When I hear a common phrase, I often wonder where it originated. Such is the case for “experience is the best teacher.” While many modern writers and speakers frequently use this phrase, its attribution belongs to Julius Ceasar. Like most leaders, I found the truth in this statement the hard way. I was a young, inexperienced help desk manager, and for the most part, my team was high functioning. They had a high first-call solve rate and provided excellent customer service. Then we hired “John” (not his real name, of course), and suddenly I had an employee with a performance issue. John soon frustrated our customers, the other help desk team members, and me. Since I had yet to gain experience in dealing with a situation like this, I started by seeking advice from my supervisor and the Human Resources department. Their advice was solid and gave me a great plan, explaining that the goal was to improve John’s performance to the company standards. I learned two important things: I needed to improve in dealing with conflict, and John couldn’t see his issues; therefore, he couldn’t improve.
I’m thankful I could take the experience I gained from the corporate world into ministry with me. But the truth is, it’s always challenging when a person on staff is not performing up to the standards of an organization. There are relational issues and sometimes even church politics to consider when terminating a church employee. But as church leaders, we cannot lead from a place of fear, and we must be good stewards of the financial resources God entrusted to the church. That means that when an employee is not performing up to the standards of their position, the church must take action. As with my situation with John, the goal must always be to help the employee understand the expectation and help them to improve. The performance improvement plan needs to be clear, measurable, and have milestones. In those instances, after all the efforts to improve performance are exhausted and it’s time to terminate the employee, here are a few lessons that may help during the process.
Be Diligent in Documentation
Unless the termination falls into the gross misconduct category requiring immediate termination, the goal is always to restore the employee and help them meet their position’s performance standards. It all starts with documentation.
- Role Description: When hiring an employee, the organization must provide a role description. A role description sets the standards and expectations for the position. If the role or expectations change, give the updated document to the employee.
- Regular Feedback: Schedule weekly or, at the very least monthly meetings between the employee and the supervisor. These meetings provide a forum to discuss areas of improvement. Several software packages, like 15Five, equip the manager with the tools to schedule and document one-on-one sessions and actionable items from the meeting.
- Annual Performance Evaluations: Annual performance evaluations provide a forum to share their successes and improvement areas with the employee. An employee should never hear of the areas of improvement for the first time at an annual performance evaluation. Leadership’s role is to provide coaching via regular feedback all year long.
- Follow the Employee Handbook: When an employee performs below the organization’s standards, follow the guidelines established in the employee handbook. For example, if the handbook defines the performance improvement as a three-step process: verbal notification, first written notification, and a final written notification, follow the procedures and document each encounter with the employee. It is essential to identify the area(s) to improve, the steps required to demonstrate improvement, and a timeline to meet again. And have the employee sign that they received each document.
Be Clear in Communication
After exhausting all options through performance improvement plans, following the process outlined in the employee handbook, and thoroughly documenting each step, it’s time to terminate if the employee cannot make satisfactory improvements. Terminating an employee is never easy, and it shouldn’t be. I highly recommend an HR professional guide your church through the process and not deliver the news alone.
- Review documents for inadequate performance: Start by reviewing the records of the steps taken with the employee.
- Speak plainly but with compassion: As hard as this is for the manager/supervisor, it’s even more challenging for the employee. Make every effort to speak the truth in love. Demonstrate grace and empathy; with understanding how this impacts their livelihood and family.
- What happens next: After the initial declaration of termination, it’s normal for the employee to be in a bit of shock. One way to demonstrate love, grace, compassion, and empathy is to describe the next steps clearly. Explain their benefit options through COBRA or other plans. Show them how the church arrived at their final pay (including severance if that applies), have them sign that they agree to the amount, and have their final check ready. Gather church property in their possession, like keys, credit cards, laptops, etc., and be prepared to help them gather their personal belongings from the church.
- What to say to the staff: Once the termination meeting is over, inform the staff that terminated employee is no longer employed with the church. Do not share details.