Having to discipline or fire an employee is my least favorite task as an owner and operator of self-storage facilities. It’s also sometimes necessary. It’s my job to keep each property running smoothly, efficiently and profitably. When a staff member finds it too challenging to contribute to this goal, fails to show up for work without providing notice or becomes your silent partner (theft), it’s time to act.
I was recently working with a young staff member on her sales techniques. On one occasion, she refused to listen to her recorded sales call for coaching. In fact, she hid in the restroom. I approached her with a smile and reassurance that I was only trying to help her improve her skills and secure her bonus. Unfortunately, she didn’t believe she should be required to participate in any training.
At the end of the day, if a self-storage employee violates your policies or procedures, refuses training, or can’t adequately perform their duties, you need to take corrective action or replace them. Either can be hard to do. The following guidance should help.
Firing one of your self-storage team members for misconduct or poor performance is an end game and last resort. The other option is to pursue disciplinary action. Of course, this is also unpleasant, which is why it’s best to have clear, well-communicated, written guidelines in the form of an employee handbook to set expectations and prevent punitive scenarios. These rules should cover what’s expected from the employee on all significant matters such as operating the property, handling customers, communicating with supervisors, taking time off, etc.
Here are several circumstances in which staff discipline may be necessary:
- General misconduct in which an employee disregards or disobeys company policies
- Poor store performance based on operating income, delinquencies, etc.
- Poor employee performance based on not fulfilling duties like overlocking delinquent units in a timely manner
- Missing scheduled times to open and close the property
- Unauthorized/unreported absences
- Misuse of email, the internet or social media on company computers/tablets
Depending on the severity of the case, you may wish to give a verbal or written warning. Keep in mind, though, that when you determine an employee warrants a reprimand, the discipline will depend on whether you’re using an “at-will employment” or “progressive disciplinary” system of termination.
In my experience, most self-storage companies use “at-will” employment with a written contract. Under this setup, if an employee fails to abide by the agreement, they can be fired for good cause. Most employment agreements define what “good cause” is. It can include things like poor work or store performance, violation of company rules, and threats of violence.
Ultimately, you never want to terminate a self-storage employee for an invalid reason. This is why you should document every incident clearly and consistently. For a fired worker to prevail with a wrongful-termination lawsuit, they must prove you based your decision on an illegal factor like age, race, sex, retaliation or public-policy violations, or an illegitimate business reason, such as poor performance or a violation of a work rule that wasn’t in writing.
The key takeaway is to have written policies and procedures, and document every major instance in which a self-storage employee violates a specific company rule that results in formal discipline. When you document issues clearly and consistently, you protect your position in the event the employee tries to claim wrongful termination.
Here are some of the main reasons you may legitimately have grounds to fire a self-storage team member:
- Bad attitude or behavior toward customers and/or office staff
- Poor store performance
- Sexual harassment or bullying others
- Poor attendance (job abandonment)
- Safety violations (not common but something to watch for)
Terminating an employee isn’t as simple as telling them they’re fired. To do it properly, you have to have a formal process in place. This includes:
- Verifying the reason for termination to ensure it isn’t discriminatory and that meets the criteria outlined in your employee handbook
- Identifying and reviewing employee disciplinary records for issues and bad behaviors prior to termination, so they’re fresh in your mind
- Consulting your termination checklist (more on this shortly) to ensure you have everything need
Once you’ve decided termination is the best course of action, be honest, direct and respectful. Don’t make it personal, and don’t change your mind. Remember, this action is due to poor performance, attendance or whatever the violation or accumulation of infractions may be.
When I have to let go of a self-storage employee, I find it helpful to use a termination checklist. It’s a rundown of what I need to take to the property or have prepared prior to the meeting. In addition to the following items, you’ll also need to be ready to fill in for the employee or have someone waiting in the wings to take over.
On the day of termination, I perform the following actions:
- Have the employee remove their personal items from the facility under supervision.
- Collect any credit cards, name badges, business cards, uniforms and company-issued equipment such as cell phones, laptops, tablets, etc.
- Remove the employee’s access to computers, management software and gate-access system. If this person is a resident manager, you may need to hold off on removing gate access if they need to get in and out of their apartment.
- Collect all site keys including those for the office, buildings, desks, filing cabinets, etc.
- Remove the employee from email and other distribution lists.
- Change the facility voicemail if it was a personalized message by the terminated employee.
- Change the locks on any company units. This may sound like a pain, but I once had a fired manager take all of our auction files when they left the property.
Finally, be sure you know and follow all of your state’s requirements for termination. For example, in California, employees should receive their final pay at the time of termination, not at the end of the pay period. Also, pay them for the entire day, regardless of what time of day you let them go.
A Word on Resident Managers
Terminating an employee who lives on site and works at the self-storage property is more challenging than a rudimentary firing. When you have a resident manager, you need to have an apartment-usage agreement in place in addition to an employment agreement. Both need to address what happens upon termination.
The written agreement should include the number of days required to vacate the apartment as well as the documented condition of the apartment, appliances, etc., that were provided and will remain once the employee moves out. You may also want to collect a cleaning deposit the manager pays when they first take the position.
I was once cautioned to “hire slowly and fire fast.” Though my younger self thought this was harsh advice, I can honestly say I have left poor performers and thieves employed longer than I should have and regretted every one of those as a bad decision. Be decisive and true to your self-storage business—no exceptions.
Carol Mixon is the owner of SkilCheck Services Inc., which provides self-storage auditing, mystery shopping, development and operations consulting, and sales training. She’s owned and managed more than 35 storage locations in the West and is a frequent speaker at industry tradeshows. She’s also written more than 100 articles for various publications and has served on state and national self-storage association boards. For more information, call 800.374.7545; email [email protected].