Mind Your Own Business

Issue November 2007

Lawyers Journal will regularly run Mind Your Own Business, a column devoted to answering management questions that come up in day-to-day practice for solo and small-firm practitioners.

Basic questions – from both sides – about firing an employee

Sally C. Stratman is the executive director of Rubin and Rudman LLP in Boston and a member of the Association of Legal Administrators.

Q: My paralegal seems to be out of line. I think her behavior is insubordinate. What do I have to do to fire her? And what do I have to do to avoid having to pay unemployment benefits?

A: She can be simply told that her services are no longer necessary. Period. But that’s probably not the smart way to do it.

If she’s flippant, dismissive or rude to clients or co-workers, point out specific instances and ask her to change her behavior. She may not realize you (or others) perceive her attitude to be inappropriate. Be sure to document that you had this conversation. If she persists, then give her a written warning citing your earlier discussion and noting the instances of continued transgression. If that doesn’t make her change her tune, fire her. Life’s too short.

But don’t throw out a diamond with the dust. Have you talked with her to find out what’s bothering her? Are your instructions timely and thoroughly explained? If your MO is to assign a task at the last minute, mumble some half-baked instructions and then get frustrated when she doesn’t read your mind, you have a problem… and it’s not her.

Ask the right questions and listen to the answers. Take notes and think about it overnight. Be open to hearing that a change in your behavior might solve the problem for you both. If you mutually agree there’s a chance for future success, agree on and write down three measures of improvement. Then agree to meet in a week or a month to review your progress.

If you can’t come to that agreement, you will have to part ways. Give her two weeks’ pay in lieu of notice and ask her not to return to the office.

Avoiding unemployment payments? Remember that it’s not your choice. The decision to award unemployment benefits rests entirely with the Massachusetts Division of Unemployment Assistance (DUA). Benefits ensue immediately for a laid-off employee or one who could not meet the standards you set. If fired for non-performance, you have the right to appeal the granting of benefits.

Also keep in mind that your firm’s current unemployment benefit experience may be influenced by a former employee being laid off by a subsequent employer. That’s why you may see a long gone employee’s name surface on your most recent report from the Massachusetts Division of Unemployment Assistance.

Q: I know you usually advise attorneys, but can you help me? I just got fired as a paralegal in a small firm. My boss snooped into my e-mails and found notes from my boyfriend, my mom and a letter applying for another job. She’s a bossy lawyer who everyone in the office hates. She complained about my lunch breaks if I was a minute late. I’m glad to be out of there, but can she keep me from getting unemployment benefits?

A: She is an owner of the firm and it’s her job to give direction. Perhaps you objected to her style of direction. If so, your complaints needed to be more specific, like asking for more timely assignments, or for her to say please and thank you, or any of a myriad of things that might have made your job more tolerable. Failure to communicate before things get ugly is a root cause of lots of office unhappiness.

Snooping into your e-mails? Sorry, but that computer and everything on it belongs to the firm. She is perfectly within her rights to look at anything on it. All employees should know nothing is private on the computer at work and act accordingly.

When employers get dissatisfied with employees, they look for any transgressions of firm policies. This may explain her monitoring your lunch breaks. They do this for a lot of reasons, but mostly to get up the nerve to terminate. Nobody likes firing people. If she can point to a longer list of gripes, it’s an easier task.

In your next job, pay attention to your work, don’t misuse the computer, and if you have a complaint about your working conditions, discuss it calmly with your boss before it becomes fodder for office gossip and antagonism.

When you apply for unemployment benefits, remember that it’s not your boss’s decision whether or not you get benefits. It’s a DUA decision. When applying, be truthful about the circumstances of your termination. You may be surprised to learn that the DUA will allow you benefits in certain circumstances, even if you are fired.

But my advice to you is: Get another job and learn from this experience. Good luck.