August 11, 2020

Creating Rock Star Teams (Pt. 2) By Getting Rid Of Dead Weight With James Savas

PTO 111 | Losing The Dead Weight


Joining Nathan Shields, James Savas is back in this episode to share what PT owners need to do to filter out those team members that are bringing down the culture, morale, and productivity of the team - from communication protocols to exit interviews and everything in-between. Communication is the key, followed by value-centered action. No one likes this part of the business, but putting a little effort into it will allow your rock stars to stand out and the rest to find the exit.


Listen to the podcast here:

Creating Rock Star Teams (Pt. 2) By Getting Rid Of Dead Weight With James Savas

This is part two of my interview with James Savas. He is the Deputy CEO at Hands-On Diagnostics. He is a Senior HR Professional with specialty in Business Development. He's also a certified Educator and Executive Coach. We're talking about a ton of stuff HR-related that, for me, was the bane of my existence as a young PT owner. I didn't want to deal with all the HR headaches. I'm excited to bring him on and share some of his wisdom for us PT owners and help us through this. James, thanks for staying on.

It’s good to be here.

Thanks for taking the time out. I appreciate it. I’m breaking this down into two episodes because you've got a ton of wisdom to share. In the first episode, we talked about the recruiting, hiring and onboarding of a team member into our clinics. A lot of great information that you shared there, but we want to go through the entire life cycle of an employee's experience on our teams. In saying that, we finished off by talking about what it's like to onboard someone or train somebody to bring them on and to be successful. People who are reading this probably have someone on their team where you said, “Is there anyone that you'd like to get rid of?” They'd probably say, “Yes. I know who that is,” or “Is there someone that would be a lot easier if they weren't around?”

More than likely, they have 1 or 2 people in mind. Before we get to that point, I don't know if I’ve ever spoken on the show about how to have appropriate disciplinary procedures. For example, a team member will come in late. How do you handle that? You spoke to them. What if they consistently do it? What's next? When I have coaching clients, they'll say they come in consistently late and I'm like, “What are you doing?” “We said one thing to them once, but we haven't done anything since.” I'm like, “You probably need to determine what your procedure is.” How can you guide us as we take someone through the disciplinary process? Maybe their infractions aren't so much that they should be let go, but how do you hold them accountable?

I have three children myself and look at how I’ve trained, I use that loosely, them. Any good employee, we're assuming that you've gotten good employees in here. Maybe not. Maybe you have some people there that need to go. A good employee, they're on the same terms, same purposes. We'll take discipline and go, “Sorry about that.” The way you are I might like, “I'm sorry. I screwed it up. I apologize. It won’t happen again.” Once you're told what the policy is and you're slapped on the wrist gently, you change your behavior and you fix it. You apply the right steps to go, “You’re bad. Don't do that anymore,” or “Get the earlier bus,” or whatever. I'd worked in New York and knew all about buses and subways. Montana is very different.

Number one is good employees. New employees will be receptive to basic disciplinary actions. If they're not, I would challenge that they’re not good employees. If they give you a lip for bringing up, “Cindy, but she always,” “I don't care about them. We're talking about you. You were late today.” As you can probably tell, I jump on if I observe something I don't like, whether I'm wrong or right. I don't mean to jump on like, “Rah,” but I’ll communicate about it immediately. If I see someone come in late, “Let’s go talk. What happened?” “It was,” “Understood. Don’t do that again. We can’t have you late. You're a role model. It's important. Cool.” Here's the thing. If I see them do it again, it's easy because I can go, “What's going on now? This is day two.” It's case by case. If I don't see it, then I don't know.

A big part of the disciplinary point is we need reports to happen. You need all the staff educated that I'm writing reports is a good thing. That's fine. That's a challenge because I don't want to tell on her or him. With professionals, it's a little easier to get them to do it than the administrative staff in my experience. Not one for one, but most of the time. It has to start with the team understanding. On the onboarding side of this, understanding that you're writing reports to HR or to owner or to me is important to me. I'm not going to tell them that, “Cindy told me you were late.” I'm going to say, “You were late.” Training your staff to know that that's okay and communication is good is important because now if I get a report that she was late a second time, that person, then I’ll go and see them.

