I’m buying a business — how do I tell one employee (who’s currently my coworker) that I’m not keeping her on? — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I am a healthcare provider buying a practice that I have worked at for the past three years. This will be an asset purchase, meaning legally all employees will be considered terminated by the previous business and re-hired by me (if I choose). There is one employee who has been there about four months, Sue, who I am concerned about keeping on.

My main issues with Sue are that she does not take direction well from coworkers, tends to go right to me with questions regarding scheduling and other tasks to supersede her coworkers (especially inappropriate considering I do not own the practice yet), and has an overbearing personality. To give an example of this, she approached me recently about whether I was buying the building of the practice and in a way backed me into a corner to tell her I was considering purchasing the practice and then immediately asked me a favor to use the lawn behind the building for her dog since she may be purchasing the adjacent apartment building which doesn’t have a yard (that conversation gave me extremely bad vibes). I merely said I was considering buying it and didn’t want to make any promises. After that conversation, I found out that she told multiple employees about me buying the practice (to me, this came off as a power move to put her above the other employees). The other employees have now been formally informed by me once the bank financing was final, and are excited (other than understandable nerves) about the development.

Since Sue is a relatively new employee, has performance issues that multiple employees have noticed and tried to address, doesn’t vibe with the team, and works very part-time hours, I’m confident in my decision that this is one employee I should leave behind.

I’m looking for advice on what to say without making the weeks to months prior to me taking over a tension-filled mess. I already established with all the employees (including Sue) that I will be meeting with them individually to discuss changes, pay scale, etc. and am hoping to do that as soon as possible to set expectations. Do I just keep it simple that I don’t see a place for her in the new practice and wish her the best? The empathetic side of me wants to give her reasons, but I don’t want that to backfire and cause negativity, but what if she asks why? I’m hoping the current owner will have my back if she starts being toxic, but if not it could be a rough transition until she’s gone.

One more complication is that Sue’s daughter is a long-time employee who needed some leave time but who I’d be happy to bring back on when she is available again. I guess if this ends up burning that bridge, it is what it is.

Especially with the dynamic of going from an older male owner to me, a young woman (significantly younger than most employees), I really need to make clear decisions early on to set a precedent.

I wrote back and asked, “What’s the timeline here — how much time will there be between when you would ideally tell Sue you’re not keeping her on and when you’ll actually take over? Also, do you expect her daughter to return during that interim period, or only after it?”

There would be about two to three weeks in between when I’m hoping to do the meetings with staff and when I actually acquire the practice.

I’m meeting with her daughter soon, because she wanted to clear up her plan for coming back. But most likely she wouldn’t return until after the transition. The daughter has years of history working with the practice and has made it clear to me that she considers it her career, so I’m pretty confident she’ll still come back if I let her mom go. But handling it well on my end definitely would make that easier, I’m sure.

Where does the old owner/manager stand on the question of Sue?

I’m asking because ideally you’d tell Sue the news at the same time that you’re meeting with others. You can’t really avoid it if everyone knows you’re meeting with each person about their future at the practice, and you shouldn’t delay those meetings until after you take over (because if you do, you risk other employees figuring their jobs are at risk and starting to look around). However, that gives everyone a few weeks of working with Sue after she hears the news, so you need to think through how that’s likely to go. Is Sue likely to handle it reasonably well or is she likely to make things uncomfortable for you, her coworkers, or even patients? Do you trust her to continue performing her work well during that time or do you have to worry about sabotage? (That sounds dramatic, but it happens.)

To make this work, you’d need to coordinate with the current owner/manager and agree that if Sue doesn’t handle the news well, she’ll be asked to leave sooner. (Hell, would the current owner/manager be willing to let Sue go now with severance? That would make this somewhat cleaner. You could offer to roll the severance costs into your purchase price if that’s worth it to you.)

But if you can’t count on the current owner to handle Sue well if this goes badly while he’s still in charge, your options get less appealing. You could simply wait to give Sue the news until take over, but that could be messy. You of course shouldn’t tell her she’s staying and then reverse course once you’re the owner — but in theory you could say you aren’t ready to make a decision on her position yet, and deliver the news once you’re in charge. It would give her some incentive not to blow things up in those final weeks … but it doesn’t feel great. The other option is to be honest with her, trust her to behave professionally, and figure the fall-out will be fairly limited if she doesn’t. But that’s got to be a judgment call based on what you know of Sue and how much potential she has to do damage.

As for what reason to give Sue, you could keep it vague (like you’re trimming staff) or you could be honest that you haven’t see the kind of work from her that you’d need to see to keep her on. Decide which approach to use based on what you know of Sue and how she’s likely to take it. Yes, it can be a kindness to give honest feedback when you’re letting someone go — but you also need to think about the greater good of the business if she’s going to be around a few more weeks.

As for Sue’s daughter: You’re right that she may feel weird coming back to a place that let her mom go. But she might understand it (she probably knows her mom’s weaknesses better than most people do!) or she might find it easy to move forward with you regardless. You can’t control that — but you’re right that ensuring her mom is handled with respect and dignity will give all of you the best shot of making things work.

Good luck, and we want an update when it’s all behind you!

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