Why we hold on to bad employees, and why we need to fire people faster


game-animals-334334_1280Hi everyone. This post a little tough for me to write. Because, I love the people in our sector, 93% of whom are amazing, dedicated, wonderful individuals. Getting a chance to work with you every day is one of the biggest reasons I love doing what I do. Knowing you are out there makes it easier for me to get out of bed each day, put on deodorant, wet down my cowlicks, eat a handful of Fudgee-Os, and tackle injustice (not always in that order).

This post, however, as you can tell by the title, deals with challenging staff situations; specifically, why we hold on to people who are ineffective or even harmful to our organizations, what that does to our team and mission, and what we need to do about it. I am not an HR expert, and recommend you go to people who are (Ask a Manager is one great resource). So take my words with a swig of Pepto. But having been an ED for a while now, and being in various venting sessions with colleagues, whom I’m quoting in this post, I’ve been noticing some patterns.

Why we hold on to people

While most people in our field are awesome, there are some people who make others’ lives miserable. You know who they/you are. From chronically failing to follow-through, to not accepting responsibility for mistakes, to manipulating people, to bullying clients and coworkers, to generally being the reason others pray on a daily basis for the zombie apocalypse. Many offices have them, both for-profits and non-profits. But we nonprofits seem to be more reluctant to fire people. Here are a few possible reasons why:

  • We are really nice people. Nonprofit tends to attract people who are very caring and compassionate. We hate hurting other people’s feelings or causing them hardship. Because we’re nice, we also tend to second guess ourselves, thinking the problem may be with us and not the other person.
  • We genuinely like the people who suck at their jobs. Some people are not good at their jobs, but that doesn’t mean they’re not great people.
  • We intellectualize. We think of the sometimes low pay, lack of good benefits, and the difficulty of the work and we rationalize away irritating or destructive behavior of colleagues.
  • We have guilt. Sometimes we feel bad for hiring people in the first place, for whatever reason. A colleague says, “I have not done well when hiring people who were friends. Actual personal friends – not good in my experience. I waited much too long to get rid of them out of personal guilt.”
  • There are mental health and other challenges. Because we are trained to be sensitive to others, we take mental health and life circumstances into consideration. A colleague says, “We have had some really awful mental health situations where we both were concerned about liability if we took action against the person and also worried about the person’s welfare. “
  • We don’t want to get sued. This is one of the biggest reasons we keep toxic employees. We are afraid that we didn’t do everything right, such as documenting everything, and it makes us open to get sued by disgruntled employees.
  • We don’t want to deal with the extra work of re-hiring. Hiring, when it’s done right, takes a lot of time and energy. We think it’s easier to put up with an ineffective team member than to spend months finding a new one.
  • We are worried about the organization’s image. We are afraid the person we let go will say bad things about us. We are afraid they have external relationships and that by firing them, we are burning bridges with the community.
  • Grant timeline and obligations. Many positions are grant-dependent. By the time a problem is serious enough, half the contract period may be over, and we don’t have time to find a new person and deliver services as proposed to funders. We often worry that the sudden changes will negatively affect funders’ view of our leadership.
  • The timing is not right. Many of our programs are on an academic calendar, for example, so it’s challenging to switch out staff during the school year.
  • There is board interference and overstepping of boundaries. Board members can wield tremendous influence, especially founders. They may prevent the ED from making staffing decisions. (The frustration of boards’ micromanagement of staff deserves its own post later).
  • We don’t invest in supervision and HR. Some of us are not trained in effective supervision and HR practices. As a ED colleague puts it: “The core of our work is grounded in relationships. Our staff are walking mission statements. They are our agency. But, mostly you don’t see that reflected in our administrative budgets. We must invest in hiring, training, and supporting our staff with strong HR. We prioritize all kinds of things over HR. Like IT, for instance. Seems backwards to me.”
  • We are worried about race, gender, disability, and other equity issues. Another ED colleague says, “We are working to increase racial equity and don’t want to discriminate unfairly, so I think this means we are even more reluctant to fire underperforming people of color and other minorities. In our org, a male is a minority, so I think an underperforming man isn’t fired as soon as he could be.”