I know an owner and in many of your cases with your clients, they probably are not going to go, “Hold on, stop. You were late.” They're not going to stop doing. Here's a tip that I find on discipline. When you’re thought well by your staff, when you are opinion-leading, generally amazing dire girl, you do a lot of good and they know you do good. They know you're there to fight for them. They know you've got their back. When you have a very high affinity on both sides, all you have to do as an initial disciplinary point is withdraw a little bit of that affinity, a little bit of that care.

It’s the same way that when you go home with your loved ones, and a little cold shoulder. Their antennas are like, “What happened? Are you okay with that?” You immediately feel something's not right here. I’ve had success training owners and myself as an executive, withdrawing a little bit of that care, a little bit of that love for the employee. A little bit of, “Good morning. They didn't like that. They didn't like I didn't look them in the eye.” Eight out of ten times it will prompt a conversation, “Are you upset?” “I'm not upset, but you're late again.” That's one way to do it. You have to maintain that inspiring high tone individual. When you want to withdraw a little bit of that care, it affects them and they don't like that kind of initial disciplinary step.

Our team members want communication - how well they stand in the company. Give them the open communication they need, whether for their good or bad behaviors, and their productivity will improve. Click To Tweet

I love the report aspect. I can't tell you how many times it came down to having to hold someone accountable. I can't remember the specifics of the different scenarios, but I'd have to hold someone accountable. I'd say, “You cannot do that.” They would say, “So-and-so has been saying this and doing this behind your back I don't know how many times, and you do nothing about it.” I'm like, “They did it behind my back and no one told me anything about it. How can you hold me responsible for that?” My fault in that is that I didn't have a way for them to communicate things that I was not seeing. I didn't give them that communication line. I didn't throw them the line to say, “When there's an issue, you can report it to me and this is how you would do it.”

I'd find out after the fact, after I let someone go, they'd say, “So-and-so, when you weren't around, they would take off and get their hair done and show up two hours later. Nothing was going on.” I was like, “When did that happen?” “That happened all the time.” “No one said a word about that. How was I supposed to know?” That happened often because I didn't establish the communication lines to do that. Having a report like that and doing the proper footwork ahead of time to train them in how to use a report. That it's not tattle-taling. We're trying to do what's best for the business. There's a way to do that.

It is getting them comfortable with that idea. When I'm training staff on reporting, one of the drills I’ll do with them as a trainer on that is, I’ll have them right there on the spot. “Everybody, write up a report right now, something you've observed in the last three months that was not cool and didn't follow policy.” That's their completion quiz. I’ve got to see a report.

You can't check off the checklist until they do that.

I give them this example. Let's say if somebody was murdered, someone did something gruesome and horrible, you saw it happen and you said nothing about it. It was proven later in a court of law that you observed the murder and you didn't do something about it. You are liable for part of what happened there. I said the same thing what I would say to that person that you mentioned in your example, and say, “Why didn't you tell me that? You saw it how many times?” I would be this close to disciplining her or him for not telling me that she saw her do it.

A lot of people might talk about having instances in which they were “disciplined” or on probation or written up in their workspace. Did you have write-up policies and steps towards potentially letting somebody go? You get three strikes and you're out. Did you have a stepped program like that?

Yes. You have to have it in that employee manual. Three or four strikes, with the asterisks that this is always case by case. Something severe you're gone tomorrow is at-will employment state. I don't have to tell you why you're going, but then that's the legal side. Definitely, there was a protocol. One thing that's incredibly valuable that many people don't do with HR guys or girls, anyone in between, write the reports but then file them. It will be a bunch of emails they'll send because they don't want to write something, which I understand these days. I get it, but then they're not in a file. When we want to let somebody go, I'm looking for her name and email. Hopefully, I’ll find it or if you remember that was an email. You need that formality. There's got to be a form of policy or procedure or you're in trouble.

I highly recommend my coaching clients. If you're going to write somebody up, one first is usually a verbal warning. The second and third, there are going to be written statements outlining the infractions, the when, the where and why, and both people signing off on that. It's a very simple document so that they understand that they're being reprimanded and that you actually took the time to reprimand them. That goes in a physical file folder. It could be scanned and put in a Google Drive folder if you want, but make sure that's HIPAA compliant. Make sure that's there so that you have your case for why someone, if you need it.

