Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Crucial Conversations for Accountability

When It's Time to Let People Go

Al Switzler

Al Switzler is coauthor of three bestselling books, Influencer, Crucial Conversations, and Crucial Confrontations. His fourth book, Change Anything, will be available April 2011.


Crucial Confrontations

Q  Dear Crucial Skills,

I am the president and chairman of a large private school. I recently came on as the president and found the school to be in worse shape than I was previously told. After studying the leadership structure, meeting with teachers and parents one-on-one, and reviewing numerous surveys, I think I need to dismiss the current headmaster. The problem is he has only been here for two years, owns a home in town, and has another home for sale in another state. While I know he needs to be dismissed, I want to be sensitive to his family. How do I sensitively dismiss him while protecting the future of the school? Did I mention it is a Christian school? Sensitivity and perception are important around here. Help!

Sympathetic, yet Certain

A  Dear Sympathetic,

This situation is certainly challenging. You want to do what’s right and you want to make sure you do not impose unintended consequences as a result of your actions. I’m right with you there. At this point, I think you’ve taken every necessary step to show that you are sympathetic and interested in understanding the situation from multiple perspectives. You have made a careful diagnosis. I commend you for this, and I advise others who face similar tough issues to do the same. Diagnosis comes before prescription.

While you know what you should do, you still wonder how you should do it. Let me address your question in two parts.

First, has the headmaster been given the clarity, the support, and the time to improve? Often when there is a pattern of poor performance, one of these components is missing. Sometimes, there is lack of clarity in what was expected or in the feedback about the person’s performance. Any HR professional can attest that too often in the case of poor performance, behaviors are not documented or clearly noted in the employee’s file.

In the rare case that the poor behavior has been clearly discussed and documented, the next most common problem is that the person has not had the time or access to the resources needed to improve—resources such as training, coaching, mentoring, and feedback. That’s because leaders often assume the employee should already have the skills and judgment to perform. In either case, without the components of clarity, support, and time, questions of fairness will undoubtedly arise. That is why the best organizations have clear, written steps for progressive discipline. The steps are clear to everyone and the process is fair. The reason I bring this up is to ask if you have a progressive discipline process and if so, whether or not you have followed it. If you haven’t, you need to take these steps first. If you did follow it and performance has not improved, then it is time to let the headmaster go and you can do so fairly and confidently.

My second piece of advice concerns what to do next as many groups watch and wait for your decision. If you have followed the progressive discipline steps above and performance has not improved, then you are not helping any of the groups, including the headmaster, if you do not let him go and soon. If he is not effective, staff, faculty, parents, and students—and probably community leaders—will wonder why they have to live with lower than expected performance.

This situation will most likely be painful for the headmaster who, I’m almost certain, comes to work every day feeling bad. Aware that he is not meeting expectations, he probably feels like he is swimming in dark, deep water and something dreadful could happen at any moment. I believe we do a disservice to employees when we avoid letting them go and allow them to feel unsettled and frustrated every day. We need to respectfully remove them from that situation, and to the extent possible, we need to help them transition to the next phase in their lives. That may mean providing a good severance package or serving as a reference for a job we think they can handle. Whatever you choose to do, just make sure to do it with respect.

In conclusion, you need to quickly clarify what is not working and provide the headmaster with a path to improve or to exit. These actions have helped many to improve. If he improves, then your problem is solved. If he does not, then you need to help him out of a painful situation by letting him go. As a leader, your job is to take that action so others in your team or department don’t have to create work-arounds or carry the extra load. This is a leadership lesson worth learning early in your career.

I think you have been sympathetic and you’ve certainly been respectful. Now it is time to be candid and help him out.

Best wishes,


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7 thoughts on “When It's Time to Let People Go”

  1. Tom Wagner

    We need to be careful using the word “discipline,” which is appropriate for behavorial issues, and job performance shortcomings. The orignal note is unclear on why the headmaster needs to be terminated, but Al Switzer’s comments deal with job performance. Amen to Al’s advice; just repalce progressive discipline with “performance improvement plan” for clarity.

  2. Darrell

    Kudos, Al–great advice. In similar situations I’ve always believed in a reform-then-replace approach. I think you hit this right on: Give the headmaster the chance to change, and give yourself the chance to retain a valuable employee. And if this doesn’t work, find a better fit for both of you.

    I would have liked to see more ideas on the second option (replace), though. Just how do you dismiss someone with respect and in a mutually beneficial way? Severance and outplacement are right on, but what else can/should you do to help the person land on his feet again, and how do you send the message to your organization that even people who are exited are treated humanely? This can go a long way in both helping you feel good about the process (it’s never fun to let someone go), and building trust in your organization among remaining stakeholders.

  3. Mary

    Good advice. I think it is important to remember that while getting rid of the person who embodies the issue may seem like the best way to address it, there is ALWAYS more to the story. Look deeper and see if you can determine what about the culture of the organization created or supported the poor performance of this individual. Even is you get rid of him, that will still exist. As someone said, the use of a reform-then-replace approach is always preferable.

  4. Sharon Campbell

    Mary hit the nail on the head. When you look deeper, look really deep. I have been in organizations where some members are actively working to undermine others, and seldom can the people at the top looking down see the sabotage. (Generally, the incompetent are threatened by the competent.) It is almost always a conspiracy, with at least two people involved, often more. The usual upshot is the good people being undermined get out of Dodge, and the oblivious management is left with the conspirators looking to take on the next victim.

  5. Mark

    I have been down this road. It was a very painful experience. We went to church together. His wife also taught at the school. He was talented in many areas. Just not in administration. We laid out specific behaviors that we expected and were very slow to pull the trigger. When it came time, the board was unanimous in its decision. We asked him to resign at the end of the year. We gave plenty of notice so he could make his plans. In a ministry situation, if it is not something that you are doing to protect the children, give him time to bow out. The final piece was the communication with the staff and parents about our replacement plans.

  6. Gary

    Best practices for career recognition of virtual employees? Our org is spread across country and not able to do face-to-face recognition. Our employees are hosted at local units (“step children”) and the local unit business is completely different than ours (CIO). We have video capability and we do have the option to involve local leadership if that best practice.

  7. How to Improve Your People Skills Al Switzler | CURTIS HAMILTON

    […] When It’s Time to Let People Go […]

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