What happens when we keep non-compatible staff:

Whatever the reasons are, and it’s usually a combination of the above factors, retaining staff who are not a good fit often causes severe damage to an organization and its mission:

  • We are miserable and distracted. I have ED friends who dread going into the office because of a single individual who is clearly not a good fit for the organization. Instead of letting the person go, though, they drag it out, prolonging their stress and anxiety. This distracts from their work of fundraising, coaching other team members, and doing other stuff critical to the organization’s mission.
  • Team morale plummets. Nothing is more demoralizing to a team than when a supervisor does nothing to remove an incompetent, irresponsible, or even toxic team member. They continue to be present, a signal to the rest of the team that their boss is feckless. People become resentful, frustrated, and oftentimes despondent. The work of competent, formerly-motivated employees suffers. Says one ED, “My super awesome operations manager, who is my own special superhero, was getting really annoyed at all of the things [the challenging employee] was not doing and all of the ways they were making HER job difficult. I owed it to her to be very honest with them, set high expectations, and then be willing to cut them loose if they didn’t meet them.”
  • Programs and services for our clients are affected. This is the most important and urgent reason for why we need to be more decisive when it comes to staff who are not performing. Having a bad employee, a feckless supervisor, and a demoralized team is a great recipe for program disaster. Kids and seniors and other people we serve experience even more hardship because of our lack of action. As one ED puts it, “We are too afraid of lawsuits from employees. Strikingly, though, not from the clients that their bad behavior impacts.” Clients are not likely going to sue us for our actions or inactions regarding an incompetent staff, but they are the ones whose lives are most significantly affected.
  • The person is prevented from achieving a job they actually can excel in. I don’t think anyone actually wants to be a bad employee. All of us strive to find the things we are good at. By keeping people who are not a good fit at a position or an organization, we may be preventing them from finding one that may be great for them. I’ve found, after talking to many supervisors, that sometimes employees feel relieved after getting fired. One colleague, after firing someone, encountered her later out in the community. “She said that she had known that she just couldn’t do the job and that ultimately it was a relief. The job was a really bad fit for her in every way.”

The Three C’s

Before we fire people, though, let’s check to make sure we are being fair. In some instances, the problem does rest with the supervisor, and not with the employee we deem to be a bad fit. One of the most useful concepts I learned from my executive coach is called The Three C’s. Basically, almost every staff challenge can be distilled down to one of the three C’s:

Clarity. Does the person know what’s expected of them? Do they have a clear job description and a work plan that has tasks, goals, and deadlines? Do they know exactly who they are reporting to? Do they know who they are supposed to be collaborating with? Do they know your workstyle and communication preferences? Do they know that it pisses you off if they don’t send a text when they’re late for a team meeting? Are they aware of office values and cultural norms, such as everyone cleaning up their dishes within the day? So often, we punish people for not being mind readers. The lack of clarity is the most common reason for frustration, and the easiest to fix.

Capacity. Does the person have the skills and resources to do their work. Just because someone knows what’s expected of them doesn’t mean they have everything they need to do the job well. If you expect someone to coordinate a focus group, for example, do they have any experience running one? Do they have a budget to work with? Do they have all the supplies and equipment they need? Should they get more training or mentorship? Do they need translators, note takers, snack runners, etc.? Also, is their capacity to do work affected by factors outside of work? This one is usually the second most common reason for tension. We think people are incompetent when really, they just don’t have everything they need to do their work effectively, or they may have trouble focusing because of personal challenges.

Compatibility. The first two C’s are usually the cause of most problems, and if they’re resolved, the problem often goes away. If it still persists, it may be because of the last C, which my executive coach called Commitment. I changed it to Compatibility. Sometimes, people are just not a good fit. They’re not a bad person, and you’re not a bad person; it’s just that this is not the right mission or organization for them. If everything is clear, and they have all the resources and support they need, and yet things are still not progressing, then it may simply be this is not the place for them.

