No one likes to fire anyone, but most of us will have to do it someday. If you follow the basic steps below, more or less in order, deliberately, and without procrastination, you will be able to do what you need to do and maybe even end up in one piece.
- Have clear and up-to-date personnel policies. Many personnel policies are no longer specific as to such things as length of notice or severance, but whatever policies you have, follow them. If you’re in a congregation that hasn’t updated its policies in several years, work with a consultant to bring them into compliance with applicable laws and HR best practices and make sure all employees are aware that the policies have changed.
- Have clear and up-to-date job descriptions that specify the essential functions (what the person does) and core competencies (how the person does it) for each position. Competencies are as important as functions. If a financial secretary is always accurate with the numbers (meeting the essential function of accurate bookkeeping) but is always rude to other staff (violating the core competency of working well with others), that person is not meeting the expectations of the job and should be let go. Every employee deserves to know exactly what is expected, and every organization deserves to have employees who do their job as it has been defined.
- Be clear about who has the authority to terminate someone. In my perfect world, the board has the authority to evaluate and terminate the senior minister and the senior minister has the authority to supervise, evaluate, and terminate all other staff, an authority he or she may share with others depending on the size of the congregation. In the real world, congregations often complicate matters by allowing committees to be involved in the process, perhaps based in the belief that ministers aren’t good at managing employees. If this is true in your congregation, involve the committee, always with the clear understanding that everything said within the committee is confidential. If, as is sometimes the case, members of a personnel committee are partisans of the troublesome employee, you may need to have confidential conversations with the board about the dysfunctional nature of the committee.
- Talk to an employment attorney at the very first moment that a thought appears even momentarily in your mind that you might, at some point in the far distant future, need to terminate a particular employee. Laws differ from state to state; the attorney can help you document the situation appropriately, create any agreements you will need, and make sure you know what to say and what not to say when talking to the employee, the board, the congregation, and the public. Most importantly, follow your attorney’s advice. If, for example, he or she writes a separation agreement for you, don’t change the language without his or her review.
- Document any issues by making notes about conversations or incidents. Some states are “at will” states where it isn’t necessary to make an extensive case for termination, but notes about the nature of the problem help you to craft what you need to say, either to help the person improve or, ultimately, let them go.
- Create a performance improvement plan for the employee to follow, especially if your policies or sense of justice require you to attempt to improve the situation.
- Give a written warning. If something happens that simply cannot be allowed to happen again—if, for example, the employee yells at you in front of other employees or church members—put in writing that, should such a thing happen again, it will be grounds for dismissal. Have the person sign the document and put it in their file.
- Plan your termination process. If improvement plans and notes in files prove ineffective, work with your attorney and board or committee to make decisions about notice, severance, the language of separation agreements, etc., depending on your policies and in compliance with any applicable laws.
- Write yourself a script. Once the decision is made to terminate the person, draft a script for what you want to say and have the draft approved by your attorney. You can even ask the attorney what you should not say. Practice so that you can say what you need to without deviating from the script in any significant way.
- Make a clean break. Prepare for the termination by making sure that, as soon as the person’s employment is ended, all keys and credit cards are returned and access to any buildings, computers, and databases is also ended immediately.
- Don’t go it alone. Have someone with you for the termination conversation—a consultant or member of the board, for example.
- Communicate appropriately. Be prepared to inform the board and other employees as soon as the termination has been effected. Don’t say more about your reasons than each person needs to hear—your lawyer can advise you about this. False rumors about your motives may spread that you cannot deny without saying too much. The best way to counter this is to be clear, fair, and consistent in what you do say.
I began this article by saying that, if you follow these steps more or less in order, deliberately and without procrastination, you will be able to do what you need to do.
In my experience, however, most of us procrastinate because it is just so hard to tell someone that they’re not doing their job. It’s especially hard if we think that the employee is going to be angry or misbehave in some way or if we think that others who support him or her will be angry and misbehave. And in the church, we have reason to think this! Every employee has supporters who will deny or defend poor performance because of a history of close relationship.
But congregations, just like other organizations, can die from a failure to address poor performance. No mission can be achieved if those charged with pursuing it are not up to the task. Your job as a leader is to take the steps that need to be taken. As you accomplish them, one step at a time, you will finally arrive at the dreaded termination conversation, but with everything in order and fully prepared to do what you need to do for the good of the mission.
Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.