Creative Leadership

Firing Employees is Tough, but Might be Necessary

A lot has been said lately about some companies canceling the contracts of some of their more “troublesome” clients. Even Seth Godin offered some advice about when you cancel customers and if it’s a good idea at all. I’ll talk in a later post about firing clients, but when it comes to firing employees, it’s an interesting issue – especially at non-profit organizations, where people are often working for more than money. Some feel called, some volunteer, and others value the experience far more than they would a normal job.

The question is, are they effective? From a “firing employees” point of view, here’s my thought. Not firing an employee who’s doing a bad job is the same as lying to them. In essence, by not firing them you’re tell them that what they’re doing is OK, and it’s giving them a distorted view of their performance.

That’s why I’m an advocate of getting them out of the job, and helping them find the place where their talents and gifts could be used more effectively.

Too many non-profits – especially churches – refuse to fire under-performers. Granted, other issues may be involved, but how can you be accountable in a non-profit situation when employees are screwing up?

I used to know one marketing director at a major church who we estimated was costing the church at least $100,000 a year through her incompetence. She was literally killing the place. It took years to fire her, but not before she almost put them out of business.

Help your people who are underperforming. If training will help, do it. If mentoring will help, do it. If moving them to another position will help, do it. But if everything else has failed, get them out of there. Don’t dump them on the street, but help them find a better place where they can grow.

They may not agree with you at the time, but they will eventually. A friend of mine just fired his assistant, and when he broke the news, she said, “I’m so grateful. I was over my head and drowning, but I was embarrassed to quit. This is the best thing that could happen.”

Get over the awkwardness about firing people. It shouldn’t be about anger, retribution, or frustration. It should be part of the process of helping all your people find the right place where they can make a difference. If it’s not in your organization, then help then land somewhere else where they can perform at a higher level.

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  1. Apropos of nothing, I figured I'd take this opportunity to tell a tale on myself … I was supervising a rather large construction project (not ministry-related at all, just a day job) and there was one employee who was constantly underperforming and just generally getting on my nerves.  Late one afternoon he came into my office, started arguing with me about something – until I threw up my hands and said "that's it, you're fired.  Get out of here!" As he left in a huff, a friend in the office turned to me and gently pointed out the date – December 24th.  Yup, I fired a guy on Christmas Eve!  (As you might gather, I kind of take a perverse delight in the Scroogeness of it all, even if it ended up happening in "anger, retribution and frustration…")

  2. Last week I was not fired, but "laid off." The ministry (a church) had decided to "restructure" and my job was eliminated. I was asked to meet leadership at 5:15pm, told good bye, handed a check, asked for my keys, driven to my office by escort and given about 15 minutes to clean out my desk. Gone by 6 p.m. Stunned. Never got to say good bye to staff, have a final lunch or bring closure to a place I'd worked hard for. Pretty cold (for a lay-off). I wonder if this is how Jesus would have let one of the disciples go? Clear out your tent by sundown. I bring this up not for reasons of empathy, but to mention that when you let someone go you are disrupting their entire life…finances, self esteem, families, house, food, job security (or lack thereof). Phil mentioned in an email to me a few days back that it's not fair to an organization to keep someone who is underperforming or bad for the team. It's best to let them go. He is absolutely right. You are doing everyone a favour by letting them go. But Calix above had a good point too: timing and being kind are important aspects too. It's a judgment call that not everyone gets right. I didn't do anything to deserve the treatment I was afforded. Most every morning my wise wife and I pray in our devotions for "wisdom – morning, noon and night." When in doubt, go to the Book of Proverbs. Therein reside many of the Godly answers about how to treat people and make decisions. Matt. 5 ain't bad either.

  3. My previous glib story aside, it's often difficult to fire someone, and I'm usually angry when I do it – not just angry at the employee, but angry that the situation didn't work out and for my failure as a manager to properly train and motivate the employee.  While I don't work in a "ministry" position (and please God never will!) I am still an "ambassador for Christ" wherever I work, and try to behave as such.  I'm sorry for your situation, Alan Smithee (although I love your films! 😉 It especially sucks that it sounds like they either (1) didn't trust you or (2) had been burned by a fired/laid off employee before (evidenced by the escort, the fifteen minute notice, etc.)  The thing about jobs is that there's always another one out there – but the thing about being fired isn't the temporary loss of income, it's the deep feeling of personal failure and rejection.  (Yup, I've been fired myself a time or two!)  May God help you (and your wife) find healing through this time and a great new position suited for your talents and calling!

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