A Time to Fire?

I’ve been trying to find a way to write this post for almost a year. I’ve gone through several drafts and each time I keep coming back to the basic underlying question: “Is this necessary?” Each time, I’ve said yes, but have struggled with trying to put this diplomatically. I decided that their really isn’t a nice way to put this, so I’m just going to toss it out there: I believe that there is a time when terminating someone’s employment can be good for them, the department, and perhaps even the larger organization.

I don’t want to seem mean or callous in this post. Terminating someone is never a decision to be made lightly. However, I think there have been times in my career when I’ve seen employees, in particular RAs, become complacent (at best) in their work and in other cases become a hindrance to creating the type of community that we strive to create at my institution. So, what can and should be done about this?

Before you consider terminating someone, have you done or considered the following:
1.) Addressing poor performance directly with the employee in regular supervisory meetings and periodic evaluations. This step is critical as in many cases a struggling employee may simply need to be called out on his or her behavior and work with the supervisor to develop a plan of action for improvement. Sometimes a supervisor reaching out and asking “Is everything ok?” can make a world of difference.

2.) Examine the frequency and severity of poor performance issues. If this was a one-time mistake or even a second or third time issue on a minor part of the persons job responsibilities, it is possible that “mistakes happen” and can be learned from without further hurting the department.

3.) Keeping YOUR supervisor in the loop regarding the performance issues of the employee in question. It is important to thoroughly document all performance based feedback given to an employee and to share it with your supervisor in a timely matter so they are not caught off guard if termination needs to occur.

4.) Examine who else is being impacted by the employees poor performance. Is it you as supervisor? The employees colleagues? The employees direct reports? The residents (if student employee related)? If any or all of these groups have been hindered from completing their tasks as fellow employees, consideration of discipline or termination may be warranted.

If you’ve done all of these things and there are still problems with an employee that are unresolved, termination may become your only viable solution to a problem.

There are some in our field who will say that “We can promote growth in an employee by taking a more direct approach in our supervision” or other similar reasons. This COULD be true. However, I believe that there does come a point where a supervisor needs to ask “Am I spending more time dealing with this employees performance deficiencies than I should be?” A question that only you as a supervisor can answer

Termination can in and of itself be a learning experience. It might take years for someone to realize it but it can and does happen. Sometimes it’s as simple as the employee didn’t agree with or support the departmental mission or policies. Sometimes it’s an issue of being unable to perform the duties assigned to the position. There are more, I’m sure.

About a year ago, when I started to write this post I reviewed an email from a student employee that I had terminated from a position on campus almost five years previously. The email was short, but included a brief segment that set me on the path to writing this post. This person said “I was so angry at you after you fired me that I didn’t talk to you for the rest of my time at (inst. name removed). I couldn’t believe that you had taken away my job. But then, I realized that after I no longer worked in the department, I was really able to enjoy the rest of my time at (inst. name removed). It made me realize that the RA role wasn’t right for me. I thought it was and was mad when I lost it but I actually became happy again after I got my life as a regular student back.”

Not everyone has this reaction after being terminated, even five years later. However, I hold firm that in some cases, termination can be a learning experience for some people to help them clarify what they want out of their work environment and helps them to learn about their own areas for growth and development. This process has also taught me how to think critically about employment issues and how to best identity a solution to deficiencies that will best support the employee, myself, the department and the institution.

As always, thoughts and comments are welcome! I would love to hear about your struggles and triumphs in this area.

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