This is Part Five of a five-part series for caterers on hiring and managing part-time event staff. You can the previous parts here:
- Part One: How to attract more event staff candidates
- Part Two: How to interview event staff candidates
- Part Three: How to onboard new event staff
- Part Four: How to promote event staff to Event Captain
In a perfect world, every part-time event worker you hire ends up being a superstar you want to schedule over and over. As I’ve tried to show throughout this series, your hiring, training, and promotion processes can increase your chances of developing great staff. But obviously, not every new hire is going to work out. That’s why you need a process for terminating employees who aren’t a good fit for your business.
Firing is the worst part of being a manager, so it’s probably not something you like to spend a lot of time thinking about. But it’s one of the most important, delicate jobs you have to do. You can’t afford to keep underperforming staff on board, especially in event roles where they’ll have a direct impact on guest experience. But if you botch the termination process, you risk your team’s morale, your business’ reputation, and could even wind up in court.
You need to make sure your separation process is fair, empathetic, and in line with all legal requirements. I’m going to show you my process below, but given how sensitive a topic this is, you should also check your local labor laws and consider talking to a professional. Some HR software providers give you access to experts who can answer questions about these issues. Local business associations can also help — for instance, the California Chamber of Commerce has resources you can browse on its site and can help you find a labor lawyer if necessary. This guide is for educational purposes, so I recommend you talk to a professional for insights specific to your business.
With that said, here’s my process for letting staff go.
How do you know when to release someone?
Your company policy needs to outline the misbehaviors or performance issues that can lead to termination, and provide an outline of how you’ll punish and document any violations before you resort to firing.
You have to make these policies clear to staff in your employee handbook and during training. For one thing, it’s only fair for employees to understand what they need to do to keep their jobs. Writing out these policies — as well as documenting when they’re enforced — can also protect you from potential wrongful termination lawsuits, as you’ll have written proof that employees violated rules they were warned in advance about.
So, what do these policies actually look like? At a high level, there are two reasons to terminate someone. One is that they clearly or deliberately violate a crucial policy, usually related to safety, harassment, or basic workplace behavioral norms. These offenses are so serious and heavily emphasized in training that they fall under a zero tolerance policy — if someone breaks one of these rules, you should immediately let them go. The other reason to replace someone is if they consistently underperform. If you observe someone making the same mistakes over and over — even if they’re not huge mistakes — it’s usually because they don’t have the skills, attitude, or desire to do the job correctly. I enforce rules in this category with a three strikes policy that ends in termination.
Let’s take a closer look at how to handle these two categories of offenses.
Zero tolerance offenses
Some of the behaviors that should fall under your zero tolerance policy are:
- Safety violations. It should go without saying that any rules designed to protect people’s health and safety need to be enforced with the utmost strictness.
- Any kind of harassment. This is another no-brainer. You can’t allow any of your employees to create an unsafe environment for the rest of the team — it’s morally wrong, horrible for morale, and the legal ramifications are enormous.
- Drinking or doing drugs on the job. Staff who become impaired on the job are a massive liability. One word of advice though: Don’t fire someone on the spot if they get drunk at an event. The last thing you want is for them to get belligerent and make a scene.
- A no-call, no-show absence. If someone doesn’t show up to work without warning the team, they’re jeopardizing the entire event. Unless they have a legitimate excuse with some kind of proof (e.g. a police report if they got into a car accident), you need to fire the employee immediately in this scenario.
- Openly disrespecting supervisors or other team members. Even if it’s not full-on harassment, you can’t allow staff to mock, demean, or otherwise treat people at your company maliciously.
These offenses are egregious enough that most employees would already expect them to lead to an immediate termination. But they’re still worth outlining explicitly, both for legal reasons and to show staff that you’re serious about creating a safe work environment — both physically and emotionally.
The three strikes policy
The vast majority of employees won’t violate any of your zero tolerance policies. But many of them will undoubtedly commit other, more minor offenses that you’ll need to address. You have to create a process for letting employees know when they’ve broken any of these rules and giving them a chance to improve before releasing them.
That’s where the tried-and-true three strikes policy comes in: Employees get two warnings — one verbal, one written — when they break a rule, but after the third, you let them go. I use it to deal with common but unacceptable catering employee behaviors, such as:
- Smoking on the job
- Using a cell phone on the job
- Saying “no” to a guest — we teach staff to say, “Let me check for you” before letting someone know they can’t fulfill a request, as it shows guests we’re working to meet their needs
These aren’t the only issues I cover under the three strikes policy, but the common thread between all of them is that they negatively impact the guest experience. However, while these behaviors are unacceptable, we give staff a chance to correct them because they’re not necessarily obvious to people who aren’t familiar with the industry. Plus, many of these rules are easy to break if you’re tired, stressed out, or have problems in your personal life distracting you. You need to have some compassion and give employees a chance to improve before you cut them loose.
