Sunday, August 6, 2000

Terminating a Church Employee

The decision has been made to terminate an employee of the church.  It may be a recently hired person who has turned out to be unable to fulfill the obligations of the job description.  It may be a long-time employee who has "soured" toward his or her work. Either way, terminating an employee is a difficult process and the following may provide help in taking the wisest steps.

1.  Remember that firing a church employee is not like the termination of the manager of your favorite fast food restaurant.  In a church it is more like a divorce.  It will be painful to the church, so be careful, accurate, compassionate, and clear to the employee.

2.  Before the termination is communicated to the staff member, review the personnel file to make sure it is up to date and contains all of the appropriate records.  Be sure to confirm that the resume, employment applicationn, updated and signed job description, and most importantly, the pertinent documentation to support the termination are in the file.  The documentation supporting termination will include performance reviews, performance notes, meeting notes, etc. 

2.  Is there anything you meant to do, but did not do?  Did you ever get around to documenting the "big mistake?"  Is there anything in the file that should not be there?  Picture yourself in a courtroom while the contents are being read - is there anything that would embarrass you or the church?

3.  Do not give a letter of dismissal.  Letters can become one more piece of evidence and you may not word the letter appropriately.  The letter is not necessary, so simply convey the news verbally.  Let the employee file do the talking.

4.  Consider using a Settlement Agreement.  These agreements link the severance benefits with an agreement to release the church and its directors, trustees, officers, employees, agents, successors, assigns and all other affiliated persons and entities from any and all claims.  It is thorough, legal, objective, and precice, and it protects both the employee and the employer.  These statements do not eliminate the possibility of law suits, but they do reduce the risk. 

5.  Do not press for the Settlement Agreement to be signed.  Encourage the employee to take some time to process what has happened and consult with an attorney if desired (of course, make sure you have already consulted with your church attorney).  This conveys the church's confidence that your position is inscrutable.

6.  Record on the Settlement Agreement the time of dismissal, such as "9:48 am."  This creates a time stamp of the church's official action.  Any subsequent action by the employee can be measured against the actual dismissal time.

7.  Make the meeting short, sweet and to the point.   Be empathic and compassionate, but not emotional or conciliatory.  Most employees want to review the history of recent events when they are terminated.  Don't retrace the steps.  It prolongs everyone's agony.  Get if over quickly and be professional, clear, and calm.

8.  Have a witness present.  Anything can happen and a witness protects you.  The witness protects the church as well.

9.  Minimize contact with other employees following the termination.  A person who has been fired might go to the other offices and begin to bring everyone into the drama of the moment.  You might arrange an appointment for the terminated employee to come in when very few are in the church.  Have boxes ready and perhaps arrange for a strong, healthy employee to help the terminated staff member pack personal items before departing.

10.  Fire on a Monday, not a Friday.  Terminate someone on a Friday and the person can't look for a job until the weekend is over.  Through all of Saturday and Sunday the individual is fuming over the termination and becoming angrier and angrier.  Come Monday, the terminated employer might look for a lawyer, not a job.

11.  Be sure to follow your church policies and personnel manual.  The courts often judges the church based on its own rules.  Follow those rules!

12.  When the meeting begins, be sure that you and the witness (an elder, personnel committee member, or a senior staff member) meet in a private place free of any possible interruption. Do not allow for small talk.  You don't want the employee to say something that might be used in a court of law later, such as, "I had a great time at my 69th birthday party last night," opening the possibility of age discrimination.  Or - "I'm glad you asked me to come speak to you, I wanted to tell you how my workers compensation application was going."  (Termination because someone filed for Workers Comp is illegal).  Start the meeting quickly with, "We have some serious news to share with you" (which is all the preparation a person needs to know that he or she needs to give full attention to what is going to be said).  Without pausing, add, "We are hear to tell you that you are being terminated from employment here effective immediately."  Have a glass and a pitcher of water on the table.  Have a box of tissues visible and within reach. 

13.  At the meeting, give the reason in brief terms.  "It has been determined that you have not met the requirements of the job description," or "you have made a number of errors in the printing of the newsletter recently."  You do not go into detail about the mistakes.  These SHOULD have been expressed to the employee in recent weeks and days.  To say, "You made mistakes in the newsletter.  You got the date of the retreat wrong, you left out part of the directions on how to get to the conference center."  This opens the door to "yes, but."  The staff person might debate that someone else gave him or her the incorrect information.  Be brief.

An alternative of terminating an employee, especially one who has worked with the church for a while and become a beloved part of the church family, is to offer the person the option of resigning.  Offer a severance package in exchange for the employee taking this option.  This avoids the employee "bad mouthing" the church or gossiping and sharing false information.  If this is offered, keep in mind that the offer is on the table "right now, but you have to agree to it now."

Lastly, remember that insurance companies estimate that 85% of the lawsuits churches face are the result of employment issues. (NACBA Ledger, Spring 2012, page 16).   Hire right the first time! 

No comments:

Post a Comment