The Art of Dismissal

Can letting someone go be a growing experience? When and for whom?

Firing an employee is never a pleasurable or easy experience. It is not something an employer or supervisor looks forward to doing, and it is certainly not a comfortable position for the employee when his performance does not meet the agency’s professional standards. Actually the process does not begin with informing the employee that his services are no longer needed by the organization; It begins with the non-profit’s decision to hire a person for a particular position and the organization’s view of how the position is conceived, the profile of the person who would be the optimum candidate, and the process that is put in motion to supervise the employee.

The process begins with a clearly developed professional position and how it fits into the organization’s structure and function. In an innovative non-profit organization there are always creative ideas and thoughts about how to make these ideas into the reality where services are delivered to the community. Although there is a tendency to want to jump from idea to implementation there are a number of steps that have to be considered. Of course the first is always how will the new idea be funded and will it generate its own funds or is funding necessary prior to implementation? The next step is always staffing and the question of will additional staff be needed to provide these new services?

Whether the decision is made to employ a new staff member or to change the responsibilities of present staff members, a new job description needs to be developed and written. It is not only a matter of recording differences or additions to an employee’s responsibilities, a written job description gives direction to the employee and is a statement of what is expected. It is the basis for evaluating the employee’s performance and for supervising the employee so he has an opportunity to develop his knowledge, skills, and abilities. However, this is only possible when there is clarity about what is needed in the position and how the employee performs his work.

When the employee is unable to perform and is unable to integrate what is expected of him into the position, then the evaluation should reflect the needs and how the employee has failed to fulfill those responsibilities. The essential piece of this process is the clarity of the communication between the supervisor and the employee. If the employee is experiencing difficulty or he is not successful in fulfilling the role then he needs to know and be clear about what is wrong so that he can successfully complete the tasks that have been assigned.

In addition to a conversation or series of conversations between the supervisor and supervisee there should also be a written document given to the employee detailing the evaluation and explaining what he needs to accomplish and correct the situation. There should be a time limit set as to how long he has to improve his performance and that should be stated in the document. For example, an employee might be given 6 months to meet the organization’s performance standards and there should be ongoing supervisory meetings during this period. It is important for the person to receive feedback from his supervisor as to how his work is evaluated during this six month period.

If there is minimal or no improvement then it should be clear both to the supervisor and the supervisee that continuing in the present position and having the same job responsibilities is not in the best interest of anyone. The discussions then should focus on whether the problem is the specific position within the organization; perhaps there a position better suited for the employee’s knowledge, skills, and abilities. If there is no alternate position or if the problem is not the position but the employee, then there should be a discussion focused on where this leaves the employee; it may be time to think about moving onto another organization or company.

The discussion about the employee leaving the position due to his inability to successfully implement their assigned tasks should be done sensitively and should focus on the employee’s strengths as well as weaknesses. The process of ending employment can be a learning experience for the employee when the supervisor and supervisee are engaged in a process that focuses on helping the employee understand not only the reasons for the difficulties but also the process they have been working through over the last six months.

Of course this does not ease the pain that may be caused by being “fired” from a job (although he might feel relief at ending a difficult tenure for which he was not suited), however, it does have the potential to be an opportunity for the employee to understand the kinds of positions that might be more appropriate for his skills and abilities. It does not necessarily mean the employee leaves the present position happily, but it is possible that he has a better idea of the types of organizations would be better suited for him. Thus, he can learn from an experience that may not have been positive; the question is what does he learn from it?

The most important “don’ts” when ending an employee’s employment are: A) engage in a meaningful process and do not surprise the employee; B) do not demonstrate a lack of respect for the employee; C) do not deny the employee the opportunity to receive professional supervision; D) do not rely solely on verbal communication and conversations; document everything in writing; E) do not deny the employee the opportunity to improve his performance on the job; and F) do not generalize about the person’s overall professional development or skills – be specific.

In following and implementing a meaningful process when ending an employee’s relationship with a non-profit organization both the agency and the employee can learn from the experience. There is no guarantee that when an employee is hired it will be a successful engagement for either partner. We should do our best to use our professional knowledge and skills and reflect the best values of our non-profit when we let someone go so that we may make it as meaningful a process as possible. It is important for organizations to study not only the way they engage and integrate new staff members but also to study the process used when disengaging as well. How we can help people learn from unsuccessful job placements is just as important as how we train them on the job and should be a guide for us when separating from employees.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.