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The aftermath of firing agency employees for cause

In this episode, Chip and Gini discuss when you should (and shouldn’t) terminate an employee for cause.

They explain the perils of allowing emotion to impact termination decisions and how you should approach these difficult circumstances.

When an employee is terminated for cause, it can also cause agency leaders to wonder if they can trust others, so Chip and Gini explore the ramifications of that fear.

Key takeaways

  • Chip Griffin: “Fundamentally dishonest people are going to be dishonest. So you can only protect yourself so much.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “You can do your due diligence and still not get all of the information that you need.”
  • Chip Griffin: “The most important thing is to make sure that you have systems in place that you can try to identify people who are misbehaving sooner rather than later.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “This is the hardest part of our job. But you can’t take it personally.”


The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

Chip Griffin: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: And I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: Gini, you’re fired.

Gini Dietrich: Dang it.

Chip Griffin: Right after this.

Gini Dietrich: Every week, either you quit or I get fired.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, well.

Gini Dietrich: This happens every week. I’m going to stop showing up.

Chip Griffin: Somehow we keep recording, so.

Gini Dietrich: I keep showing up. I’m going to tell Jen not to send me the link anymore.

Chip Griffin: There you go. It is what it is, you know. I got to say something to try to keep people listening, you know.

You got to capture them in that first moment when they’re watching the video or clicking on the download link and listening to it. Your car at the gym or on their bicycle or wherever they’re at. So, yeah, so, okay, I’m not actually going to fire you, but, but I did think it was a good intro to the topic that, that you came up with based on a message that you had read in the discussion forum, where there was an owner who was struggling with a recent termination and, and both what it meant for that individual termination, as well as what it means for trusting employees going forward.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. I mean, without betraying any confidences, there, there was a conversation about how someone had been fired and the agency owner learned after the person was fired that he had done a lot of egregious things such as downloading contracts, using the, the agency’s time and resources to service his own clients and things like that.

And you know, I think we all struggle with people in general and you know, bad hires and what you do when you have a bad hire. And, you know, I think a lot of us tend to look, look inwardly to say, okay, where did I make the mistake? And where did I go wrong? But also sometimes people, people like pull the wool over your eyes and they’re bad people and it has nothing to do with you.

So, you know, there, I think there are times when certainly you’ve made a bad hire because you’ve ignored red flags, just like you might take on a new client because you’ve ignored red flags, and sometimes the stuff just happens.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, and you know, so you have to be careful that you don’t beat yourself up about these things, right, to that point.

At the same time, you do need to take lessons from each of them to try to figure out what you might do differently in the future, either in your hiring process, your management process, or in the process you used for termination. Because there’s always, as unpleasant as these circumstances can be, there’s always something that you can take away from it that will help you to be a better business owner, manager, leader in the future.

Gini Dietrich: Absolutely. And I think, you know, from, from the conversation or the discussion that happened, one of the things that I was reminded of is just to check my employment contracts because I was, I was pretty sure that our employment contracts say things like you can’t moonlight and you can’t, you know, without prior approval and you can’t do those things and certainly that doesn’t stop somebody from from doing it if they’re going to do it. But it does remind the honest people that and and hopefully you’re you’re mostly hiring honest people that they can’t do those things without prior approval. Now. I don’t care and as long as somebody comes to me and says, Hey, listen, I want to freelance right for this publication.

Or, you know, my, my brother owns a shoe company and I’d like to do PR for him. Whatever happens to be where it doesn’t conflict with the work that we do. Great. Thank you for telling me. And as long as it doesn’t affect your work during the day, I have no problem with it. But, you know, I think it I did actually go back and look at our employment contract to make sure it does say that in there, because that’s one of the things that we require is that you have that conversation.

And that’s not to say that everyone will. I mean, like I said, if you’ve hired somebody who’s dishonest and they pulled the wool, the wool over your eyes or you’ve ignored red flags, they may still do it, but at least you’ve covered it with 90% or 95% of your employees.

Chip Griffin: Right. I mean, you know, fundamentally dishonest people are going to be dishonest.

So you can only protect yourself so much. You do want to put guideposts in their guide guardrails in there for those employees who are inclined to do the right thing. But you know, maybe they’re not certain. And so you can give them that framework to live within so that you know, they don’t inadvertently do something that you would not be happy with.