One of the policies in one of my earlier jobs in my career was, you would investigate somebody or some area. A report in an area, the clinical areas are always messy. I want to know that too. It's not just about Joanne who runs the clinical area, but I need to know that the clinical area smells on every Wednesday or something or that the billing team’s lunch room is a mess. I want to know that.

The laundry is not getting done or you name it.

Anything that they observe. I make it very clear and clean that I want that as the boss wants it, when everyone else's opinion cares. In an earlier company, we would investigate based on the fatness of the file. This is when it was papers, but when it was about a thumb thick, half an inch or more thick. That's a lot of stuff in a file. They are not certifications, not your I-9s, but that's quite a personnel file. If you have no time to see somebody's work all day, which you don't, I would audit it once a month or once a quarter, probably for most owners. Let's be realistic. Audit the personnel files.

If you're small, no one in your company is going to have the tension to go and pull all together and interview the girl and fire her. It’s not going to happen. Let’s be honest. If every quarter you go, “I'm going to spend a couple of hours and look through all of my files here, the personnel files. She's had 3 or 4, but then she stopped being late. She was warned twice. She handled it for two months and she was warned again. “Good to know.” That's good and bad for different reasons. The auditing of them and the awareness of what's in those files, the typical owner has no time for that. Putting in the schedule of a quarterly review of these files is valuable. You go, “That happened under my nose?” You didn't know. That's if the report’s in place.

There has to be a process and a procedure, “This is where the reports go. This is how I get them.” I'm sure there's also a follow-up process. After you have received a report, there's probably some communication that needs to go back to the person who wrote it to know that I received it. This is what I'm doing about it. They've gotten to a point where they've followed through the disciplinary process, or they did such an infraction it's time to let them go. What do you recommend we do to let go of dead weight?

Do you mean if that’s confirmed and we're definitely letting him go?

I’ve got many people that I talked to and they're like, “I should've let them go like six months ago.” I never let anyone go too soon, that's for sure. I always wish I had fired them sooner. How do you get rid of them eventually?

Let me tell you one thing is every owner I’ve worked for has a problem with firing. It's not a matter of no time to do it. It's a matter of they're going to get better because you’re a therapist. Ingrained in your being is, “Let's help this person get better, no matter what the struggle is.” Here's an employee and I like him or her and they're great. Maybe I have them for ten years or maybe it's, “She's been at my front desk for twenty years. Whatever the situation is, I can’t let them go,” but you should.

We would always blame ourselves. We haven't trained them enough. Maybe we haven't held them accountable. When we were making excuses, we were dragging our feet. It was good times when we got excited about firing people, because then we knew the replacements were going to be so much better. We’re so much better equipped to bring on somebody who is actually value-aligned at that time.

Losing The Dead Weight: In the same way that onboarding is check-listed, firing has to be check-listed.


Let me say this precursor, you have to not be afraid to fire. You have to have the recruitment lines in, so jammed in, so rolling. You have a waiting list or prospect list or whatever you want to call it. You'll get worried, “I can't lose him.” You're in trouble and then you'll keep them on too long. Certainly, protocol states that you can fire them Monday or Friday. Beginning of the week or end of the week. I always like end of week because end of week, day’s over. No one's left and very few staff are there. They know what's coming or they don't. We can talk about that in a second.

They go home. They have the weekend to sulk and cry. Call everybody and tell them how bad you are and then whatever. I like Fridays in general. Let me say this too, when I'm going to fire, there are selected few people that I will give a heads up on. That may sound funny. Call them your HR guy, call them your manager. People that were good people and things that are changing in your company. They're aware of it or something's going on. You trust them a lot. You trusted them for years and now you have that talk. There are certain cases where I will say, “I want to give you two weeks’ notice.” This is a grain of salt too because that's probably 10% or less of the people you’re going to let go.

I was going to say that's a very small minority.

There is value in that because you want a turnover, a function, write this up. Even if they are being canned at a Friday, always the version of that in a very small unit of time is, “What were you doing in your area that I should know about?” I would make notes of like, “Check the passcode,” and whatever it is. It’s the same way that onboarding was checklisted. Firing has to be checklisted. Remove passwords.

