Johnny C. Taylor Jr., a human resources expert, is tackling your questions as part of a series for USA TODAY. Taylor is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, the world’s largest HR professional society.
The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor’s answers below have been edited for length and clarity.
Have a question? Do you have an HR or work-related question you’d like me to answer? Submit it here.
Question: I’m a manager at a local bank, and one of my reports has really been slacking. I’ve given him numerous warnings, but nothing has changed. He isn’t adding any value to our team, and I want to let him go. However, it’s tricky because he’s a racial minority, so I don’t want the firing to appear discriminatory in any way. It is strictly performance-related, but I’m nervous about the potential repercussions. How do I handle this one? – Anonymous
Johnny C. Taylor Jr.: Let me first address your concern that firing a racial minority is “tricky.” It isn’t. You should approach the decision to terminate the employment of a racial minority just like you would a non-racial minority employee. Despite what anyone says, there is absolutely no basis for treating employees in protected categories (whether it be race, ethnicity, gender, age, etc.) differently when determining if they should remain employed with the company for failure to perform their jobs satisfactorily.
Now turning to how you should go about doing this, recognize that firing an employee is always a difficult thing to do. But you’re right to recognize it doesn’t serve your organization’s best interest when an employee is underperforming – especially after multiple warnings.
In addressing this situation, here are four things you can do to reduce the risk of a discrimination claim:
1. No surprises
Transparent communication is the cornerstone of any supervisor/employee relationship, so termination shouldn’t come as a surprise. Ideally, you have already discussed performance issues, but if this communication doesn’t happen, an employee may question whether the termination truly was due to poor performance or if other factors were at play.
2. Leave a paper trail
Document performance issues when they happen and share them with your supervisor or HR. By doing this your recommendation to terminate should not raise any red flags higher up.
3. Give a clear reason for termination
Spelling out the reasons for termination specifically and plainly can help you avoid accusations of foul play – and may even spur the employee to consider how to improve in his or her next job. Some states require employers to give employees the reason in writing at the time of termination.
4. Follow company policy
If your company doesn’t have a formal procedure for taking disciplinary action, review how similar situations have been handled in the past so you can make sure you’re being consistent in your practices.
No manager looks forward to firing an employee. But by taking these steps, you can move forward with confidence knowing you took the proper precautions.
Best of luck!
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Question: Happy hour is extremely popular at my company, and my co-workers – mostly men – are always talking about their after-work drinking activities. It’s a real frat-house atmosphere, and as one of the only women in the office, I’m not in the most comfortable situation. Most days, I feel left out because I don’t enjoy drinking, especially with my co-workers. I want to keep it more professional. Is there anything I can do, or should I look for a new job?
Taylor: No one should feel left out or uncomfortable at work, so I’m sorry to hear you do. When it comes to workplace culture, inclusion is key. It gives us that sense of belonging that we, as human beings, naturally seek.
I’ve heard from many readers like you – and I’ve been in your place myself. When it comes to hiring, candidates and hiring managers often focus more on competency – the skills required and if you have them. Equally, if not more important, is whether we’re a cultural “fit” for that workplace; whether it’s somewhere we can belong in a real and integrated way.
You likely can’t change the fraternity atmosphere, unless you’re in a position of authority. So, to be frank, looking for a new job may likely be the answer for you. However, there are a few things you could try before making such a drastic change.
If happy hours aren’t your thing, try bonding with co-workers in a different setting. Maybe suggest social activities that don’t involve alcohol. For example, it could be occasional lunches in the office or team-building activities, such as an escape room or community service.
You could also try starting smaller by focusing on a few co-workers whom you find the most relatable. Get to know them, and you could be surprised to find that you share hobbies, tastes, or interests. If those relationships grow, you could then find yourself naturally branching out to others around them.
Lastly, you could have an honest conversation with your supervisor, suggesting that the organization try harder to build a more inclusive culture in your organization.
Beyond those attempts though, there may be little else you can do but search for a workplace where you feel fulfilled, not frustrated. Either way, whether it’s where you are now or another employer, I hope you find that sense of belonging you’re looking for.