Mitt Romney got pretty beat up in the media in 2012 when he said, “I like being able to fire people.” It made him sound like a cold, power-hungry corporate executive. It was also tone deaf because Americans wanted a president to create jobs and not terminate them with glee.
Being a nonprofit executive director means one thing above all else: you were hired to get results. This means sometimes you have to fire people. Why is it that so many nonprofit executive directors avoid this responsibility?
Terminating an employee is unpleasant and not something anyone looks forward to. It’s uncomfortable, unfortunate, and disruptive. In addition, it’s not enjoyable to see someone’s livelihood have a setback. But if the termination was for “cause,” there is a strong likelihood that the employee played some part in not meeting expectations.
To be clear, if you give an employee a proper orientation, tools to succeed, a clear written job description that they agree to, and opportunities to ask for help, then you are doing your part. A good manager must decide if the employee can improve or if they are a poor fit.
If an employee is not performing, it could be that there was a breakdown in communication. The first thing you can try is instituting “repeat-backs.” This allows you to state clearly what you expect from your direct report and for them to repeat back to you verbally exactly what they think is expected of them. Believe it or not, this works well. Then if you aren’t receiving work what was agreed to, you can explain, “We agreed to X but you delivered Y. Can you explain the gap?” If this isn’t working and you have tried other tactics, you may need to give the employee a performance warning and then put them on an improvement plan. Here are some tools from the Management Center.
There are many tools for performance improvement. But if you have tried to address the performance fairly and clearly, and the employee knows they are not performing to your standards, then you must consider the option of termination. Ask yourself, “In a perfect world, if this employee just disappeared and a star performer was in the role tomorrow, would I be happier?”
If the answer is yes, then you have an obligation to your stakeholders, and your own peace of mind, to consider termination. Of course, each situation may have its own special circumstances. You can coach an employee into another position or into an independent contractor role, but most likely it’s time to fire the employee.
How to Fire Someone Fairly
I have only had to fire a few people in my career. But when you do it, you must do it with confidence. Talk with HR, and even your board attorney, to make sure you are in compliance with the law and your employment policies. If the time comes to fire someone for poor performance and they are surprised, then you have failed as their manager. At the time of the firing, the employee can’t have the impression that they can talk you out of it. This isn’t a negotiation.
Begin the meeting with “Today will be your last day.” Explain what’s happening and how they will get any remaining compensation owed to them. Then follow policy on how they exit the organization. It sounds cold, but there are ways to handle this respectfully. For example, don’t let any emotions or personal issues get in the way. Resist the temptation to give a litany of problems the employee displayed. Simply explain that the employment relationship is over, the same you would with a contractor. Here is a sample firing script to help you.
This may sound like tough talk, and it is. To be honest, I’m like a lot of executive directors. I try to find every way possible to salvage an employee, especially if I like them! Conversations about performance and termination are very difficult, and we don’t train managers and executive directors on this task well at all. But you were hired to make tough decisions. Executive directors should work with an HR expert, attorney, or a board member to practice firing someone. Once you have run a few simulations or role plays, your confidence will grow and hopefully, you will never have to do it.
Remember, you aren’t in your role to be liked. You are here to get results for your stakeholders and to reach your mission. Anything that holds you back from that needs to be addressed.
Want to learn more?
Join me at the upcoming webinar, “6 Biggest Mistakes Executive Directors Make and How to Avoid Them,” offered by Wild Apricot on September 25.
Sean Kosofsky, MPA, is principal of Mind the Gap Consulting. He has worked in and led nonprofits for 25 years. His background is in policy, direct service, program development, communications, fundraising and management. He has served as an executive director for four organizations and helped hire several others. He calls himself the “Non-Profit Fixer” because he takes a holistic approach to “tuning up” organizations for better performance. He offers a course called “Executive Director Boot Camp: From Cautious to Confident in Less Than 10 Hours.”