March 23, 2008 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
“Mr. Beaver, I am office manager for a medical clinic that is owned and operated by physicians originally from overseas. I want to stress that they are excellent docs. I am writing you out of frustration to the way they deal with employees and the general public,” the e-mail from Sara began.
“The doctors who work in the clinic are mostly from the same country, and share a similar attitude towards the staff. On the one hand, they yell a great deal, are impatient, arrogant, and yet tolerate completely wrong behavior from some employees.
“Instead of taking quick action to get rid of someone who does not fit into the office, they keep that person around until something really bad happens, such as a yelling match in the front office with patients nearby — or a fist fight, which really happened!
“When we do let someone go, there is always a Labor Board or Unemployment Insurance claim, and it is a real waste of time. Do you have any suggestions? I want to do my job and help them, but also do not want to get sued or fired! I am worrying myself sick over this. Thanks, Sara, from Santa Maria.”
In many cases, as my Santa Maria reader accurately points out, immigrant business owners often either do not understand or refuse to follow the laws of our land. Lawyers by the thousands are frustrated by clients they want to help, but who insist on doing things their own way. It is a prescription for trouble.
The issues raised by my reader can be defined in two words: culture clash.
“In very real terms, we now have employers whose view of their employees goes back hundreds of years, where the boss is father, and father knows best,” I was told by a hearing officer for the Labor Commissioner’s Office who asked that I not reveal her name.
“If everything goes well, then everyone is happy, but what these employers fail to understand is that the longer they tolerate poor employees, the more they create trouble for their entire organization and the risk of being sued. When someone isn’t doing the job, for their sake an employer needs to terminate after giving them a chance to succeed,” she pointed out.
The cultural elements of this problem were clearly illustrated by a cardiologist from India who was eager to explain to me his view of the workplace:
“From where I come, when you get a job, it is for many years, and you become part of a family of all other workers. We are a very old culture, and do not like discord or confrontation in the working environment, wanting to make things run smoothly, unlike the typical American view, which is to fire immediately,” Dr. X added.
That view was also expressed by a physician from Taiwan:
“For us to fire someone is a great sign of failure, an insult to the employee and their family, also revealing to others that we might have selected the wrong person. It is a loss of face which is a concept that runs deep in Asia, but which is not familiar to most Americans. Therefore, we try to work with the employee, showing the way to better job performance.”
He enthusiastically suggested that I speak with his office manager “to see what makes our office flow so smoothly, with happy employees.”
And so I did.
“Smoothly? Is he kidding you?” office manager Chong told me. “This place is a mess, and I completely agree with your Santa Maria reader. My boss thinks he’s great, yet tolerates employees who need to be fired for their own good, and for the sake of our patients. Unless they just about kill someone, nothing happens!” she said, laughing.
Labor Law attorneys will tell you that when someone isn’t working out, and it’s plain obvious, get rid of that person now.
“When an employer or office manager hesitates to terminate an employee who, for whatever reason, does not measure up, it is an invitation to real trouble later,” labor lawyer David Blaine of Bakersfield told me when I reviewed the facts of this case with him.
“Your reader in Santa Maria is absolutely right. Trouble is brewing, and in a society which loves to sue for just about any perceived wrong, the longer the doctor keeps misfits on the job, the greater the chances for him being sued.
“While it may sound like a pitch to put a labor lawyer on retainer, that is precisely what many companies — as well as medical corporations — are doing today. With the complicated nature of labor law, employers need to have a go-to person or HR resource available. The further away from a business background — such as is often the case with physicians — the more you need to consult with someone who knows the law and follow their advice,” Blaine concluded.
Sara, in my opinion, needs to make a choice: to “worry herself sick,” as she wrote, or look for a far more sane place to work!
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.