We had to checklist that because it was the passwords, it was the keys, it was the equipment that they had. Maybe it was a laptop that they could take home occasionally or an iPad. We had to make sure we got all that stuff. Get rid of the access to the EMR and the bank. You have to have a checklist so you don't miss any of those steps.

It’s almost 2 or 1.5 because you need the one in front of the person and the one for after they go. That goes to some of the computer stuff. If you want to be on your ball, when you're calling them up at 5:00, at 4:30, you kill all their access before the hammer comes down. I worked with an employer in Long Island in the New York area. I love that they asked this. There was a question on an exit survey that always had to do with, “Did you ever feel that you were discriminated against?” The person had to initial and sign off. There were many more questions, but that was one of a dozen-ish or something. I love that because no matter how bad that exit interview went, they said, “I have to explain it.” “You're firing me now.”

“I get it. We have our reasons for firing you. We can go over that again, but in your time here, it always needed a two-way communication. Have you ever felt that based on your race, your religion, your sex, or age?” “I guess not.” “Fine.” HR is sensitive to that data. You need the data and if they signed a document that said, “It was on good terms,” or whatever, it’s another notch in your favor. If it ever got ugly, you did something about it. I love that. Definitely a checklist, a protocol. Go over their final paycheck protocol. That's on the checklist. You have to go over that. Is it mailed? Was it handed over to them? If it's a sticky thing, hand it to them. If it's a really sticky thing, give them a few bucks, a week's paid, depending on the situation.

Call the CPA or the payroll company and say, “What check do I need to write to get them off and not have to worry about another one?” Make the call ahead of time for sure. Some of those payroll companies, if you work with a payroll company, they need 24 hours’ notice to get a courier to drop off that check in time. It's important to do that. Some of them are easiest firings in which we could tie their actions back to how they did not observe our values. Our values were professionalism, accountability, growth, and empathy.

If we could ever tie their actions back to, “What you did, I hope you understand, did not exemplify professionalism. You didn't hold yourself accountable appropriately. We can't tolerate that. You broke a value.” We tried to hold it to that more so than any particular action. Some actions were simply intolerant. Even those usually tied back to the breaking of a value in some regards or another. That made things a little bit easier. Correct me if I'm wrong, if you've had the disciplinary procedures in the past, they more than likely know that it's coming. If they're surprised by the firing, then you probably haven't had enough communication with them in the past.

Those are always at stake. When you have them in tears, they didn't see it coming. You're like, “You didn't see it coming?”

It was always so much easier when there was communication. Some of our best firings were opportunities for us to hear their complaints. Share our side of the story and say, “You were productive. You did well with our patients and because of that, we're going to give you a good letter of recommendation as long as everything goes smoothly now. In fact, we're going to help you find your next job.” With some of our PTs, we'd start sending out emails to friends, where we’re like, “We had to let go of a friend. If you've got an opening, we would actually recommend them. They're not a good fit and we recognized that.” When we did that, it made us feel good, but it also turned the tables to help them recognize that we weren't enemies. We have to recognize that it's not a fit.

You have to not be afraid to fire. You're in trouble if you keep them on too long. Click To Tweet


You do need to talk to an HR professional or an HR lawyer. That would be probably smart.

With at-will employment, there are some states where it was protocol to give no reason. The human in me wants to let them know why. This was so circumstantial, but the circumstance was that, I never want to get into it and it’s not a good fit. “Your value is great. I love it.” “I was here every day on time.” “You were, but you are not a good fit culturally.” “What do you mean?” “That's all I'm going to say about that.” I’ve had it as intense as the other side as, with a knife in hand, “I demand knowing what you know.” A young lady in marketing, of all places, but she was not having it. She demanded to know, “I have the right to know why.” I got appropriately aggressive with her. It’s not antagonistic, but aggressive. If you want me to pull your personnel file and read you the reports on why, we can do that or we can say, “It's not a good fit and I can write your recommendation letter.” “Okay.”

