How should School Leaders deal with poorly performing employees?

Having served for over three decades in various senior positions of school leadership, including as Principal and Board Chair, I agree with innumerable colleagues of mine over the years who have claimed that school leadership is the best job in the world.  Every day is different, and every day presents a variety of new and often challenging ways in which you can help form young lives and shape the future of our society.   

However, there is one aspect of school leadership which I know is not relished by school leaders – dealing with poorly performing employees.  One key task of leadership is helping other people to be successful, so leaders often feel a sense of their own failure when an employee is seen to be performing poorly.

I think one reason that most school leaders may see poorly performing teachers though this lens is that so many school leaders have a strong people-pleasing inclination.  This is significant, because as I have often commented, the secret of success is complex, but the secret of failure is very simple - it is trying to make everyone happy.

I realise this is a huge generalisation and that there are exceptions, but I stand by my claim that the majority of effective school leaders are people-pleasers – not to the extent that they are ineffective in achieving a vast array of tasks and goals, but people-pleasers nonetheless.

Irrespective of whether a school leader is a people-pleaser or not, no-one relishes the idea of terminating a poor performer.  It is telling that no school leader I have met has ever said “I wish I had waited longer to fire that person”.  

An effective school is one that educates its students, just as an effective hospital is one that cures its sick patients.  An under-performing school employee is a barrier to meeting the needs of the school’s students, and as every good school places the needs of its students at the centre of its identity (irrespective of its mission), it follows that the issue of poor employee performance must be addressed.  The reputational risk to the school of ignoring poor performance by an employee is substantial, especially in this age of widespread use of ‘democratised’ social media.

Moreover, poorly performing employees can erode the effectiveness and the working culture of a school so quickly and so destructively that allowing them to continue their current practice is like leaving a malignant cancerous growth in the human body untreated.

In these difficult situations, the first thing that a school leader needs to remember is that the school’s mission – its enduring purpose – matters more than any personal discomfort.  If an employee is diluting or slowing the achievement of the school’s mission, then for the good of the school, either their performance must change radically or else the poorly performing employee must be removed – the mission is the ‘true north’ foundation upon which all decisions must ultimately rest.

Every school has its own contractual structure with distinctive conditions and clauses, so it would be imprudent for me to offer detailed advice here that might conflict with a school’s legal situation.  However, there are several significant general principles that can be stated.

Within the context of the school’s mission, any under-performing employee must be given a fair chance to address any shortcomings that have become evident.  This involves passing on specific feedback, preferably based upon a confidential performance review undertaken by a competent, neutral external agent.  This feedback should be done transparently on the bases of quantitative evidence and data, not personal feelings or relationships.  Feedback should not be judgemental, but rather it should provide whatever information is needed to identify shortcomings and develop a strategy that will address them within the framework of the school’s mission.  The employee then has the freedom to use that information as they wish – perhaps they can develop a pathway that will turn around their poor performance, or maybe not.

If a poorly performing employee can’t turn around their performance, they have a right to know this as soon as possible, at which point the employee may be offered the option of moving to other employment where they might be more successful.  It is important to remember that all staffing appointments in schools are match-making exercises, and just because a person struggles to succeed in advancing the mission of one school does not mean that they can’t be successful elsewhere.

It can be helpful to remember that in many (and maybe most) situations where an employee is seen by the school’s leadership to be under-performing, the employee is often quite miserable, perhaps even to the point of feeling ‘trapped’ in their current situation.  I have ex-colleagues who remain friends today who had to be managed out of their employment but who soon found themselves in a far happier place that was a better fit for their skills, priorities and personality.  (That didn’t make the separation any easier at the time for either of us, of course).

I have known school leaders who sometimes tolerate poorly performing employees for far too long on the basis that they need somebody (anybody?) to fill a particular role or they worry about filling the vacancy that will be created.  I know this is easier to say than to remember in the midst of such turmoil, but I have always found that it is better to have a good vacancy than a bad appointment.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

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