Debra Y regarding #4, no, no, no is right. If an employee becomes unable to perform the essential duties of their present position, management should always consider either adapting the position (sometimes referred to as job carving) by swapping some duties that the employee is able to do with other employees or transferring the employee to a new position. Employees can also be referred to their state vocational rehabilitation agency which will assess the client’s vocational needs and either provide the appropriate assistive technology or retraining; or make recommendation to the employer for assistive technology and/or other accommodations that will allow that employee to continue to be a valuable member of the workforce.
I cannot believe that in this day and age of technology (and disabled employee rights) that any employer would be recommended to toss a disabled worker out on the street due to an unforeseen accident. Disabled people are usually unemployed and underemployed and if terminated are the most likely to not find employment again or at the level of income they were at before they became disabled. Government agencies should rule by example.
Please rethink #4 because the examples given (guess what, blind people are able to type using voice recognition software and other technology and a cop who can no longer tackle suspects can work from a desk and use a wheelchair to ambulate – no not to tackle suspects, but to get to work and move about the office) are poor ones and I hate to think that these two individuals were terminated *immediately* after their most unfortunate events (which could happen to me and could happen to you) in their lives.
Disability should *not* be a compelling reason to terminate someone’s employment and should be entirely removed from your list. The ADA has been redefined, perhaps you should re-review what the ADA has to say.
Gabe, I can go along with everything but #4. That attitude shows a complete insensitivity to employees. A policeman that can no longer patrol can dispatch or work in a lab. In fact, your state’s work comp laws probably require you to find work for him.
Now, if the employee doesn’t want to work, or refuses other duties, you have every reason to consider termination.
In a previous career as a workers comp adjuster, I ran into employers that seemed to think an injured employee ought to be punished for getting hurt (even if there was a safety issue or unavoidable accident). We’ve already moved from “personnel” to “human resources.” Let’s just take the next step and call employees “meatware.”
I stand corrected – You are absolutely right. Termination was a poor choice of words on my part for the examples I gave. The purpose of this article was to explain the difficulties Local Government Public Officials go through when they have to remove a local government public employee from a position and to give them some reassurance that there are valid reasons to remove people from positions within local government.
Again Debra “Thank You” for pointing out my error.
Gabe Gabrielsen, OEO
Paulette and Kevin,
I took a moment to look up your Gov. Loop profiles; I wanted to determine the “level” of government the two of you work at but was not able to tell. Perhaps at the Federal or State levels your answers would be suitable. However for 96% of local governments (counties – cities – townships – villages – boroughs – parishes – school districts etc.) it is not always possible to place public employees in other positions within the organization and let me just cite three reasons.
First and foremost, most local government operate lean and mean – there are no “vacant” positions within the organization that someone can just slide into. Second, their are unions in place (in my case their were eight unions: Law Enforcement, Correctional Officers, Public Heath Professionals, Social Workers, Highway, Courthouse Employees – and Courthouse Professionals). Each union had a contract in force and each union closely guarded and monitored what they liked to refer to as “their positions”.
Before any local government can randomly move people around to other positions there are issues such as seniority, postings and classifications – all which must be considered and procedures must be followed.
As I said in my apology below to Debra – my use of termination was not the right choice. As Debra so passionately pointed out Removal From The Position would have been proper.
I am fully aware that every governmental entity and most businesses in the private sector have to follow the mandates and procedures outlined in the Americans with Disabilities Act which is why I purposely said in Reason # 4 “However if an employee is no longer able to physically perform their duties “with reasonable accommodations”, the employee should be removed. ‘Reasonable’ is the key.
In the two examples I cited (which by the way were real world examples) the Law Enforcement Officer chose to work with the State Workers Comp staff however he eventually decided a disability retirement was the best option for he and his family. And as far as the administrative clerk who lost her eyesight in a “non-work related” incident at home, she choice to work with the staff at the Social Security Administration and opted to take a disability severance.
The County I worked in had absolutely no way of accommodating these two employees with reasonable accomodations and as County Administrator I supported the options they chose. I assure you the departure of these two individuals did cause considerable consternation for the county supervisors who had to declare their positions vacant and authorize the recruitment of replacements. I assured each of county supervisor their actions were appropriate.
For obvious reasons I can’t go into to much more detail about these two incidents however I hope this short explanation clarifies my intent for citing reason # 4 in this article – it is difficult for local public officials to terminate or remove public employees.
Gabe Gabrielsen, OEO
Thank you Gabe.
Your clarification is *much* appreciated and we are agreed.
No I thank you. Your point was excellent and certainly needed. I think that’s the best part about sites like Gov Loop. We get to share thoughts with our colleagues and hear honestly feedback.\
I have worked at the Federal-level and quite familiar with the same problems of the State-level since my wife is a supervisor there. The problems are virtually the same in terms of “terminating” an individual. In most case it can go on for years because no one wants the work, and those higher up don’t want to follow through. I guess it depends on where you are.
Incompetence can works both ways, worker and supervisor, the latter which is rarely ever questioned. At those levels of government the incompetent is able to wait out the most diligent supervisor because the work must get done; it is the employer must prove that person is incapable of doing it; it’s a catch 22. I don’t know of any improvements that have taken place. Employee morale has been destroyed and the “incompetent” employee was either able transfer or retire out of the office.
As for tardiness and chronic absenteeism is easy if you know how to work the system well enough. Terminate has a strong and immediate sound to it so much so except in rare cases of breaking the law, i.e., violence, theft, etc. there I have never seen termination on the spot.
I have seen supervisors tell people they supervised that they didn’t like them, that they didn’t want to supervise them, that they would help them find another job, and then renege on that promise when a job was found just to be controlling. In the end, to make it so the employee just quit. He terminated himself because something was terribly wrong with that relationship. As much as the employee begged to be placed under someone else, it never happened. Termination might have been a blessing, but if supervisors had done their jobs,
Maybe it is now that I am getting to my point. When it is discovered a person is not right for the job, try working it out. You mentioned mentoring, training, but a move, a change of supervisor might be in order–not necessarily a change in pay. Certainly not a termination. The employee termed incompetent didn’t turn that way overnight. They were evaluated and hired or promoted into that position; he or she doesn’t deserve to be terminated.If his or behavior has become a problem as well as the work ethic it is probably a symptom of misplacement to begin with. I guess with competency I see I lot of room for answers beyond termination.
I agree with you on 1-3 and 6. 4 is a must have, and it, too, has it’s share of problems in individual cases. As I said, for Federal and State, 7 becomes problematic is someone knows the system too well.
I have seen a lot of negativity in my Federal years; it seems my military years were more absolute, while the Federal was more wishy-washy with no room for incentive or creativity. I like this forum for it’s honesty, youthful exuberance as it looks for answers for a better future.
Jack – thanks for your insights.