I do love a recommendation letter saying that in almost any circumstance, “If somebody calls me, I won't say this happened.” To that point you said, it was a short-term firing if they came on even up to a year, I'd say, “It didn't work out and you're having this conversation.” I have said a few times, “For all intents and purposes, on your resume, if you want to put project or you want to put temporary position, we'll back you up.” That way, it doesn't screw them up there. They’re looking for, “What is this, one year and six months at Blah PT?” If they don't put it on there and I'm the employer, “What's this gap of six months?” Instead, “Put us on their PT Blah, six-month project filling in for someone who had maternity.” I don’t care. Say whatever you want, but I’ll make that very clear that, “We got your back.” It's PR. It's the other side of that. “If you're leaving now, still love us as much as you can, please.”

Maybe scrutinize this, if you will, but one of Will's mentors, he said, “If you have a problem employee and they get to a point, you can give them three options. Number one, turn in your resignation now, and I’ll write you a reference letter. Number two, we never have this accountability meeting again. You completely change what you're doing and you are our biggest cheerleader. If something needs to be done and we're asking for a volunteer, you're the first hand that comes up. If that's not the case, we'll immediately let you go. Number three, we give you 2 to 4 weeks to find your next replacement. We're going to train them up. Whenever they're fully trained, then that will also give you time to find your next position. If at any time during that course you cause another infraction, then we're going to let you go immediately. Which of those three options would you like to do?”

It was interesting. We had a couple of those conversations and they actually went well. Some people were like, “I'd like to resign right now. I can see where this is going. If you can get me a check by within 24 hours, I'd be happy.” There were some people who said, “I understand what I did wrong.” This is it's all circumstantial. There were some people that we could do this with. There were some people who simply had to go. There were also some people who, “We're not quite sure. You don't seem like the best fit, but we don't like what you're doing. We're willing to give you another chance if you're willing to take the chance.” That way, it didn't make any surprises come along at all. They were in control of charting their course within our limitations that we provide them.

You asked me for my opinion on it. It's dicey. I don't love it because I would challenge that if you're going to have that conversation, they shouldn't be there, generally. If you're going to go that far, what have they done that you’re even having that conversation and giving somebody an out, it puts you a little bit at effect, I feel. If it worked, it worked, but again, circumstances. If it works, that's great.

The way it worked was usually they would opt-out. Rarely did they stay on. They either resigned that day or they said, “Give me a couple of weeks so I can get my affairs in order.” We said, “Okay.” They weren't so bad. We just didn't want them around anymore, but it worked out well when they opted out.

Prior to firing, if you have this evaluation time like you mentioned in the last show about up in Montana, they have these several months or a year checklist of onboarding or whatever. If you have some regimens of ongoing contact training in the everyday communication, then you're going to see this before it gets there and you're going to nip it in the bud. You're going to go, “It didn't look right.” Like I said previously, if I see an indication by a person having a bad day or they're late, any side of not going well, the next day, “What happened?” You don't want it to get to firing the good people, but you have to be willing to fire.

That brings up another point. There should be that regular communication because sometimes PTs will get so busy doing treatment that it's commonplace to do some annual evaluation or employees very much expect some regular evaluation of their performance. They want good feedback. Creating that process for them can be helpful. It shouldn't be a surprise to you and to them that, “Over the past six months, we've had to talk to you about this a few times. Do you feel like that's handled? Do you feel like I got that covered?” All these things preferably have been communicated in the past. It shouldn't be so much a surprise when it does come up and is addressed.

PTO 111 | Losing The Dead Weight
Losing The Dead Weight: You have to stay aware of what's going on in the practice as best you can, whether that's the reports, the firing process, or an annual review process.


As long as we're not assuming that and we have it documented that we had a discussion or if it was verbal, it was verbal. I like what you said about employee evaluations. As far as the regimen goes, 60 or 90 days after hire, whatever your initial period is, one has to happen there. “How's it going?” “Good.” After hire, an initial, “How's it going?” Definitely annual. Maybe we would do it after the first quarter. We would do it with everybody or I'd have the managers do it. It wasn't like here's a report, read it. What I would do is I'd have the manager fill out their evaluation and then in front of the individual go over their points. “In tardiness, you're great. I love it. Effectiveness at role, remember we had that conversation yesterday, last week, last month, but I gave you a 9 out of 10?”

