I REMEMBER EVERYONE whose employment I terminated in the church, nonprofit and business world.
It’s never easy to fire people. If it is easy for you, then you shouldn’t be making these decisions.
I don’t even like the phrase, “fire people.” I think of it more as releasing people or letting people go to discover a better place to apply their gifts – where there’s a better cultural fit.
Letting people go is difficult and painful for most, and so many avoid making the decision altogether! And that’s not good for you, the person who needs to be released, or the organization.
Also, I never actually released anyone by myself, but worked a process with others that resulted in letting people go. Take note of that. You need other eyes on this than yours alone.
Why release someone?
Letting someone go should be a last resort. Normally, it is because a person doesn’t match the culture and values of the organization. Usually everyone knows when a person needs to go – it should be obvious for most when someone doesn’t fit. Sometimes it is obvious to everyone except the person needing to go. For me, it takes time to determine what’s gone wrong.
Is it a missing skillset we can provide? Is it a motivational issue? A pastoral issue? I find that competency can be improved and skills taught but a cultural mismatch is hard to overcome.
A team with a team member who doesn’t fit is bogged down. It isn’t so much that the mismatched team member is running a leg of a relay race too slow, but that they’re running on an entirely different track. Everyone is affected by it. When you’ve worked a process of discernment and coaching, and included other people to give perspective, and then determine you need to let a person go: act quickly! It’s benevolent for everyone to do so.
I also believe that releasing an employee is as much a failure of management as that of the worker, and maybe more so. We got it wrong. Hiring is always risky and it’s hard on everyone when it doesn’t work out. It challenges us to get better at it. I don’t like putting all the blame on the departing person; that feels like scapegoating when normally there are multiple reasons why a person didn’t work out.
I have made mistakes along the way, but I’ve learned a few things that have helped me, and maybe they will contribute to how you release people in the future.
First, you can’t just drop people into a slotted position in your church and expect them to perform at their best. The team member needs coaching. Take time to help the person adjust, merge into the culture and emulate the cultural values. For me, that means an hour-long meeting each week, at least for the first year, and an open door for questions. Seriously coach the new team member and resource them, providing access to learning new skills if necessary. If the person is unable to rise to the expected level of performance and team work, then address that immediately. Give honest feedback. I also take notes at these coaching sessions. Each week is like an annual review — the team member knows exactly where they stand with me and what work issues we might have.
Second, if you’ve coached the team member and talked to that person about any serious issues and made every attempt to remedy them, and the team member is still not working out, then you can begin a conversation that starts something like, “You know, we’ve noted these several things that are strong in your gift set, but we’re struggling with these other issues that aren’t getting better, even though we’ve tried hard to improve them. I don’t think we can continue on in this manner and that it’s time to help you find that place where you’ll thrive.”
Now, here are some important things about that meeting:
Don’t do it alone. Have a third person present to observe the meeting and provide support.
If you are new to this, I suggest you be coached on how to do this meeting by a labor attorney or an HR company to make sure you say the right things.
Come to the meeting with a prepared separation agreement. I personally use a human resources company to prepare the letter to make sure it conforms with local laws and regulations.
The separation agreement should note the reasons for the separation and those reasons should be the same as those in your coaching notes and coaching conversations with the team member.
Include a clause in the separation agreement — worked out with the HR company — about the severance payment you’re providing, how often it is paid, and the terms for receiving it. I believe churches should be generous here and give three or four months of severance since it takes time to locate new employment. In some cases, you might want to do more than that.
Normally, I include an offer for the team member to enroll in outplacement services paid for by the church. There are wonderful outplacement companies that work with released employees to understand their skillset and teach them effective methods to find new employment. There are also recruiting groups that offer these kinds of services (e.g. SIMA, Slingshot, Vanderbloemen and others).
Approach this meeting with a pastoral and positive attitude. While you are letting someone go and the other person might get angry, try to maintain an attitude of, “This is hard right now, and we’re trying to soften the impact with the severance agreement, but I believe you now have the opportunity to be led to a better place to use your gifts.”
Harvay McKay wrote a book entitled, “We Got Fired…And It Was the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Us.” I believe if you let people go the correct way and for the right reasons, they may despise you in the short term, but later they may think that it was truly one of the best things that ever happened to them.