Letting Someone Go – the importance and art of managing personnel transitions.

Surely one of the most challenging parts of organizational life and leadership is that time or moment when you come to not only the decision that someone’s employment needs to be brought to a close, but then the actually moment when you meet with them and advise them that this is the decision that has been taken.  

Those who give senior or executive leadership to organizations will, without doubt, face these moments.  We need to talk about this and learn how to do it well.   

First, to note, this is a leadership move that requires much patience, courage and grace.   All of these.   First, because we do not move too quickly; we need patience.   We do not rush to a pre-mature judgement.  Sure, we may have a less than positive impression for some reason, but give the person involved a chance to demonstrate their capacity to do the job.   Having said that, when it is clear that this is no working, then we owe it to all involved to do what needs to be done and have the difficult conversation. 

Second, if a person is released from their employment, it is imperative that the reasons are defensible:  in a very real sense they should not be surprised.   Ideally, at least.   There should be clear and agreed upon performance indicators such that the person should recognize that they have not met the needed or necessary outcomes that are essential to their position within the organization.  This means that without a threat or implied threat there is, at the very least, a meeting where a concern is mentioned that the essential parameters or outcomes are not happening.   A supervisor needs to meet with the person involved and outline the concern and do so with reference to agreed upon performance standards. 

Third, accountability.   The person who make this call and has this difficult meeting– typically the supervisor, the person to whom the person in question reports – needs to in turn be accountable to someone else.  In my case, it is the board chair:  he needs to know that I have a concern; he needs to hear me out if I am thinking seriously about releasing a person, and he needs to be able to push back and either suggest (1) I have not given the person enough of a chance, or (2) the criteria for their performance are not clear, or, (3) raise the question if this is merely a matter of a personal grudge rather than genuinely a performance issue.  We need to be accountable for our personnel decisions.   But also, the accountability goes the other way as well.  If one of my direct reports – perhaps a VP – advises me that one of their direct reports is not effective in their role, then I will press them and ask”  what action will be taken and when?   If someone is not performing it only follows that they need to act and do what needs to be done for the sake of the institution. 

Finally, this is hugely painful and emotionally crushing – for all involved, but particularly for the person who has just lost their job.   Compassion, empathy, fair severance, and transition or career counseling, are all indicators that the organization recognizes that there are people involved, and families and career trajectories and that as much as possible we are eager for this person to move into another role, within another institution, where they can flourish. 

All of this assumes, of course, that someone has the capacity and authority to make these personal decisions.   With all due accountability, the president needs to be able do what needs to be done.   The senior pastor of a church needs to be able to let a member of the office staff go without undue interference from the church board.   The board have the right to hear why the decision was made, but they need to let leadership do what leadership needs to do.  They can express reservations; they can urge caution; they can insist on compassion.   But they need to let leadership do what needs to be done.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.