Dear Joan: Is There a Smart Way to Fire Someone?

by Joan Garry

Generally speaking, bad employees don’t just disappear so I don’t see this as a viable strategy. Here’s a better one.

This month, Joan tackles questions from three different Executive Directors. One wants to know how to deal with insubordination. Another is looking for the smartest way to fire staff. The third is dealing with constant staff lateness.


Before we get to this week’s questions, let me ask you one.

Are you a leader? Or a manager?

They’re not the same at all. Very different skills and attributes.

And yet, Executive Directors have to be both leader and manager. This can lead to conflict.

Many EDs like to try to create a sense of “family” in their organizations. Dangerous. And even family members need to be held accountable…

So if you have an organization like that, what do you do when a staff member (or 5) isn’t doing his job?

Here are my responses to three different Executive Directors who have asked me this very question…


Dear Joan:

So I am a brand new ED at a small nonprofit. 5 full time staff. I’m grateful that it is big enough to have at least five! It’s my first ED job and I can’t believe they hired me! It’s a dream job for me.

So I call my first staff meeting and I’m super excited to bring the team together and only 2 people show up. The others don’t even tell me they are not coming.

I’m furious and cannot believe how insubordinate they are. I’m having a hard time hiding my frustration. When I asked them why they didn’t show up (and I’m sure I wasn’t nice about it), they said they had important deadlines to meet.

– Can You Put a Staff Member in “Time Out?”

Dear Time Out: 

First off, no “time outs” for staff. Frankly, I could never get them to work with my own kids.

OK, I’m going to take a wild guess here. Either (a) there was no E.D. before you (b) there was a very long gap before your hire or (c) your predecessor was not big on accountability.

Several important things to remember:

  • Do not assume that staff knows why a staff meeting is important.
  • Recognize that the very best, most productive meetings are owned by the participants.
  • Assume that every one of your staff members have been to staff meetings that were a waste of time.

Invite your staff to join you for a breakfast or lunch (food = bait). Begin a discussion about how all of you should communicate on a regular basis. Ask them to come with thoughts about what would make a staff meeting valuable for them. Have a flip chart handy. Craft a standard meeting design. Make sure that, at least at the start, there is no homework required before the meeting.

This is about more than just a single meeting. This is about building something collaboratively, about giving your staff voice, and about beginning to introduce accountability.

No ‘time outs’ necessary. It’s a great place to start. Build a valuable staff meeting together and they will come. And if not, see the question below about the right approach if you need to fire staff.

– Joan


Dear Joan:

Everyone in my organization is working as hard as they can – maybe harder than I should be asking them to. We all care about the mission and feel like our work providing therapeutic services to families with severely autistic kids is unbelievably important. We hear from families all the time. It makes us want to work harder for them.

But we have a huge problem. My staff misses deadlines all the time. My audit is late. Board materials go out late. Reports to the small number of foundations we get money from are late and the quality is not what I want it to be. It’s not what my staff wants it to be either.

– Even this email was sent late.

Dear Late:

Here’s a word you are going to hate. Prioritize.

E.D.’s hate this word. Because that means you might have to say NO.

Sit down with each staff member for one hour. Ask them before the meeting to take the work and chop it into bite sized pieces. Look just at one month. What are the things that need to get done in the month of January?

Look at the list together. Be realistic. Ask the staff member to take X number of things off the list. Talk about the implications of removing them and pushing them into February.

Go one by one (either directly with staff or with your direct reports if they have staff). Then time for a two-hour staff meeting where all ‘to-do’ lists are shared ahead of time. The meeting is to talk about what each person needs to meet their to-do list for the month. To talk about the intersections of peoples’ goals.

“Wait, you have to have THAT on your list because if you don’t, I get through MY January list”

The group needs to be small so you can dig deep.

I have been known to say that running a nonprofit is like juggling, but it’s really different. The object of the game is not to keep all the balls in the air but rather to make intentional decisions about what balls to drop.

