There are fewer things more uncomfortable in your professional life than having to dismiss someone (ok, being on the receiving end of that conversation would be worse).
Early in my career as a camp director I knew I was going to have to dismiss one of my staff and I was SO nervous. So I called my dad.
He was a business owner for 40 years and was always respected in the community as a fair guy, and since I know he’s a reasonable person I asked for his advice.
The following comes from his advice as well as some stuff I learned along the way.
There are a number of things you can do before it ever gets to the point where you’re looking at terminating someone’s contract during the hiring/ training process.
(There are obviously a lot of preventative measures you can take in terms of training and coaching, but we’re going to assume you’ve done all of those and they didn’t work.)
- Have clear language in your contract about dismissal. A lot of camps will note that because this is a contract position staff are essentially in a probation period their entire contract, which means either party can terminate the contract at any time without prior notice.
Or you could use something like this.
Termination of Contract:Not withstanding any of the above, either you or (Camp Name) may at your or at its sole discretion, for any or no reason, terminate this contract with five days’ notice or equivalent pay in lieu of notice at any time prior to August 29th, 2018. In the event (Camp Name) terminates the contract its only responsibility to you will be to pay any wages or salary owing up to the date of such early termination. If you wish to terminate the contract as much advance warning as possible in addition to the notice above, is requested to assist in meeting the needs of our campers.I strongly recommend running any contract wording changes by your lawyer before sending them out to your staff.
- Have a written policy about how you will handle staff disciplinary action. Don’t try to make it up on the fly once something happens, that’s how you can get yourself into trouble. Be very clear on what constitutes immediate dismissal, what constitutes a ‘strike’ (many organizations have a ‘three strikes you’re out’ policy), how you will support staff in working through performance issues and how you will document all of this.
- During your staff development week, when you’re going through their job description, and your expectations, take a few moments to review your dismissal policy.
Reason for dismissal can be broken down into two categories
- Performance Issues
- Breach of Policy
Hopefully there’s not a long lead time before you let an employee go, because keeping someone around for too long can wreak havoc on your team and program.
As my friend Christina, (who inspired this post) often says, “I never regretted the people I fired, I just regretted not firing them sooner”. And I couldn’t agree more!
So here are some tips that are pretty general, but will help you out a lot if you end up having to dismiss someone.
- Keep a daily log.
If you don’t already do this, here’s a simple template you can use.
This will allow you to track those items that seem like no big deal at the time, but can snowball into something serious.
Your log is for notes that don’t warrant an incident report or letter for someone’s file, but are things you want to make note of.
This can include conversations, meetings, minor complaints (made to you, not your minor complaints… save that for your journal. lol), informal coaching, observations, etc. This will allow you to accurately include dates and times in any reports you may need to write later. It will also allow you to notice patterns you may have otherwise missed.
- I always recommend working with your employees to help them improve before the extreme option of dismissing them (depending on the situation – breach of policy might warrant immediate dismissal).
I also recommend doing some reflection, and asking yourself if there was a gap in their training and if you can take any responsibility for their actions or choices. When you start working with them, be clear in your expectations, set a deadline for how long they have to improve, and schedule a time to follow-up. That last part is important, you need to check in with them often, it might be for five minutes every day to start, but you need to actually DO it. It’s no good to tell them they need to improve and then leave them to their own devices, you need to ask how they think it’s going, and give them feedback.It’s really important that you chat with them early about poor performance.
Let them know what you’re seeing, what you want to see, and ask what they need from you to make that happen. Check in with them early, and often.
I’ve seen people who started out rocky, but with a little coaching became phenomenal staff.It’s absolutely worth telling them all the positive things you see in them and where you think their potential lies, then helping them gain the tools to achieve that.
- Document all of your coaching. Let them know you’ll be documenting their progress and keeping a copy in their file.
This will come in handy if you later have to show that you did your due diligence before eventually terminating them, if things go South.
- Remind them what your policy is, if it’s a “three strike rule” explain that this is a verbal warning (that you’ll make note of), if you must have this conversation again, it will be a written warning that goes in their file, and after that is dismissal.
- Keep your ED, board, etc. informed. Let them know you’re thinking you may have to terminate a staff. You may also want to run this by your camp’s lawyer too.
- Walk them to it.
This might be a good time to have a “walk them to it” conversation.
I’ve done this a number of times with staff that just weren’t “cutting the mustard”, had a conversation about their performance, behaviour, etc. talked through the policy, discussed coaching and what that would look like, and then I would ask them, “are you sure you want to be here?”
