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Legal Speak

Cleaning House

Published April 18, 2013 1:32 PM by Tony DeWitt
My wife is a cleaning fanatic. She cleans the way surgeons perform surgery. She has a plan, and she carries it out. She cleans a little something every day. My house is always clean because she is consistently after the little things to keep them from becoming little things.

Sometimes managing people is like that, and even in an age where everyone threatens to sue if you fire them, cleaning house is still a good idea when service requirements make it necessary. If you don't get rid of the dead wood in a work environment, before long all you'll have is dead wood.

A work environment is something like a good soup. If you have the right ingredients, and everything does what its supposed to, the soup is good, and it works. But put in the wrong ingredients, or ingredients that don't go together, and you can quickly have something that even the dog won't eat.

It's like that with people, too. Get the wrong mix of people in an organization, and you can pretty quickly have a situation where no work gets done, and no one cares. Patients, and patient care suffer. That leads to patient dissatisfaction, unhappy family members, and often times, lawsuits.

Early on in my professional career as a therapist I managed a department with a struggling supervisor. Rather than call out people who weren't working, she would often just go do their jobs for them because it was easier than fighting the uphill battle and dealing with all the grief staff would dole out. But every now and then it boiled over, and when it did, the staff would come crying to me because they just didn't understand why the supervisor could be "so mean."

One of the key players in this mix was a staff person we'll call Sheila. She was always whispering in everyone else's ear, and she always told them what to say. Her mantra was always the same: no one gets ahead here unless they are a "brown-noser." She had a unique ability to find something wrong with the best of situations. She was what I would call a pot stirrer. She stirred the pot, but she didn't want to get into the soup herself.  She always seemed to have plausible deniability.

When we figured out that she was the instigator of most of the trouble, we moved her, involuntarily, to the night shift with the expectation that this would cause her to quit. Instead, 13 people marched into my office and demanded that the supervisor be fired, or they would quit. 

Even though the odds are against it, 13 people can be wrong. They can often be spectacularly wrong. We weathered the threatened wildcat walkout, and a few months later the one bad apple in the bunch left employment for a hospital in the southwest. Almost overnight the attitude in the department improved, and people started enjoying their jobs again. Without someone to remind them on a daily basis of why they ought to be unhappy, they instead found ways to find joy in their jobs.

Human Resource people caution that firing people is expensive. Sometimes you have to pay unemployment. Sometimes they sue. Sometimes they file federal discrimination lawsuits.

As a lawyer, I say let them. Discrimination lawsuits are so seldom won that they are more like playing the lottery than actual litigation.  Unemployment must be paid anyway, and the cost to train new people is more than offset by the improvement in the overall tone of the institution.

And bad people not only are not good for the morale of the unit, they are often not good for patient care.  And I always tell hospital HR people that it is far cheaper and much less taxing to defend a wrongful discharge lawsuit than a wrongful death lawsuit.

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posted by Tony DeWitt


Great article and very true. It is nearly unbelievable how just one bad apple can spoil the bunch. At my workplace, the leadership at the very top, lacks accountability, professionalism, and the ability to create beneficial interpersonal relationships. The administrator also practices nepotism and favoritism. This environment drops morale among the good workers and job satisfaction is at a low among the individuals who care about their jobs. Resident satisfaction is at a low as well, because much of the staff lacks discipline and professionalism. It is a very unfortunate circumstance. If the upper level employees were replaced with the right individuals, this long term care facility would be absolutely amazing.  

Michael May 31, 2013 12:37 AM

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About this Blog

    A.L. "Tony" DeWitt, RRT, CRT, JD, FAARC
    Occupation: Attorney
    Setting: Jefferson City, Mo.
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