– Joan


Dear Joan:

I have known it for a long time and have done nothing about it. I have to fire my finance manager. She misses deadlines, I find inaccuracies in her reports and she never gets the board treasurer the reports he needs and when she does get them to him, the treasurer is unhappy. But she has been in the organization way longer than me and people here love her. They have no idea how bad she is. I’m afraid my staff will be upset but my board treasurer is sick and tired of my excuses. I guess I should also mention that we aren’t great about performance reviews.

– Can’t this staff member just disappear?

Dear Disappear:

Generally speaking, bad employees don’t just disappear so I don’t see this as a viable strategy. A few quick comments and then a few steps to take:

  • You have to be a bit patient. You can’t make this happen fast unless your finance manager makes an egregious mistake that you catch. The problem here is that I’m sure, based on what you have told me, that she probably has and you won’t catch it until she is gone. Then you will have a big fat mess to clean up (does the phrase “where there is smoke, there is fire” mean anything to you?)
  • You have to have a plan. You have got to cover all your bases. Firing someone is serious business.
  • Your Treasurer needs to know you have a plan. That’s a credibility and leadership issue.
  • Your job is, first and foremost, to manage the organization well. Regardless of personality, staff members must perform their duties well.

So a few steps

  • Find SOMEONE who knows SOMEONE who can give you two hours of pro bono Human Resources counsel. You must cover your bases.
  • A standard HR strategy is a 90-day performance improvement plan. A formal document that outlines challenges (very specific about missed deadlines, inaccurate reporting) but more importantly sets goals for the next 90 days. Engage your board treasurer here. Make sure the document’s goals and objectives are ambitious and very, very detailed. The document should be clear that if these goals are not met, steps will be taken to separate the employee from the organization. (Note: it would be more than great if an attorney can review the document as well.)
  • Meet with the employee. Ideally it would great for you to have someone with you – board treasurer in this case would be great. Review the document.
  • Be prepared for blowback.

If the finance manager is a poor performer and the goals and objectives are detailed, ambitious and fair, you can anticipate one of several reactions:

  • Anger and bad behavior. Won’t help the 90 day case in the slightest (be sure that something about “positive attitude “ is in your document.)
  • A Tipping Point. This could be just what your finance manager is looking for – a way out. Poor performers are typically miserable in their jobs and (you won’t believe me but I have seen it) these conversations often are exactly what is required for the employee to own up to the fact that the job is too much and that they need an “out.”
  • In the best of all possible worlds, you hold the staff member accountable and their performance improves. Now wouldn’t that be nice?
  • The last scenario? You meet again after 90 days (having documented every activity, crossed every T and dotted every I) and have then built the case that it is time to move on.

– Joan

So in each of these three scenarios runs a theme of accountability, honesty and transparency.

The other moral of these stories is that it takes time to be a good manager. It’s time you don’t think you have, but trust me. If you don’t make the time and a poor performing employee lingers, I guarantee you that you will later find a mess that will take up twice the time, ding your own credibility as a manager and in the case of finance, put your organization in fiscal jeopardy.

You’ll wish you had spent the time up front. And no one, I mean no one, has ever fired a poor performer and said these words “You know, I should have waited just a bit longer.”

5 thoughts on “Dear Joan: Is There a Smart Way to Fire Someone?”

  1. I was glad to see that you recommended getting HR “counsel” before considering the termination of an employee. I would take the recommendation further. Getting a little pro bono advice can be fine in an emergency, but it doesn’t substitute for having an HR professional who knows and understands the organization or for having policies and procedures in place before you need them. And likely, the first question that professional will ask is about the policies you already have in place. Does an organization this size need an HR professional all the time– certainly not, but when you need one–you need one right away and starting the search to find trusted advice shouldn’t wait for that urgent issue. There are many HR Consultants (like me) who work with non-profits and other small employers on an “as needed” basis. Having a trusted professional who already knows and understands your organization actually costs less in the long run because you don’t have to spend a lot of time getting them up to speed. You can check with your local SHRM (Society of Human Resource Management) chapter if you are looking for someone local but in today’s world many consultants work with clients remotely all the time.

  2. The only thing I can add to the conversation to paraphrase the Real Estate Industry: Document, document, document.

  3. I’m firing my first ever employee today and am finding great comfort in this post (and also words of wisdom making me wish I’d read it sooner).

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