Tell it To My Heart

There will be a time when every leader must make the difficult decision to let someone go.


As has been discussed in previous blog entries (here, here, and here) the process of arriving at termination looks vastly different depending on the situation.


However, when districts reach a point of removal, one thing must remain constant: Bosses should make every effort to preserve the reputation of the individual being dismissed.


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I vividly remember the first time I was in charge of dismissing an employee. I was a young assistant principal and in the beginning stages of learning how to effectively manage adults.


When I began my job I discovered that one teacher on my evaluation list had a long history of underperformance. Upon seeing the teacher firsthand, I immediately understood the source of these concerns. Classroom management was nonexistent and students did as they pleased. Organization was a challenge even the most basic teaching requirements (e.g., updating grades) were a struggle. Finally, because he missed a lot of work, this teacher's peers were growing increasingly frustrated.


As it became glaringly obvious the employee was not a good fit for our building, I asked to sit down with our district Human Resources Director for advice on how to proceed.


When I sat down with our HR Director, I could tell she was eager to discuss this particular employee. Apparently, I was not the first supervisor to bring these issues to her attention. I was, however, the first supervisor who wanted to address the issues.


I learned many valuable insights during our conversation. I learned about all of the paperwork and documentation needed to dismiss an employee. I also learned about seeking legal advice and involving Teachers' Association leaders in the conversation.


However, there was one particular idea we covered that made a lasting impression on my leadership: saving face.

The HR Director explained that while this person was definitely not good for kids, this did not make him a bad person. While there was no doubt he needed to go, we discussed methods for dismissal that would not hurt this teacher's character nor ruin his reputation.


While I understood the differences between "termination", "resignation", and "retirement", I did not realize all three could be options for the teacher. Although termination was one possibility, we discussed the value in giving the teacher the option to resign or retire instead. By giving choices, the teacher could save his reputation by sharing his own version of the reason for leaving.


"But what if he makes up lies?" I questioned."What if he badmouths the district? What if he badmouths me!?"


"Time heals everything," the HR Director responded. "There is a chance you could look bad in the short term. But all will be forgotten a year from now when you have replaced this underperformer with a high-quality teacher."


This particular employee chose retirement. Doing so allowed us to hold a special ceremony at the end of the year. Rather than leave on bad terms, this teacher received the recognition he rightfully deserved for his decades of commitment to the profession.


As frustrated as I was with this employee's performance in the classroom, I am thankful we let this employee leave on his own terms.


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Obviously, not all employee terminations are the same. Sometimes, the employee has made a colossal error in judgement, or has undermined the organization for a long period of time. In these instances, showing an individual grace when they have created such hardship can seem counterintuitive.


"But they were a terrible employee! Why should I courteous? They get what they deserve."


Certainly, employees must take ownership of their behaviors. We have all heard stories of staff who refuse to take responsibility for their actions and blame others for their failures. Our culture - and the legal system - supports this victim mentality more and more.


However, supervisors must understand termination is a reflection of the organization and must be willing to shoulder part of the blame.


First, if someone is bad enough to be fired, why were they hired in the first place? How could someone so awful make it through the interview process? You may be saying, "But, they were hired before I got here!" You may not have hired them ... but someone in the organization did.


Second, were they given every opportunity to succeed? Are new employees given the necessary tools and resources to flourish in their position? Schools are notorious for being super welcoming during induction ... only to turn around and throw rookies to the wolves when school begins.


High turnover in school districts can almost always be traced back to poor hiring practices or lack of employee support. Supervisors who realize leadership is partly to blame approach employee dismissal with greater empathy and compassion.


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In Dare to Lead, Brene Brown proposes organizations must, “Always give people a way out with dignity. What does it mean to give someone a way out with dignity? Remember the human and pay attention to feelings. This person has a family, a career, and a life that will be affected. When you're delivering the news, be kind, be clear, be respectful. Be generous. Ask the person how they want to let colleagues know about their departure and follow their lead on that if possible.”


Regardless of how poorly the employee has treated you or the district, bosses should make every effort to preserve the reputation of the individual being dismissed.


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