Firing An Employee

Let’s face it: firing an employee is difficult. No matter how long they’ve been with your school, it’s a significant challenge to summon the courage, candor, and kindness—as well as adequately prepare for—a termination conversation.

But healthy turnover is actually positive for your center, and there are penalties to hanging on to an employee who isn’t a good fit. The top three reasons you may need to have an employee exit your center are performance issues, values mismatches, and conduct breaches.

  1. Performance issues. When an employee consistently fails to meet standards, this impacts the overall effectiveness and productivity of your school. Performance issues can look like a lack of confidence and basic follow through, poor work ethic, inability to effectively collaborate with colleagues, etc.
  2. Values mismatches. A misalignment of an employee’s values with the school’s values creates tension and disrupts the harmonious environment necessary for effective teaching, learning, growth, and legacy.
  3. Conduct breaches. These are often the easiest to spot. When an employee’s conduct or actions compromise the safety, well-being, or reputation of the school, this is a valid reason for termination. This can include ethical breaches, policy violations, or any other action that goes against the school’s code of conduct.

Today, I want to explore the four major barriers to making a wise termination:

• Fearing the firing process

• Misjudging the true cost of inaction

• Wondering when enough is enough

• Worrying about the how

As a note before we begin, this article is not legal advice or human resources advice. Please ensure you filter all of this information through your specific needs, situation, and location. The goal of this content is to give you a framework to make wise decisions, ask quality questions, and prepare with confidence.

Managing Your Fear

Leaders who are concerned about the potential backlash, damage to the school’s reputation, and the overall consequences of terminating an employee are wise to recognize that such a significant decision can cause a cascade of impacts. However, when we examine our own fear and the limits of what is in our control, we can proceed through this difficult process.

  • First, ask yourself about the motivation behind the firing decision. Are you approaching the termination from the perspective of upholding the school’s mission, values, and vision? Alternatively, are you making choices based on personal burnout, frustration, or overwhelm?
  • Second, consider the positive outcomes that result from an appropriate termination. So many leaders hope for 100% retention, but the reality is that schools evolve, and not every individual on staff may be prepared for the next phase. One employee’s exit can create space for new talent, fresh perspectives, and a renewed commitment to your school’s mission.
  • Third, let go of the “what-if” horror stories. While you cannot control how the terminated employee or anyone else will respond, you can help shape your school’s culture moving forward by focusing on the principles of transparency, empathy, and clear communication.
  • Fourth, embrace courage. While firing an employee is challenging, it’s also an opportunity to demonstrate your compassion, bravery, and commitment to safeguarding your school’s values, vision, mission, and culture. Remember, courage doesn’t require the absence of fear. Rather, it requires acting despite fear.

Here are two ideas to help you to understand and work through your fear:

  1. Take some time alone in nature with your journal to reflect on the following questions: Why am I afraid? What am I afraid is going to happen? What good things can come from this process? How do I call upon my courage?
  2. Repeat to yourself: I am courageous, I am brave, I can do hard things. Because you can.

Explore Episode 152 of the Schools of Excellence Podcast to dive deeper into the topic of managing your fear around firing.

Understanding the True Cost of Inaction

When you let fear stall out your decision to fire, there’s a cost to pay. Here are some of the impacts of keeping someone in place who is not a good fit.

  • Health impacts for the school leader. The emotional weight of carrying an underperforming toxic employee has a toll on you as the school’s leader. This leads to burnout, sleep disturbances, elevated stress, emotional uncertainty, and anxiety. Prolonged exposure to this level of pressure has very real consequences for your mental, emotional, and physical well-being.
  • Strain on school culture. Your school’s culture is shaped by your daily actions and routines, and it’s the bedrock of your success. Unfortunately, toxic employees disrupt that intentional atmosphere for everyone—teachers, admins, students, and parents. When you keep someone who needs to leave, you’re paying the price with the health of your center’s culture, as well as the morale, trust, and retention of your entire team.
  • Decline in performance and productivity. When an underperforming employee is retained for too long, this leads to a reduction in your school’s overall performance. In turn, this causes greater challenges in achieving academic goals and excellent outcomes. When left unattended, this compromises your school’s reputation and enrollment numbers.
  • Damage to leadership role modeling. As a school leader, you’re a role model for your staff, children, and their families. When you demonstrate courage and accountability in addressing staffing challenges, this fosters a culture of accountability and continuous improvement.

When’s the Best Time?

Regardless of the reason for the termination, the decision needs to be made based on objective assessments, which should be aligned with your school’s values and policies. I discuss this subject in detail in Episode 153 of the Schools of Excellence Podcast. Here are five factors to consider and document to know when it’s time to fire an employee.