What we need to do

Nonprofits are awesome, filled with amazing individuals. However, it seems that we tend to hold on to people longer than we should. We need to learn to hire better, supervise better, and also let people go better. Here a few recommendations:

  • Reorient our thinking: It’s about the organization and services. As one colleague says, “Nonprofits tend to forget that our employees are not our clients. They’re not on our caseload.” Supervisors, we are not paid to get others to like us, but to advance the mission. That means we are paid to bear the burden of others hating us from time to time.
  • Provide coaching and ongoing feedback. One-on-one time with the people you supervise is critical. Resist the temptation to skip out on those. Provide, and solicit, regular feedback. No one should be surprised when they get let go, because you should have communicated several times with them about challenges, and you should have offered to provide guidance and support.
  • Check for clarity. As indicated above, so many issues can be resolved if everyone knows what’s expected of them. Ensure you are not punishing people for not being able to guess what you are thinking and expecting.
  • Check for capacity. Make sure the team member has the training, resources, and focus to do their job. Sometimes, though, they just don’t have the skills, and no amount of training will help.
  • Have an honest conversation about compatibility. If it’s clear this is not a good fit, after you’ve taken care of clarity and capacity, have an honest conversation expressing your concerns. Sometimes we’d rather do anything except the thing that would actually solve the problem.
  • Admit to your fault in the situation. Part of having the honest conversation is admitting to the mistakes you made and the role that you played in making things worse.
  • Consult with HR professionals. Good ones make a huge difference in making sure your organization is protected from liabilities.
  • Have clear policies in place. You should have strong HR policies, including grievance procedures and the process for firing someone. Go through it with employees every year.
  • Document everything. It’s critical that you have in writing that you brought the challenges up with employees and gave them a chance to improve. I find email summaries to be effective, e.g., “John, thanks for meeting with me today. I want to confirm that I understood what we had agreed to. Let me know if the following is correct or if I let anything out.” Make sure to have face-to-face conversations, though. Sometimes, to avoid conflict, we resort to writing/documenting. Without the honest conversations first, this often causes the conflict to get even worse.
  • Keep board members informed. EDs, especially if you have a very small staff, make sure your board is aware of the challenges and that they have your back. You don’t want an email from the board chair that sounds like “Hey, so I was at the grocery store, and someone told me you fired Jane? What happened?” Good board members, when they are informed, can play a crucial role in shielding you from attacks and providing support.
  • Allow people to keep their dignity. Above all, keep in mind that you are working with individuals whose lives are greatly affected by your decisions. Treating others with kindness is intrinsically important. But also remember that they’ll likely still remain in the field, which means you’ll probably run into them later, perhaps even work with (or for!) them again. Be firm when you fire people, but ensure the person feels respected. Ask them how they’d like to announce the departure and how they’d like to be recognized for their work. Respect their wishes.

Nonprofit professionals are beautiful unicorns. But some are not. Some staff are like coffee, getting more and more bitter with time. The wrong staff at the wrong time will rain hellfire on your organization. Nothing is more destructive to a team than toxic colleagues. Yet so many of us are paralyzed by what could be, such as getting sued, instead of dealing with the certainty of all the negative stuff that’s currently happening when we keep a staff who is not good for our team. We must be respectful, we must be compassionate, but must also be decisive. Our missions and our community deserve nothing less.   

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  • Marla Felcher

    This applies to volunteers, as well. And makes the situation way more complicated and difficult.

  • Karen Woods

    I think I would need to add to the three Cs list—Leadership. I would likely question how someone gets to this point while working within an organization? If the person is a new hire, then their performance and behaviour should be addressed within the probation period as per the hiring agreement—a bad fit is a bad fit. After that though, behaviour and performance can be linked back to poor/ineffective leadership, negative organizational culture, lack of feedback or communication on an individual’s personal circumstances. Firing is expensive on so many levels and if we were required to put more energy into REALLY understanding our contribution to the problem rather than documenting a discharge process of an individual, it might actually change the outcomes for everyone involved.

  • Lisa Sangoi

    I feel like ED’s and others in managerial positions are usually the staff that non profits have a hard time letting go of. Everyone else seems pretty disposable. And I think everyone wld agree that dysfunctional ED’s and managers are by and large the norm in the non profit world…

    • Carol Clarke

      That has been my experience.