I often say that as a caterer, you’re actually in the people development business, and that events are simply the medium you’re using to evaluate and improve performance — the three strikes policy is a great example of that. Here’s how I use it to give employees the best possible chance of improving their performance:
- Strike One. The first time someone breaks a rule, I pull them aside for an informal chat, explain why what they did was wrong, and tell them I know they can do better in the future. I also try to look inward and consider the possibility that training didn’t cover this rule adequately, especially if other recent hires are making the same mistake. However, it’s a huge red flag if the employee gets angry or defensive when I call them out — if their reaction is bad enough, I may move them to strike two or even fire them on the spot.
- Strike Two. At this point, I’ll give the employee a written warning and let them know that termination is the next step — that way, there’s clear proof of what the employee did in case I eventually have to let them go. I also try to have a bit of a heart to heart with them, learn why they’re having a hard time meeting expectations, and see if there’s anything I can do to help. If they need extra training in a specific area, I’ll make it happen. If someone is having serious personal issues, I may refer them to counseling or adjust their schedule to try and accommodate their needs. Helping someone improve is less expensive than replacing them, and it can result in a stronger employee relationship in the long run.
- Strike Three. Unfortunately, you have to let the employee go at this point. If someone is making the same mistakes after a long, serious talk and a formal warning — with the full knowledge that they’ll be terminated on their next strike — they’re probably never going to correct the behavior.
Through trial and error, I’ve found that the three strikes policy is the best way to give employees a fair chance to improve without keeping chronic underperformers around for too long. A different system might be best for your business. But the big takeaway is that you need a formal process for documenting offenses and warning employees they’re going down the wrong path before you release them.
The termination checklist: How to let someone go
Once you reach the end of the road and have to let someone go, you need a plan to do it compassionately, fairly, and legally. Document what you’re doing as much as possible so that it’s clear you’re going by the book. That way, if you end up in a wrongful termination lawsuit, you have the proof you need to get the case dismissed. Think of it as building a paper trail that you’ll ideally never have to use.
Again, you should check your local laws and consult with a professional to determine exactly what your specific firing process ought to look like. But here’s my checklist:
1. Arrange a face-to-face meeting with the employee
You should always let staff go in person. It’s more respectful, and shows the rest of your team that you’re treating the employee fairly even though they won’t be working for you anymore — many managers unfortunately don’t do that. A few other tips for the termination meeting include:
- Have one or two witnesses in the room who can verify you gave the employee a fair reason for letting them go in case any legal issues arise.
- Try to hold the meeting earlier in the week rather than on a Friday so that the employee can start looking for a new job immediately.
- Make the meeting quick — no more than 30 minutes. The longer you drag it out, the more time there is for something to go wrong. Think of it like removing a bandaid.
Once you’ve got the meeting set, you need a plan for what you’re actually going to say.
2. Tell them why they’re being let go
Obviously, being released is never a good thing, but I always try to position it as a learning experience they can take to their next job. Beyond that, the biggest goal is to stop the situation from getting too emotional or acrimonious. Don’t yell or say anything personal — just calmly state the facts of why you’re letting them go.
3. Collect any company property they have
You’ll probably need to take care of things like the employee’s:
- Keys or key card
- Tools or kitchen implements you’ve provided them
- Access to company email or intranet
- Payment advances you’ve given them — collect the funds directly or deduct them from their last paycheck
Once the employee is out the door, it can be difficult to get these things back, so make sure to take care of it during the meeting.
4. Give them anything you owe them
Depending on your local labor laws, you’ll probably need to give employees things like:
- Their last paycheck — I need to get this to employees within 72 hours here in California
- Undistributed tips
- Outstanding expenses for things like gas money, kitchen supplies, etc.
- Reimbursement for unused vacation days
- A COBRA notice for health insurance
- A summary of options to move money from your 401(k) plan, if applicable
- Reminders of any non-competes or confidentiality agreements they’ve signed
It’s a lot to remember! I recommend giving the employee hard copies, as well as an email with each item (or receipts in the case of monetary compensation) attached so that there’s no disputing you’ve given them everything they’re owed.
After you’ve completed steps three and four, quickly walk the employee off the premises — you don’t want them hanging around and talking to their former coworkers when they’re likely to be in a bad mood.
5. Tell the rest of the team
Let the rest of your staff know that you’ve let the employee go so that they’re not left with uncertainty. You can keep the exact reason confidential unless it’s something egregious like harassment — in that case, it’s worth warning employees of this person’s behavior. It’s also good to remind them how seriously you take the issue.
The worst part of the job
Letting employees go is a necessary evil of running a catering business. But I’ve found that by following the processes above, I can minimize the chances I wind up in court, keep the rest of my staff happy, and make an unpleasant process as painless as it can possibly be.