  • Performance. Before you can assess an employee’s performance, you need to establish a clear benchmark that determines what is and isn’t acceptable. I suggest you use a sliding scale, by holding higher levels of expectations for long-term, experienced, or leadership-position employees. This is why the Director’s Inner Circle & Owner’s HQ includes an assessment created through Schools of Excellence’s proprietary process for analyzing Six Performance Keys on a sliding scale.
  • Coachability. Is the employee willing to take ownership of their mistakes and grow? People have to want to be coached, which simply requires a desire to improve that outweighs their ego. Ask yourself:
    1. How does the team member respond when receiving feedback and suggestions for improvement?
    2. How well do they handle changes in processes or procedures or priorities? Do they own their mistakes or do they shift blame to someone or something?
    3. Are they consistently committed to enhancing their skills, or do they demonstrate a “this is just how I am” attitude?
    4. Are they resilient and growth-minded, viewing obstacles as opportunities to learn?
  • Attitude and mindset. While many owners and directors keep a finger on the pulse of their metrics and data, it’s easy to overlook more invisible factors like your employees’ mindset and attitude. However, you can certainly document concrete examples, which will be helpful if you need to terminate an employee. Keep an eye on toxic attitudes like gossiping, blaming, and frequently being absent—as well as problematic mindsets like rigidity, overgeneralization, and pessimism.
  • Personality fit. Consider your employees’ characteristics and their polar opposites, especially when pairing them together in teaching groups or schools. For example, assertive personalities may not mesh well with other conflict-averse team members. The solution may simply be to shuffle your colleagues around, rather than terminating them.
  • Skillset. There are four types of skills: technical, mechanical, leadership, and emotional regulation. All of them are teachable for people who have the willingness and aptitude.
    1. Technical and mechanical skills involve know-how and experience. Consider how many times you’re willing to train an employee on these skills and what the benchmarks for success are.
    2. Leadership skills include the ability to have difficult conversations, maintain eye contact, take initiative, discernment, and more.
    3. Emotional regulation skills include staying calm even in stressful situations, change management, self-awareness, and more.

Navigate Tough Conversations

Letting an employee go is a sensitive, complex process that requires fairness, legality, equity, and clear documentation. The best qualities you can bring with you are empathy, professionalism, kind candor, honesty, transparency, and respect.

Here are some top tips for handling the termination conversation, which I explore further in the Schools of Excellence Podcast.

  • Remember what you can control and what you can’t. You’re only in control of yourself and your own reactions and words. You don’t get to control how the other person responds or what they say. For that matter, you don’t control how other teachers or parents will respond, either! Therefore, give consideration to your own words and behaviors before, during, and after the conversation.
  • Consider the other person. It’s kinder to let the person know swiftly what the conversation is about than to drag it out. A termination conversation is not the time to sandwich a critique between compliments. That’s actually a form of people-pleasing and aims to make the process easier on yourself. Instead of leaving your employee to flounder, let them know within the first five minutes that they will no longer have employment within your center. The remainder of the conversation is about supporting them through the process, answering their questions, and ensuring they understand their next steps.
  • Prepare: While preparation cannot sway the outcome of the employee’s response, it can make sure you check all of the boxes for a professional termination.
    • Gather documentation. If they’ve broken policies or are not a cultural fit, make sure you have documentation regarding specific instances at the ready.
    • Comply with legal requirements. Every school, city, county, and state has different legal and human resources requirements. Confer with an expert, if needed, to make sure you’re following all policies and laws.
    • Choose the right setting. Select a private space where no one will overhear or oversee the conversation. This creates a safe environment for the employee to speak candidly.
    • Prepare to listen actively. After you let them know their employment is being terminated, give them a chance to ask questions and express their thoughts and feelings. Don’t be surprised if they don’t have anything to say. The meeting may take an hour, or it may take four minutes.
    • Pre-manage emotions. It’s natural for both you and your employee to experience a range of emotions during the conversation. Ask yourself ahead of time, What do I want to feel and experience during this conversation?
    • Understand next steps. Let your employee know what to expect next. For instance, are they being terminated immediately, or are you asking them to stay on for a few more weeks? What will happen to their benefits? When will they receive their last paycheck? Are you going to ask them to train others and hand over any access or information?
    • Create a contingency plan. While you may ask your employee to stay for two weeks after the conversation, they may decide to quit immediately. Create contingency plans for how they may respond so you can move forward gracefully.
    • Build your school’s reputation. In the age of social media, it’s unlikely but possible that you may receive some backlash online—no matter how many contracts and clauses you put in place. What you can control is taking steps to proactively build your school’s brand and reputation. You can also build trust and morale with your remaining team by letting them know that their colleague has been let go, what the direction of the center and next steps are, and that you are open to private conversations about their questions and concerns.
  • Breathe. After a termination, there are a number of perfunctory steps that have to be taken, such as updating records, providing resources, and changing permissions. It’s recommended that you ask someone else to handle these actions so you can take the time to breathe and restore your nervous system after the potentially difficult conversation. Build in some time to your calendar, as well, so you don’t go straight from an employee termination to a parent tour.

Create a Strong School Culture

Firing employees is never easy, no matter how much you prepare. Remember to manage your emotions, know what you want to say, make contingency plans, and plan next steps. In the end, focus on the reason you’re terminating an employee, which is to preserve your school’s vision, values, and reputation.

When you create healthy turnover, your school can grow, evolve, and mature into a strong culture where students, administrators, students, and parents all feel valued. You are your school’s leader, and I know you can bravely take the necessary actions with kindness and candor. 

If you’re looking for the support of a mentor and a group of peers as you face the prospect of firing an employee, I encourage you to explore our Owner’s HQ and Director’s Inner Circle leadership coaching programs, where you can access tools, resources, coaching, and community that will support your efforts to build a school of excellence.

For those who are seeking personalized support that is custom-tailored to your team’s needs—such as an org chart overhaul or a particularly difficult firing situation—our Leadership Day Intensive may be right for you.

Here’s to your courage and your school’s continuous improvement.