I’d say “Look, camp is hard, I get that. It’s not for everyone, and that’s ok. I’m willing to put the work in to help you be excellent at your job, but only if you want it. (- optional line – I know that you have x, y, z going on and camp may not be the best fit for you right now) If not, please let me know.
No hard feelings. But I need to know so I can invest my time and energy on the people who really want to be here.”
I say this with kindness. And offer them some time to think about it, I suggest they take a day to really think about it and ask them to let me know their decision as soon as possible.
If they decide to leave, I tell them that I respect their decision and ask about their timeline. Depending on the person, situation, session, etc. I might ask if they can stay until the end of session, or until I find a replacement. But I might also just suggest that they make arrangements as soon as possible. From here I treat it as someone who’s resigned. And honestly, this method has worked great over the years, it’s their decision, they feel better about that, I’ve saved us both an uncomfortable conversation and there’s less paperwork!
You’ve tried coaching, you’ve tried walking them to the decision to resign, nothing has worked.
Some major breach of policy has taken place that warrants immediate dismissal.
It’s time to have that dreaded conversation.
Here are some tips for making it a little less painful.
- Plan ahead. Know what you’re going to say, have your documents ready to go, including your letter of dismissal if that’s something your camp does.
This also might be a good time for a quick phone call to your ED, board chair, lawyer, etc. just to make sure that everyone is in the loop, or to ask for advice.
- Ask them to chat in a private space (most likely your office)
For tips on getting to your office without awkwardly walking there together, check out this post on awkward conversations.
- Have a second staff with you to witness the conversation.
Usually another director, or senior staff.
- Be straight forward. Don’t make small talk when they get to your office.
You can say something along the lines of “Hi, Jim. Have a seat. I wanted to talk to you because…”
- Be calm, respectful, and compassionate.
You may be frustrated or disappointed in them (especially if a breach of some sort just took place), but you’re the authority figure, you’re the one with all the “power”, don’t wield it over them by yelling or lecturing.
Even though they messed up, you still need to be the bigger person and give them their dignity.
- Stick to the facts. Don’t get into opinions, or “they said…” conversations.
Reference specific policies, reference the contract, be firm yet kind.
Even when I had to dismiss a staff after an egregious lapse in judgement on their part, with all sincerity I said things like “I’m sorry to see you go, I hope this will be a learning opportunity for you, and I wish you all the best.” Because you can dismiss someone and still show kindness.
- Keep it short.
This conversation shouldn’t take longer than a few minutes.
You’ve already done your due diligence with coaching, etc. the time for talking is over, don’t let this drag on. Say what needs to be said and move on.
- Never say “you’re fired”.
That’s so jarring. No one wants to hear that. There are kinder ways to say it. You’re not “The Donald” and this isn’t The Apprentice. You can say “We’re dismissing you”, “We’re terminating your contract”, “I’m letting you go”, and I would follow-up any of those phrases with “as of date/time (noon today) you are no longer employed by camp ___” just so there’s no confusion as to what you’re trying to say.
- Walk them through the logistics of what happens next.
Let them know how they’ll get their final pay & ROE, what date they’ll be paid up until, how long they have on site, how they can collect their things, etc. Check out my post on staff resigning for some ideas on how to do this.
- Document everything.
- Think about WHEN you want to have this conversation.
If it’s an immediate dismissal, you may not have a lot of choices, but if it’s a performance dismissal you may want to time it before a session break. Also consider the time of day you break the news, they may need to arrange for a drive, you want to give them plenty of time to pack their things and get home so they’re not driving through the night.
After everything is said and done, you have to let the rest of the team know.
Again, the staff resigning blog post has some advice on this. But the big take away is, don’t gossip, share only that the staff member has left (you don’t even have to say that they were fired, just that they left.), and what your plan is to fill the gap.
Ok, that’s it for my advice on dismissing staff. It’s pretty straight forward, but if you’ve never done it before it can feel a little overwhelming to think about, so this serves as a pretty good checklist. If you take only two things away from this post, I hope it’s 1. Be knd. 2. Document everything.
Thanks to Christine who suggested this post, she also suggested one on spotting patterns of low performing staff – so you can expect one on that topic in the coming weeks.
I love suggestions, so feel free to throw out some topics you’d like to see.
Also, let me know in the comment section if I missed anything on this list! Or if you have any follow up questions.