Open communication. It's on the spot there. They're going to observe. At the end of that sheet, like you said with the reports, the employee now is going to fill out whatever they want. “Here's a paragraph. I don't agree with any of this. This is garbage,” or, “I totally got it. It’s fine.” Sign in the personnel file and you have it there. Also, at the end, that also brings up, “I want a raise. It's been two years.” “Cool.” The manager or the owner or the HR guy, whatever it is, can recommend whatever your protocol is to the owner. “We should look at raise. These are all 9 out of 10s or 4 to the 5s and she's been great.” Cool. I would use it in those two ways as a potential review for raise, but also as an annual thing.

We would have the employees actually fill out those forms themselves and turn them in to us prior to the interview. They would rate themselves on how well they did and how well they exemplified their values, how they added value to our company in the past year? How they've grown? What have they done to improve both themselves and the business over the past year? Those are the things that we would go off of to consider a raise. Is there anything else you want to share about letting go a dead weight? I’ve taken so much of your time. I thank you so much for it. Is there anything else you wanted to dot your i's and cross your t's?

Staying aware of what's going on in the practice as best you can, and that has to happen. Whether that's the reports idea or a version of that, whether it's a firing process, whether it's an annual review process, you have to know what's going on. It's like daily rounds. One last tip. There's a policy about an owner’s, a CEO’s or director’s daily activities. Part of it is walking around all over the place. It's 10 to 30 minutes, depending on how big you are, maybe an hour. Once a week, at least activity is keeping the communication open. That's the big thing. If you don't have the communication. I know what's going on, then you're the complete effect of whatever they want to do.

If people want to get in touch with you, James, how would they do that?

Easiest is email at I don't mind. Anytime.

Every owner has a problem with firing. It's not a matter of having no time to do it; it's a matter of thinking they're going to get better. Click To Tweet

I invite everybody to read the first part of the show if they haven't yet. We tried in this to go through the employee's lifecycle from recruiting all the way to letting them go and give you some tips and ideas along the way. You shared a ton of information in the first episode regarding recruiting, hiring and onboarding. There was a huge amount of value in that. I'm glad we got to talk about in this episode how to let people go. I don't know if I’ve talked a lot about it in the show. Hopefully, it gives some people some ideas on what they can do, give them more confidence in how they can go about it the right way. Thanks again, James. I appreciate your time.

Anytime. I appreciate it. Thanks.

Important Links:

About James Savas

PTO 110 | Creating Rock Star TeamsI love working with ambitious, driven individuals who have dreams of going big(ger) and just need the right support, backup and capacity to see it accomplished. I help them get that done.

The majority of my professional career has been in the Medical sector with the majority of that time in the Human Capital Management/Recruiting and Business Coaching/Development spaces.

Over 20 years I've strategically planned and executed programs and projects for my partner-businesses' expansion from as few as 4 offices to up to 16 office across 3 states. In my time working directly with various Owners and their staff throughout the boroughs of NYC and down the Rocky Mountains, I've hired well over 500 effective and productive Owners, Executives, Managers and Professionals, as well as created the training regimens for those people and their staff.

In addition to my savviness and acumen as a business expansion professional, I'm a successful soccer director and coach and a very very proud father of 3 amazing beings.

My Mantra is - Keep the create in life and be surprised by nothing!

Additional Points of Interest (some outside PT and some for fun):

* Published article in Impact PPSAPTA magazine (2008) "Hiring & Retention"

* Nationally Licensed Soccer Coach

* Director of Development of several Soccer clubs/groups

* Certified Assistant Teacher

* Co-owner (former) of a small family-owned retail dessert business

* International traveller (school in Italy & worked short-term in Ireland)

* Avid survivalist/camper/outdoorsman

* Humanitarian (as I'm able), directly assisted during 9-11 @ ground zero NYC

* Interned w/ MSNBC out of college (Broadcasting Major)

* Was a celeb-host at the 1996 Grammy's and 1997 ESPN Awards (some good stories not for air)

* Was on HGTV (with my family) in episode of a Montana HouseHunters

* Music composer/Short Story writer (Sci-Fi)

* Best hat I wear - DAD; pays shitty but great rewards!

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