And obviously to the extent that you have these policies in writing, it gives you leverage, it gives you something to hang your hat on if something goes south, right? So either you can use it to resolve the situation or to potentially head off, you know, other adverse consequences down the road. I, the one thing I will say, because you’ve referenced employment contracts is be sure to consult with your legal counsel and HR consultant about proper structure.

I personally don’t like employment contracts for anything except the most senior employees. I much prefer an offer letter and employee handbook framework for it, but you will get different advice from different professionals. You need to make sure the ones you’re working with have reviewed and vetted what you’re doing to make sure that you’re not actually creating more problems than you’re solving. Because if you kind of do it just based on a few Google searches or something you hear on this show, you may end up putting yourself in a box that you don’t want to be in.

Gini Dietrich: Or my favorite is, Hey, does anybody have an employment contract I can borrow?

And then you, you get a whole bunch from your friends and then they, you just make a copy and make it your own. Don’t do that.

Chip Griffin: Oh, and I, I’ve seen some really crazy one instance where an agency had taken an employment contract from an overseas firm and used that in the U. S. Oh. And so now you had the mess of an employment contract, but also with all sorts of weird provisions in there that referenced laws and regulations that don’t exist here. Yes. And so how do you even end up interpreting that? I couldn’t even begin to tell you. So, so be really, you know, obviously that’s a, that’s an obvious example and one that anyone should catch, but there will be others where, you know, you borrow something from a firm that’s in California and you’re not or vice versa.

Right. The worst is if you’re in California, you borrow one from somewhere else and you’re, then you’re probably definitely sticking your toe in a place you don’t want to be. So so do be careful about that, but do make sure that you have these policies and make sure that you’re being clear about the expectations about what employees can and cannot do, whether that’s with moonlighting or, you know, their social media accounts or you know, anything, right?

You know, if it’s something that concerns you, you should have a policy around it to make sure that everybody understands. And again, have your professionals vet it to make sure that your expectation is actually legal, right? That you’re not trying to tell them they can’t do something that you have. no ability to tell them they can’t do.

A great example of that is you can’t have a policy that they can’t badmouth you, right? In most cases, that actually violates at least here in the U. S. Federal regulation, right? You know, employees have the right to complain about their employer as long as, you know, they’re doing it within certain bounds.

So you can’t tell them they can’t do that in all likelihood. Again, check with your own legal counsel. But those are the kinds of things that you want to be aware of that you’re setting rules that are actually enforceable.

Gini Dietrich: So let’s talk about how you might avoid a problem hire like, like this friend of mine posted about, you know, finding out later that he was doing work for family members and for friends using the, the, not only using the firm’s resources and, and time, but also their logo and their letterhead and all of that.

So. Which is highly unethical. So how do you, how do you interview for those kinds of people to sort of vet them out or discover the red flags?

Chip Griffin: I mean, it’s really hard, right? I mean, it’s like vetting a new client. We hire people based on too little information. We work with clients based on too little information.

At the same time, you can’t really get enough information in a reasonable process that, you know, that’s ever going to come to a conclusion, right? I mean, if I’m hiring somebody, what have I talked to them for? I mean, me personally, as the owner, if I particularly, if I’ve got multiple employees, I’ve probably talked to that new hire for an hour or less.

Yeah. That’s really fair. If I am the owner and the manager, maybe I’ve talked to them for two or three hours tops right before I make a decision. You don’t know enough about somebody in that window of time. And sure you can check references, but I think we’ve talked previously about how I think that’s almost pointless because I mean, only an absolute moron gives you someone who’s going to give a bad reference.

So, you know, I’m not sure, you know, what you’ve achieved by doing that. I mean, certainly it’s probably best practice to keep doing it anyway, but. You know, in my whole career, I, I can’t tell you of any time I’ve called a reference and gotten a bad reference for somebody, right? They just, cause you don’t give those names, right?

The people who are going to say, yeah… I’ve had ones where people called me, but they were not ones where I agreed to be a reference.

Gini Dietrich: That’s right. I was just going to say that.

Chip Griffin: So that, that is different, right? And so you certainly can use that. You can, if you know someone who knows the person. But you also have to be careful about that because you don’t want to burn somebody who maybe their whole network doesn’t know that they’re looking for a job, right? And so, you know, you don’t know, you call someone you know, and all of a sudden it turns out that they let that person’s boss know. Now you’ve hurt them. So you’ve got to be a little bit cautious about those kinds of things just to be respectful of people who are interviewing with you.

