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    Ask Dr. Cooper: How do you know when to let an employee go?

    Dr. Cooper responds to one dentist's question about employee termination.

    Over a decade ago, Dr. Cooper began a Q&A column with dentists. Here, he shares an inquiry he received, along with his response.

    I am never sure how to really evaluate an employee. I sometimes use performance reviews, but that doesn’t give me the kind of information I need to make a decision. For example, I have an assistant, Emily, who has been with me for three years. I am not sure if I should keep her or let her go. In some areas she is a decent performer. But in other areas, not so much.

    What’s a good way to decide whether to keep someone or let them go?

    In the late 80s and early 90s I lived on a houseboat on Lake Union in Seattle. I had a small 14-foot cruiser with a belligerent in-board out-board motor, docked right outside the houseboat. Being from South Philly, I had zero boating experience. I knew I had to learn.

    Down on my dock, there was a seasoned sailor who I called Captain Jack. Captain Jack had spent his life on boats and totally fit the mold of a cantankerous, weathered sailor, and I negotiated a deal with Captain Jack to be my teacher.

    Captain Jack had me sit on the aft of the boat and watch the wake. He also made me watch the wake of other boats. He said you could tell everything about a boat and the way it was being handled by watching the wake. You could always count on Captain Jack asking; “What does that wake tell you?”

    If a boat was going in a straight line, you knew it was steadily on course and the captain was paying attention. If it was wavering, you knew something was out of whack. If the boat was sailing smooth and flat, or deep in the water, you knew something about the speed of the boat.. Captain Jack taught me to read the wake because when you understand the wake, you understand the boat and its captain.

    I have found the same to be true of people. As a person works in a practice, she leaves a wake behind her. And just with any wake, there are two sides to what someone leaves behind; one side of the wake is the job or tasks, and the other is the relationships. And you can tell all about the person by the wake she leaves.

    In terms of the task, what does Emily’s wake look like? Is it a wake of goals being reached? Is it a wake of complete work? Is she directly contributing to the mission being fulfilled? Is she figuring out the best way of doing things? Is she making what she does better than it was before?

    Or is there a different kind of wake?

    Are goals not achieved? Are there continual misfires? Is the mission not accomplished? Is there a lack of completion? Is there disorganization and chaos? Inactivity? Lack of focus? Resources and money lost?

    You can tell from the wake the level of performance and results. In practice, results matter. They are the stuff on which you evaluate your staff. Results are what bring your vision into reality. At the end of the day, what kind of results from her tasks did she leave behind her?

    On the other side of the wake are the relationships. Just as she leaves the effects of her work behind her, she also leaves the effect of her interactions with people. What does that wake look like?

    Are people uplifted, smiling and having a great time as she moves through their lives? Or are people left wounded and upset? Are they better off or worse off? Are coworkers and patients smiling or reeling? Are people more trusting of her, or less trusting? Do people feel put down, cheated or manipulated? Does her relationship enhance others’ performance or take away from their performance?

    Check out Emily’s wake and decide. The wake tells you all you need to know. Aye matey, might be time to have Emily walk the plank!

    Dr. Marc Cooper
    Dr. Cooper's professional career includes private periodontist, academician, researcher, teacher, practice management consultant, ...

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