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  • Pat Libby

How do you know when it’s time to terminate someone?

Updated: 5 days ago


I’ve been privy to a few situations lately where newer nonprofit execs have been faced with the agonizing task of considering whether to “fire” someone.

 

The expression comes from the bizarre practice of John Henry Patterson – founder of the National Cash Register Company – who set employees' desks on fire as a not-so-subtle signal that it was time for them to part ways (you could say he had a bad temper).

 

Having to terminate a staff person, no matter what your age or level of experience, is never fun (unless you are a sadist). And having to do it for the first time (or even second) is especially painful, particularly if you are fond of your workmate. I‘m not talking about firing someone for an egregious offense involving anything illegal, immoral, or both like stealing money or harassing others. Rather, I’m talking about ending working relationships with people who for one reason or another can’t fully execute their job responsibilities.          

 

How do you know it’s time to time to cut the cord with an employee?


1. When you start making excuses for their behavior.


Let’s face it, we’ve all had bad days and bad things happen to us. It’s no picnic to go to work after a personal tragedy – a bad breakup, the death of a pet/parent/spouse/friend, a flooded house, a stolen car – life can seem like a gauntlet of challenges sometimes. People need time to handle what comes their way – and good employers make space for whatever type of healing or clean-up needs to happen. But eventually, folks need to get back to work. If they can’t dig into their job, the burden will fall on others within the organization, resentment is likely to build, and work will slip through the cracks.   

 

If you see employees drifting away from their responsibilities, begin with a gentle conversation about what needs to be done – being as specific as possible about what’s fallen by the wayside and an optimal timeline for getting project deadlines back on track. Don’t stop there! Be sure to monitor progress to make sure that work assignments are moving forward. If they aren’t, it’s time to have a difficult conversation (after you consult with an attorney).


2. When others complain and you ignore it.


Within the past few months, I’ve come across two nonprofit leaders who wanted to swat away the legitimate concerns that others expressed about a staff person’s performance. Why? Ignoring these red flags was easier than confronting the people they liked and worked well with.

 

To address these blind spots, in one instance I suggested the supervisor survey people who were on the receiving end of services delivered by the staff member. Having those survey results enabled the supervisor to present irrefutable evidence to that person that her performance wasn’t close to satisfactory. When the two of them looked at the data together, it was obvious that the employee wasn’t the right fit for the job.

 

At a different nonprofit, I was asked to sit in on a meeting to observe a staff member's interactions with a board committee. The supervisor had heard rumblings in the past about combative meetings but didn’t realize the depth of the board’s feelings until I shared what I learned by watching the meeting, debriefing with those board members, and forwarding emails that mirrored the behavior. The solution was coaching and a plan to check in with the board to make sure the coaching lessons were implemented.

 

Gathering data, listening, observing, and doing your darndest to be objective is critically important when you are evaluating the effectiveness of staff – particularly people you’re fond of. It’s important to keep in mind that each of your staff needs to work well with others – not just you – since their performance is a reflection of your nonprofit. If they can’t work productively and collaboratively with others, it’s time to talk.     


3. When coaching doesn’t work.


Years ago, I hired a terrific guy who did amazing work on an advocacy campaign. He worked tirelessly and collaboratively for months to get our bill passed. It was a huge campaign that involved heartfelt organizing, long nights, weekends, and lots of cajoling and coalition building. After it was over he was adrift. I gave him a few months to regroup (too long) and worked with him to set new goals. But no matter what goals we set he couldn’t get back on track. I had to let him go. Fortunately, he landed a job that was much better suited for him (as a legislative aide at the state level) which made both of us happy.   

 

If any of these descriptors ring a bell, it’s probably time for you to do some soul-searching about the situation you’ve been avoiding with that problem employee at your workplace. I like to think that letting someone go means that they’ll move on to a job that is more satisfying for them. I know that you and your nonprofit will be better off without the tension, negative energy, and/or the lack of productivity.

 

It's no fun to fire someone and it’s emotionally difficult too – for you, that person, and the other staff with whom they work alongside. You have to think carefully about the legal repercussions as well – ALWAYS get advice from an employment lawyer when you embark on a termination – even in an “at-will” state like California. This is particularly important given the litigious society we live in.

 

As the song goes, “Breaking up is hard to do” but it’s often necessary for the health of your organization.



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Pat Libby is a change management consultant working principally with nonprofit corporations. She is author of The Empowered Citizens Guide: 10 Steps to Passing a Law that Matters to You, Oxford University Press, The Lobbying Strategy Handbook, second edition, Oxford University Press, and Cases in Nonprofit Management, SAGE. She has served as an academic, senior executive, board member, and consultant to innumerable nonprofit organizations and foundations for more than three decades.


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