But if you know somebody, that’s a… you know, that that’s a much better reference than one that you’ve been provided by the potential new hire. I mean, how you find these people is also an influence, right? I mean, if I get a recommendation from a current employee, I have much higher confidence in them because most people aren’t going to recommend that a bad apple come in and work with them, right?

Because that looks bad to them. It, it hurts overall. So there are things you can do, but at the end of the day, it’s still a gamble, no matter, no matter how well you think you know somebody, I think we’ve all had people in our lives that we were shocked when something, when they did something in terms of misbehavior, like, wow, I never would have guessed that so and so would ever do something like that.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I hired somebody who worked for Edelman for 20 years and had glowing references. She was not a good employee at all. So, like, even still, and I did the, I did what you, you said. Like, I called people I knew, not just for the references she provided. I called people I knew and everyone talked such, I mean, they said wonderful things.

Everyone did. Right. She was, she was, ended up being a really terrible employee. She stole from us. It was, it was, she was really bad. But I didn’t get any of that. You know, when you work for Edelman for 20 years, you just assume, you know, that she knows the business, she knows the industry, you know, she worked at the highest levels of the agency there.

And she was very, very, very bad employee. And no one told me, no one told me she got fired. No one. So you can do your due diligence and still not get the inform, all of the information that you need.

Chip Griffin: When that’s the other thing to keep in mind too, is, you know, sometimes people want to get rid of their own bad apples.

And so they, they may not be as upfront with you because they’re like, Oh Chip’s problem now. But that’s great.

Gini Dietrich: No longer my problem. Bye bye.

Chip Griffin: We’ve all had employees over the years. We’re like, Oh. Oh, they’re going to leave? Oh, that would be, that would, oh, that would solve so many problems if they just went somewhere else.

Then I don’t actually have to deal with firing them. Yeah, yeah. So, so and so’s looking, you know, I’ve got somebody who might be a good fit for you. So, yeah, I mean, you’ve got to be careful. And look, I mean, there are plenty of good people who are bad employees and vice versa, right? Sure, yeah, yeah. You know, trying to trying to figure it all out is a challenge.

I think the most important thing is to make sure that you have systems in place that you can try to identify people who are misbehaving sooner rather than later. You want to have a culture where, you know, not that people are ratting each other out, but if someone sees something, they should say something.

And, and so, you know, obviously if you’re a very small shop, that’s going to be more challenging, but you also have more visibility into what people are doing in your very small shop. So. But as you get bigger, make sure that people feel comfortable saying, yeah, so and so is, you know you know, uses abusive language or expects things that are unreasonable of us or all the many things that I’ve seen go wrong with managers and employees over the years.

Gini Dietrich: So one of the things we talked about at the beginning was, you know, Try not to take it personally or beat yourself up for it. So, and I think that’s hard. So let’s talk for a few minutes about, you know, how to, how to handle, you know, letting somebody bad go or somebody incompetent go and not taking it personally.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. And so I think this is one of those ones where you do have to be very careful to try to take as much emotion out of it as possible. Because emotion only leads to bad places when it comes to terminations. And we’ve, we’ve talked in the past about terminations generally and that kind of thing, but you know, it You know, I, I, if I recall correctly from this particular instance, there was some discussion about whether or not it would be a for cause termination.

Mm-hmm. always be careful with for cause terminations. For cause terminations frequently come about because of an emotional response from the owner or manager. And, and I know this because I’ve done a very small number of for cause terminations over the years and every time I’ve done a for cause termination, I’ve gotten angry before I did it.

Right. Because it’s not like, if it’s for cause that means that someone has you know, demonstrably violated some policy or done something so egregious that you feel like you have no choice. And I think the first thing to do is to try to, if you can, put some distance between that emotion and the final, you know, meeting to do the termination or the decision even to do the termination, right?

To make sure that you’re not allowing the emotion to overcome you. You’ve observed what you believe has happened actually did happen and actually was as egregious as egregious as you thought, because I will tell you that on a couple of occasions with for cause terminations, you know, given a few weeks of reflection, were they fireable offenses?

