For twenty-five years of leading different companies and churches, I have learned the hard way how to lovingly terminate staff. In my role as pastor or as a CEO/COO I would love to say that I have always terminated staff in a loving way. But, I have not.
One of the greatest lessons I learned while an Executive Pastor at Mars Hill Church was to lead as a pastor and not a professional. Over time, Jesus taught me a lot from and with Pastor Dave Bruskas as he led our staff through the pastoral epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus) each week. By the grace of God, in the end, we had gotten closer to getting termination right than we had in the past.
These are some lessons I learned during that time about how to lovingly terminate a staff member.
Termination should never be a surprise to the staff member.
Terminations should fall into two categories: immediate termination for a gross action or termination for not meeting the expectations in their job descriptions. In either case, the termination should never come as a surprise. This is what distinguishes a termination from a layoff. Where a layoff often occurs because of financial reasons and may come as a surprise to the employee, a termination is more disciplinary in nature. It should not come out of the blue. I cover how to lovingly layoff staff in this article.
An employee should see their termination coming from a mile away. If he or she is falling down on their job, there should be many meetings, discussions, and warnings to help the employee improve. Then, if corrective action is not taken by the employee, a termination is warranted.
Immediate Termination for a Gross Action
There is a long list of actions that will lead to a staff member being terminated immediately. Many companies have policies that state that if the staff member breaks a law—stealing, fraud, use of illegal drugs, or other actions—then the staff member will be terminated immediately. In each case, the employee is not surprised if they are terminated for one of these reasons. They acknowledged up front these company policies that clearly stated they would be terminated for these actions.
Termination for Not Meeting Expectations
Most terminations fall into this category, and this termination should come after a lengthy discussion of unmet expectations. If the staff member is surprised at termination, the supervisor and organization have failed the staff member.
As the supervisor, you must provide a current job description to the staff member. Each time your staff changes job responsibilities, you, as the supervisor, must reproduce their job description and review it with them.
When there is any variance where the staff member is not meeting the expectations of the role, then the supervisor must sit down with the staff member and discuss the variance. Most of the time, I have found where a staff member does not meet expectations, it is because they do not clearly know how to meet the expectation or there is another factor that might be inhibiting their performance.
As a supervisor, you should be having weekly or bi-monthly one-on-one meetings with each of your direct reports. These one-on-one meetings are an excellent opportunity to discuss any variances between employee job performance and their written job description. After this meeting, you should send the staff member a follow-up email or memo documenting the meeting and the specific area you are asking to change. Again, this requested change needs to direct their performance to align with the job description.
Along with your weekly or bi-weekly one-on-one meetings, you should have annual or semi-annual reviews to communicate to a staff member that they are not meeting expectations and what specific corrective actions are needed to avoid termination. Again, a follow-up email with documentation to the employee will reinforce the required activity to be changed.
A great tool to use as a leader to assist reforming an employee that is not meeting expectations is a Performance Improvement Plan or PIP. A PIP helps to communicate the path needed for the staff member to be successful in their current role. I have included a link to the Vanderbloemen PIP to help you build your own.
For the past twenty-five years, I have used weekly one-on-one and semi-annual review meetings to help correct performance, and I have rarely needed to take the next step in using a PIP. However, there are cases where you may need to get a third party within your organization or church involved with a PIP to mediate the process and facilitate clear communication.
However, even after using clear communication and Performance Improvement Plans, you may still need to terminate based on performance. You may also have to terminate immediately for cause. The following steps are good advice for the supervisor.
There should never be a time when terminating a fellow staff member is easy. However, I believe you can do it in a kind and honoring way. Here are some tips I’ve learned over the years about how to do so:
• Be certain that the termination is correct and needed. Although many labor laws need to be upheld, the process cannot be rigid, cold, or short. In the past, I have made that mistake and have thankfully learned from it.
• There is a balance between job performance and grace. After you have communicated the desired change, give time for the employee to change their activity and work through a PIP. Then, if the performance has not improved, it is time to terminate the employee.
• Be compassionate with the person and pray through what this will do to their family, their career, and their relationships in the church or organization. Have great empathy for that employee and communicate this empathy to them during your final meeting.
• Have another staff member, preferably your Human Resource professional and, if this is a church, a pastor, in attendance with you during the final meeting.
• Ask for feedback from the terminated employee in the form of an exit interview. This should not be conducted by the supervisor but a Human Resource professional, pastor, or impartial person. Make sure someone follows up with the former employee about the comments they make. This is something I have at times failed to do.
• Pray for the terminated employee at the end of the meeting.
• Depending on your environment and culture, you might want to have your termination meeting at the end of the day or even off-site. This provides the opportunity for the staff member being terminated not to have to face fellow colleagues during office hours.
• Consider a company or church policy that states that once an employee is terminated, they are not allowed to email or communicate with staff regarding company business. And make it a standard practice that their access to email, server, and other technology is immediately eliminated.
• Give severance pay when financially able to do so and extend health benefits when possible. Another option, if the organization is financially able, is to pay for their COBRA insurance for a period of time.
I wish I had followed the suggestions above each and every time I terminated a staff member over my 25 years of leading organizations (church, for-profit, and non-profit). I did not. Thanks be to God for the power of the Holy Spirit which has graciously sanctified me in this area.
As an executive pastor, I have learned over time that you cannot lead a church or Christian organization like a business. You are a pastor with business acumen. The leadership style that worked while you were in the secular world may not love and lead like your church team needs.
AS AN EXECUTIVE PASTOR, I HAVE LEARNED OVER TIME THAT YOU CANNOT LEAD A CHURCH OR CHRISTIAN ORGANIZATION LIKE A BUSINESS. YOU ARE A PASTOR WITH BUSINESS ACUMEN. THE LEADERSHIP STYLE THAT WORKED WHILE YOU WERE IN THE SECULAR WORLD MAY NOT LOVE AND LEAD LIKE YOUR CHURCH TEAM NEEDS.
This fact is never truer than when it comes to terminations and layoffs. I pray that God will use what I have learned to help you lead and love well through the tough staff transitions you will face.