How to Fire a Nonprofit Employee (Gracefully)

by Joan Garry

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You might think this story is about you. And it might be about you. But it’s also possible it’s not. It’s just such a common story that I hear it all the time.

You are an internal candidate to lead the organization and lucky you! You were hired!

Unfortunately, your colleague was not — and Colleague does not like it. Not one little bit. So to appease Colleague, you give Colleague more responsibilities, maybe even a spiffier title (aren’t you nice?).

This gives Colleague a sense of power. Colleague misuses it. Colleague undermines you and talks smack about you to your staff and board behind your back. Oh, and Colleague begins to illustrate why they were not hired. Colleague misses deadlines, drops balls, and begins to show poor performance overall.

It’s a perfect ugly storm — a dose of sacred cow meets a newfound kind of power in undermining you and with a new title that feels promotion-like. Colleague feels entitled and untouchable.

Colleague needs to go… but for a whole host of reasons, you can’t get rid of ‘em. So it drags on. And the collateral damage begins:

Oh no! Your best employee is leaving? Best Employee tells you it’s because of Colleague.

Oh no! You are doing so much extra work! You’re not fundraising, stewarding board members, or writing that speech. You’re too busy doing Colleague’s work as a cover.

Oh yes. I hear a version of this story in many sessions I have as an executive coach. I hear all the reasons it’s not quite the right time. The most common reason (excuse) is that Colleague has the keys to something you don’t have and the second most common one is insufficient documentation.

You might be asking why this is different from the challenges anyone has in moving a staff member out. Couldn’t this scenario be equally true in the private sector? Yup. No manager in any universe has ever said “I should have waited longer to fire that person.”

But there is something special about nonprofit leaders that makes this a much bigger problem in our sector.

We are pleasers. We are really nice.

Today I am going to offer you some advice on how to fire someone. With grace. And how nice that can be.

See It Coming
I think most people know right away. Actually, they often know during the interview. The flag on the field might not be red but it definitely isn’t white. You see it but hire anyway. You need a butt in a seat. Before you make that hire, can I suggest you bookmark this post and re-read the first few paragraphs?

Create A Definition of 30-Day Success
Give a new employee a week to get bearings. Then a meeting. Together. Answer these questions and the answers need to be specific and value-based.

How will you know? How will the employee know? Here are some examples:

  • A report that assesses the employee’s progress with 3-5 recommendations to address. (What do they see? What do they miss? How smart are their recommendations? What is their writing like?)
  • A meeting in which the new employee offers a snapshot of their team members. (Here you are assessing their EQ.)
  • What does this employee need from you to be successful in their first 90 days? (Gauge how the employee thinks about offering feedback to you.)
  • What do you need from the employee? (See how they receive feedback.)
  • Gather some intel from other members of the team. Is your new person playing well in ‘the sandbox’? (Are they committed to the team?)

90-Day Wins
With 30 days behind you, together, draw a picture of 90-day success. Be specific. Agree on it. Write it down.

Sharing the “Keys”
As an employee settles in, they start to “own” things — processes, passwords, etc. Ideally, you have some kind of succession planning document that requires folks to share these things but if you don’t, start now.

6-Month Check In
Mid year. No tasks or to-dos. The discussion prompts are simple. You lead.

  • Here are 3-5 things that illustrate what is going well.
  • Here are 3-5 things that illustrate what could be going better.
  • What do you need more of / what do you need less of from me?
  • What do I need more of / less of from you?

Write it down, share it, and toss it in the employee’s file.

Let Them Fail
I know you hate this. You cover so the work gets done well. Or someone else on your team is saddled with it. NOOOOOOOO! Please let them fail so it is visible to more than you, so you can document. If you keep covering, you can’t document the problem.

Performance Review

If all signs point to the fact that this employee needs to go, this will be the single biggest piece of evidence to support your move (or for the employee to point to in order to make your life miserable). The best advice I can give you is to have your significant other / your coach or someone who has heard you complain about this person read the review and make sure you’re not doing the ‘nice’ thing. If there are number scores and narratives, they must be aligned. And the narrative must include specific examples of challenges (presumably spoken about at the 6-month mark).And don’t forget soft skills. If this person hits their goals but is toxic in the work environment, that is a performance review problem. It causes attrition (see example at the top of this post).

Get Your Ducks In A Row
I am neither an attorney nor an HR professional. You will need advice from both. Always nice when you have someone on your board. But you can find someone. And find them you must. It should be highly orchestrated.

Remember Your Donors
Someone entrusted you with their hard-earned dollars to run this organization, to hire the right people, to maximize the impact of your work. If you think firing someone is not nice, think about wasting someone’s charitable contribution. That will feel way less nice.

Invite a Friend

The title is silly but the intent is not. Have someone join you. I know clients that let someone go and the meeting is over and – amazing but true – the employee is still employed. Sometimes it just helps with the courage piece. In addition, some employees don’t go easily (and you don’t feel very nice).I terminated an employee who literally foamed at the mouth, she was so angry (I was so not expecting that), and she then told me her husband had a heart condition and I was going to kill him (I really did not feel nice then). Having someone sitting next to me helped a lot — I was able to debrief with someone and it helped me feel a whole lot better.

I wrote this post for one simple reason. Because I know you. I know how hard this is, especially for folks who lead nonprofits. I have seen leaders torture themselves over a decision that is wildly clear to them.

Your jobs are already so very hard because of the work you do, the change you are trying to make in the world. I hope the steps I have outlined above will help you think about this with intention, with compassion for your employee and with your eye clearly on the change you are responsible for making possible in the world. As Brené Brown says ‘clear is kind.’ And know that if there is a poor fit, you are not actually being a ‘pleaser’ by struggling to make the situation work. Give your employee the opportunity to find a good fit.

Isn’t that thought kinda pleasing?

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