On Firing

Published: May 30, 2009 - by John Cataneo

Categories: The Business of Heating

downsizing

In April 2008, my article "On Hiring" was published on HeatingHelp.com and circulated in a weekly email letter to industry professionals. In it, I urge contractors to take advantage of the sudden surge of available labor. I cite the diminished prospects of working on Wall Street and dwindling jobs in the finance sector as possible reasons for the renewed interest in careers in the trades among our country's young job seekers.

Hindsight being 20/20, what I didn’t understand at the time was that it was a sign of things to come: that most of us were about to fall victim to an economy near collapse and that lean times were just around the corner.

So now, after a quiet spring and summer, as we head into fall many employers find ourselves top heavy with employees we can’t afford to pay and mounting labor expenses that just keep on coming.

Now what?

From talking to our professional peers over the last few months, it is evident that lay-offs are happening at an unprecedented rate. Many of us have tough decisions to make regarding who stays and who goes and, if you’re like me, you’ve taken pride in your hires: you’ve done the background checks and put these guys to the test in the field. You’ve got some employees that cost the company more than others and some who are uniquely qualified for certain profitable or otherwise necessary tasks.

I can’t tell you who stays and who goes. It has everything to do with what kind of company you’re running. For example: if you’re a plumbing-and-heating contracting firm, you have a wide range of skills to cover. So, if your A-team’s boiler installations are 100% up to your standards, that’s a wonderful feeling. Perhaps you’ve taught them well or did a good job of being the kind of employer that attracts such talented labor from another place. Those are what you’d normally call “keepers.”

But, if the mechanics whose boiler installs are only 90% up to your standards are better and faster at piping in a bathroom, they may be a more valuable total skill set for you right now. Then maybe those are the “keepers”.

Am I suggesting you should lay off and risk loosing forever the guys who pipe in those beautiful boilers for you? The ones that you photograph and display in your advertising? How could you? Well, it’s called a business decision: Tough times. Desperate measures.

No one wants to fire anyone they’ve hired because, in part, it reflects a failure somewhere: failure to obtain the work to keep the employee productive, failure to train properly, failure to screen and hire responsibly, etc. But it’s happening more than ever and sometimes for reasons we’re just not used to dealing with.

I once fired someone for taking a company vehicle without permission. That was an easy business decision.

Here’s the transcript to the push-to-talk conversation:

Me: “Do you have my van out somewhere? You should have returned from that job an hour ago and it’s not at the lot.”

Employee: “Um, yeah, I got lost and traffic was a mess. I’m right nearby on Broadway”

Me: “Oh good. Near the intersection of Houston St.?”

Employee: “Yeah, Houston. That’s where I am. But traffic ain’t moving.”

Me: “Tell me something. There’s a furniture store on the corner at that intersection. On the opposite corner there’s a restaurant. Tell me the name of either of those places since you’re sitting there in traffic with my van.”

Employee: “Oh I can’t really see the names, we’re moving a little now.”

Me: “Ok, you’re moving now? Tell you what. Look out the window. Tell me the name of ANY store or restaurant you see or pass so I can call 411 for the address and verify we’re not someplace we shouldn’t be.”

Employee: “You know what, I’m sorry, John. I stopped at my uncle’s house for a minute after the job. I’ll be at the lot as quickly as I can.”

Evidently he was moonlighting with my van and tools.

What I didn’t tell the first-week employee was that the only reason I checked the lot was because someone called the number on the side of the van to say it was double-parked and blocking traffic in another part of town.

This was the first incident to inspire the eventual vehicle tracking system purchase.

More recently, I fired someone for being repeatedly late. He was a talented helper who had a future in this business but could not get to work on time. His mechanic would sit and wait, on my dime, for him to show up while scheduled first-stop customers grew impatient and called my office to complain.

You’re out, kid.

I fired another guy who took advantage of my being too busy to follow up with checking his prior employment history. He had all the right terminology on his resume and I took it at face value because he was a current employee’s referral. But when I got him out in the field, he was obviously trying to hide the fact that he was clueless and embarrassed. I could almost feel bad for the guy except he demanded a top-dollar salary that I gave him when my busy shop’s back was against the wall. There were other reasons, but some guys are just bona fide con artists and, being human ourselves, sometimes we find out the hard way.

These are my stories of the “easy fires.” If you’re in this business, you’ve got some too. They’re the necessary firings that I’m convinced all businesses must go through. Sorting through the right people for your particular needs is part of the business process and I for one have never found it to be easy. We take a risk when we hire someone who walks through the door with a resume that we have to read through, believe, verify and then give access to our vehicles, stock and tools, and then place in our clients’ hands. For me, some of those people simply did not work out or sometimes it was mutually agreed that this was not the right shop for them. Most went away quietly. Some, not so much (I’ve filed two police reports and replaced two windows in the past 12 months that I’m sure were broken by the same ex-helper).

Releasing some people from employment can bring a welcome relief from whatever their baggage brought to the company. So there’s another risk: I’ve gotten calls from ex-helper’s parents demanding to know why their son was fired. I’ve never had any trouble explaining my side of the story to an adult, but it’s an awkward and uncomfortable conversation: “You fired my son for no reason; he says he didn’t do anything!”

“Ma’am, your son presented himself as a mechanic when he answered my ad, but is simply not qualified to be left alone on a job. It would be negligent of me to have him continue in this position working with cutting tools and torches. He is free to reapply when we place an ad for helpers or junior mechanics. I wish him luck and thank you for understanding.”

Even though sometimes firing someone is easy, other times we may find we’re firing or laying off good people in some cases: people with young kids and new mortgages, people who have shown up every day and made money for the company. People you trust. People you like. These are the more difficult fires.

In these cases, all we can offer is the reassurance that their being let go was not something they did or didn’t do. It’s simply a business decision that was carefully thought about and considered to be a necessary step in keeping the business afloat during an unprecedented difficult business climate.

Here’s my advice for dealing with these situations. If it is warranted, you may consider releasing these employees with a sensible severance check or at the very least, a letter of recommendation to present at a future interview. Also, there’s no need to burn bridges. The labor pool of any community in this industry is often small and your paths may cross again.

Regardless of the reason why you’re firing someone, it’s never easy. All you can do is make, what you believe to be, the best decisions for your company at a particular point in time. If you hold each employee up to the same standards of behavior, skill and value to the company in both good and bad times, it will make the easy, and the difficult, fires, easier to manage.