Absolutely. Did they need to be done as for cause? Probably not. Probably could have done them as regular termination, and that then takes a lot of the emotion on both sides out of the equation.

Gini Dietrich: So the difference between a regular termination and for cause is one comes with severance and, you know, not burning bridges, and for cause typically does not.

Chip Griffin: Correct. I mean, when you do for cause, typically you withhold severance. Yep. You know, typically you would, and so as a result, you’re stating the cause, right? Yep. One of the things that we’ve talked about in the past when doing terminations is that you should avoid getting into specifics. For cause you have to get into specifics because you’re explaining the reason why we are, you know, being you know, so firm in this action, right?

And for cause also carries with it certain implications, potentially when it comes to unemployment or things like that, depending on local rules and regulations and all that kind of thing. So you need to be careful about it. And so unless it is so black and white that there’s no other option, I would stay away from for cause.

I just I think the trouble is simply not worth it in 99 out of 100 cases.

Gini Dietrich: And what do you think, just in your opinion, and I have some thoughts too, but what, in your opinion, what are for cause things like harassment?

Chip Griffin: Sure. I mean, for cause to me at this point, things that things that I would say absolutely need to remain in for cause would be anything where it’s, you know, a clear violation of law.

Yeah. Or regulation. Something where, you know, is is some sort of clear harassment of some kind. You know, something where it is an extensive misappropriation of agency resources, right? I mean, you know, embezzlement, something like that, not like, I mean, you know, in, in the case that you describe where someone’s, you know, doing daylighting. I’d be really careful. I mean, it would depend on what it was, but it’d have to be pretty egregious. If it’s for friends and family, I’m not treating that as a for cause. Honestly, if it, if it’s, if it’s for a potential client or something like that or, or there’s confidential information being disclosed, okay, maybe, right.

Then I might start thinking about it. But I, I, to me, it has to be a pretty high bar. I think, you know, for me, the, the one for cause termination that I would emphatically stick with was over the course of my career and would never put into a different category with someone who had been clearly warned the week before not to engage in certain activity and continued to do it after that clear warning right?

I mean, at that point, you know, you, you are now completely questioning all of my authority. And so I really have no choice. You violated a written rule that you were given a warning on. Yep. See ya. Bye. Yep. But, you know, in general, I think you need to have a pretty, pretty high bar for it these days.

Gini Dietrich: Interesting. So, laws, regulations, that kind of stuff, it’s for cause. And things like using your firm’s resources, although not, definitely fireable, but it’s not for cause.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, I think if it takes more than a sentence to explain why you’ve done the for cause to a layperson, Love it. Then, then you, you probably don’t need to do it for cause, right?

Because like daylighting, you try to explain that to an average person, right? They’re going to be like, well, what’s the big deal? I make phone calls and stuff on off, I use my email like, you know, but, but if it’s, you know, so and so was harassing another employee. Okay, cool. Yeah. Everybody gets that instantly.

Yep. No explanation needed. So I think if you use that test, if you can explain it in one sentence, you know, to your mom or dad you’re probably good.

Gini Dietrich: Okay. So I have a question. Oh boy. As you, as you know, I’m 20,000 years behind the rest of the world and I just started watching Succession. And there’s an episode in which Tom uses one of his employees as a footstool.

Cause or not cause?

Chip Griffin: Oh, that’s absolute cause. By that point, he’s done so many, I mean, all of the characters in that show have done so many things that should be for cause terminations. Yeah. That’s probably not your, your best example.

Gini Dietrich: I was like What is happening? You’re using an employee as a footstool.

Chip Griffin: I don’t remember that particular episode, but I assume that was Greg, right?

Who was the footstool?

Gini Dietrich: No, Greg actually walked in to see it happening. Greg was like, I don’t know what’s going on.

Chip Griffin: Okay. All right. Poor Greg. Yeah. Poor Greg. What are you going to do? Yeah, no, but I mean, I, look, I, I, I think that you have to be careful with these for causes because they’re just… they’re usually just not worth the trouble.

And so just, you know, pay two, four weeks severance, something like that. Try to make it as clean an exit as possible. Move on and take your lessons from it. Right. Because I think, you know, another function of this discussion was, you know, the ability to trust future hires, right? Because you’ve gotten burned once and you’re absolutely going to be concerned about it. And it will take time for that to fade. That next hire, you’re gonna be watching much more carefully, which is good and bad, right? Because you have to be careful that the lesson you take away is not that you need to micromanage and become obsessively involved. So, I mean, I suspect, I mean, I know I’ve had terminations where it does cause me to really to go in the wrong direction with the next hire.

