Firing an employee humanely

In an earlier article, I wrote about the difficult challenge faced by boards and school leaders when they need to deal with poorly performing employees.  It is essential to understand relevant policies and appropriate procedures, but it is also important to acknowledge that every situation is likely to have unique components that can muddy the purity of the process.

Consider this hypothetical situation, which is based on a true story although the names and titles have been changed.  Let’s imagine that you were an internal applicant for the position of Principal in your school, and you were successful.  You are now the new Principal.

Unfortunately, one of your colleagues (Kim – a unisex name so you aren’t tempted to draw any gender stereotypes) also applied and was unsuccessful.  Kim seems unperturbed and remains outwardly friendly to the staff in general, but you have no difficulty seeing that that Kim is inwardly seething with anger at the apparent injustice of the decision.  Kim treats you civilly but coldly.

You decide to diffuse the situation and re-build your working relationship, so you give Kim some additional leadership responsibilities and a more elegant professional title – Senior Director of Curricular and Co-curricular Integration.

Kim has a new sense of power and authority, but quickly begins to misuse it.  Kim starts to undermine you by making disparaging comments to the staff about you behind your back, and even seeks out some board members to convey (confidentially and with a heavy heart, of course) “the staff’s concern” about the direction you are taking the school as its new Principal.

Through these actions, Kim’s professional unworthiness to be appointed Principal is being demonstrated both to you and the board that appointed you.  In the months ahead, Kim misses deadlines, fails to answer your e-mails, is absent from your regular meetings, shows declining overall performance and effectiveness, and yet strides around the school campus with all the airs and authority that befit a Senior Director of Curricular and Co-curricular Integration.

Soon collateral damage begins to surface as a consequence of Kim’s attitude.  One of the stars of the school’s teaching staff, your Head of Mathematics, announces he is leaving to go to a competitor school, confiding to you that his main reason is that he can no longer work with Kim.  You soon learn of similar decisions by other young staff who the students admire and respect, and who have huge potential as future educational leaders.

Meanwhile, Kim’s poor performance is increasing your workload as Principal as you seek to ‘plug the gaps’ and overcome deficiencies in Kim’s work.  Many of your own priorities have to be delayed as you fight to keep the school functioning effectively.

You KNOW that Kim needs to go but you feel the timing isn’t ‘quite right’ – even though you have heard the old adage a hundred times: “No manager ever says I’m glad I waited so long to fire that person”.  After all, you tell yourself, there are so many things that Kim hasn’t documented that a departure now could cause administrative chaos.

The other complicating factor is that you are a nice person.  Like most school leaders, you are a people pleaser.  You want to make other people happy.  And like many school leaders, you are so busy making other people happy that you forget to include yourself.

Stephen Codrington presenting a workshop at Eagle's Nest Christian School, Polokwane, South Africa, 6 July 2019.

However, the good news is that one day you have a revelation – you read an article on the Optimal School Governance website (actually, this article!) that shows you a way to fire-sack-dismiss-terminate Kim humanely and compassionately.

Step 1: Let an under-performing employee fail.  This may sound counter-intuitive and contrary to your view of leadership, but the alternative is either for you to cover for the shortcomings of the employee (which reduces both your professional effectiveness and the performance of the school as a whole), or else other people in the school have to take up the slack.  Either way, it is an unsustainable strategy.  It is better for the person’s shortcomings to be visible so you can document them; if you continue to cover up the shortcomings, then you can’t document them.

Step 2: Initiate a performance review.  Performance reviews should seek documented input from a diverse group of people who have a variety of working relationships with the person being reviewed.  If conducted effectively, a performance review will provide the most significant, balanced evidence to support your intended dismissal of a non-performing employee.  However, for this to be so, it the Review should be conducted by a politically neutral external expert with no “skin in the game” who can report honestly and fairly without fear or favour.  When the report has been completed, issue a copy to the employee and request a written response to its findings.

Step 3: Get expert advice.  It is important to get external expert advice from a lawyer and/or an HR expert before initiating any action that may be contested legally.  

Step 4: Have counselling support on hand.  Even with the best of intentions and the purest heart, severance meetings sometimes become adversarial, contested and a source of grief and anguish.  Having a trained counsellor on hand (but out of sight) who has been thoroughly briefed on the situation may provide much-needed support following the meeting.

Step 5: Bring a support person.  When you schedule your meeting with the person in question, don’t hide the topic (i.e. you intend to follow up their performance review) and give them explicit permission to bring a support person if they wish.  Equally importantly, you should have a support person with you, partly to act as a witness to the conversation in the event of a subsequent dispute, but also because it will give you the courage that you may need during the meeting.  Surprisingly, I have heard about many of these meetings where the Principal “feels sorry” for the under-performing employee and they still remain on the staff at the conclusion of the meeting.  That outcome is far less likely if you have a support person with you to keep you ‘on script’. (One Principal tells the story of terminating an employee who became so angry that she – the employee - began to dribble uncontrollably, and then told the Principal that her husband had a heart condition and this action was going to kill him.  The Principal recalls that having another person sitting there helped greatly during both the meeting and the long debriefing session that followed the meeting).

Step 6: Be direct, stick to the facts, keep it short, agree on timing for ‘The Announcement’, and walk the employee out the door after offering counselling support.

Being a school leader is hard, and few tasks are more confronting than having to dismiss an employee.  However, with a genuinely compassionate attitude, a sense of fairness and justice for the entire organisation, sound externally-generated documentation and thorough preparation, this difficult task can be conducted in a way that serves the greatest good for everyone involved.

In the end, if an employee is a poor fit for your school, you are not really being a “good people pleaser” by struggling to make the dysfunctional situation work.  It is far better – and more humane – for everyone if you can give your (soon-to-be-ex) employee the opportunity to find a better fit for their talents and skills set elsewhere.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

We conduct performance reviews of Senior and Middle Management positions in schools that are specifically tailored to reflect the mission, ethos, and unique character of each individual school.  You can find out more HERE.

Detailed advice on performance reviews is also provided in the book "Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

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