I don’t know if you’ve had the same experience, but it’s, you know, you It’s very easy to do, to overcorrect. Yep. You know, it’s, it’s like, you know, driving on the ice in the winter, something that, yeah, I can’t, well, I guess you don’t really drive, so you can’t appreciate it quite as much.

Gini Dietrich: I do now since the pandemic. I do.

Chip Griffin: Since the pandemic you do. Okay. In any case, in, in cold climates when you’re on the ice, you have to be careful about, you know, oversteering to, to correct. Because that’s when you start spinning around in circles and so it’s, it’s very much the same when you’re dealing with setbacks in the business.

You know, you don’t want to to overcorrect because that’s when you start making a bad situation even worse.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, it’s I mean people and this is what I said in the discussion. I said, you know, people are hard This is the hardest part of our part of our job. You know, if you if we didn’t have the people part life would be grand but you can’t take it personally.

We all make mistakes. I think we all look for, This will definitely be a good learning. It was a good learning for the rest of us in the conversation too. You know, I, like I said, I immediately went and reviewed our employment contracts just to make sure that I’m covering up, covering my agency from that perspective.

So I think we all have an opportunity to learn, but you’re right. We can’t, and it’s really hard to do this. It’s easier said than done, but you can’t take it personally.

Chip Griffin: No, and we need to remind ourselves that that most people that we hire are not inherently evil and dishonest. That’s right. More than a small number may end up being incompetent or not up to our expectation or something like that.

But there is a huge difference. And so you need to get good as you manage more people at really identifying you know, who are the select few who are evil and dishonest versus who, you know, maybe just needs, you know, a little coaching or maybe needs to move on, but it doesn’t need to be done so in an adversarial fashion. And I think you will find that more things fall into that bucket.

And I think if you, if you come at things and you simply assume this person is, is simply incompetent or simply didn’t understand what to do or what have you. And and only allow yourself to later be convinced that they did it because they are evil and dishonest. I think you will be in a better place, right?

So always cast things in that best light possible that maybe you didn’t communicate the expectations correctly. And so that’s why it happened. And only once you’re like, Nope. I, I know for certain that I communicated this and there was no ambiguity and I know they understood it. Now, now that’s where you can start looking at cause.

Gini Dietrich: People.

It’s the hardest part of our jobs.

Chip Griffin: It is. And it’s people internally. It’s people on the client side. I mean, agency world is a. people business. And so, you know, you, you’ve got to have patience and thick skin and you know, the, the resilience to, to keep trying again when something doesn’t work because you will have failed employees, you will have failed client engagements.

And that’s right. And if you, if you were going into the agency world thinking that that is not going to happen, we’re going to be very disappointed probably sooner rather than later.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, it’s really hard, but you’re right. It’s, it’s a great way to learn. It’s a great way to learn.

Chip Griffin: It’s a great way to learn.

So hopefully people have learned from this conversation. And if not, you can fire us by simply unsubscribing to this podcast.

Gini Dietrich: I feel like you’re supposed to do the opposite. If you enjoyed this conversation or you learned something, please subscribe.

Chip Griffin: Well, I’m operating under the assumption that anyone who stuck with us this long actually did find they were getting something from it.

I mean, if not, we can’t help you anyway, so go ahead and unsubscribe. Because if, if you spent 22 minutes listening to us thinking these people are idiots, they have no clue what they’re talking about. You need therapy of some sort. You don’t need business coaching. We can’t help you. So.

Gini Dietrich: Well, on that note.

Chip Griffin: On that note. Thanks for joining us. We’ll be back with you soon. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: And it depends

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The Hosts

Chip Griffin is the founder of the Small Agency Growth Alliance (SAGA) where he helps PR & marketing agency owners build the businesses that they want to own. He brings more than two decades of experience as an agency executive and entrepreneur to share the wisdom of his success and lessons of his failures. Follow him on Twitter at @ChipGriffin.


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, the lead blogger at Spin Sucks, and the host of Spin Sucks the podcast. She also is co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Follow her on Twitter at @GiniDietrich.

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