  • Mehitabel

    Sometimes (frequently?) it’s bad leadership that makes a bad employee. To your list of “What we need to do” I would add that it is incumbent upon nonprofit leaders and managers to set their employees up to succeed rather than setting them up to fail. A lot of this is about clarity. A whole lot of it is about capacity, and capacity is so important. But I think it goes beyond those. It’s about integrity, too – being truthful as well as being clear, being transparent, keeping commitments, etc. I would also add that the best, most capable, most qualified employee in the world is likely going to struggle in a toxic culture with toxic leadership. It’d be nice to think that this doesn’t happen, but it does. (Edited for clarity – my brain is cobwebby this morning)

    • ES

      As a recent fire from a non-profit and a new hire with a private University, the way my leadership deals with me makes a huge difference in my quality of work and my own personal moral. I stayed in a position for 4 years that was very toxic and in the end, it was difficult for everyone involved. I wasn’t taking advantage of the situation and I had been looking for work elsewhere at the time I was terminated. My previous ED didn’t hold on to me because she felt guilty, it was because I was a resilient individual who made the most of a toxic situation until I couldn’t anymore and then things imploded. I appreciate your response to the article because the article made me feel like I was a person of poor quality and negativity for being terminated from a non-profit, but the reality is (and the comment beneath this references it a bit), not all management is meant for a non-profit and even more so…not all employees are meant for specific management.

  • TGAJen

    Amazing article as always, and so applicable to our organization. I’m going to pass it on to a few members of our administration. Also what are these Fudgee-O’s?!? They’re vegan? They look delicious.

  • Jeanne

    I also wonder if the person who made a bad hire doesn’t want to admit or believe that she/he may have made a mistake. Sometimes, the paper qualifications are great and then the interview is good, but once the person is hired and problems arise you find it hard to believe they lied or fooled you…

    • travelgirl28

      I’ve noticed that as well. I’ve seen managers become more entrenched about how the bad employee is great instead of the actual awful because they don’t want to admit to making a bad hire in the first place.

  • Niamh Hanafin

    The people that I have had to let go have almost always been involved in some form of corruption. I don’t know where or how that fits in the framework but at least in overseas development work, it’s a common problem in my experience. But I’ve also had the super nice, with very complicated personal situation, non-performer. We discussed it so many times in appraisals and came up with targets which were missed again and again. But yes, I felt sorry for the guy, and actually I really liked him as a person, plus he totally got the mission of the organisation and was also really well connected – not in a “I’ll take you down” way – but it meant that he got us great visibility so it was very complex. In the end I didn’t fire him, and he is still there, but with a much reduced job description. It’s always hard.

  • Pollination Project

    As an ED, I really appreciate this pep talk because firing people sucks, and having non compatible employees also sucks. One thing I’m acutely aware of, however, is a lot of “white” nonprofits have cultural expectations and norms that they unwittingly universalize, and sometimes people of color don’t fit these norms but white managers don’t see that “lack of compatibility” might actually be about race. We rationalize it in all sorts of other ways. If your organization is run by and led by majority white people and you are finding that you have a person of color on staff who is “not compatible” or “not a good fit,” it is important to look VERY critically at this conclusion. Is the person of color surrounded by white bosses and managers? Do they ever talk about their experience as a person of color in an environment like this? (If they don’t talk about it, you may want to consider how open your corporate culture is to experiences of difference, and how inclusive it truly is.)

    • Julianna8503

      Could you share any mismatch in norms you’ve seen examples of? At this point, our very small non-profit has no people of color on staff, so I don’t have firsthand anecdata. I’m more familiar with the concepts coming from Bridges Out of Poverty, such as middle class (and each economic class) having its own norms. I also of course would expect, say, recently immigrated minorities to have some cultural dissonance.

  • Tabitha Jensen

    I think a big challenge for so many of us in nonprofit leadership is the dynamic tension of proactively addressing poor performance, exaggerated qualifications, or other “hiding” behaviors in newer staff with the want to be equitable, patient, and fair. We want to mirror the kindness and compassion shown to clients, but when this approach backfires we often adversely impact the most vulnerable people that we are intended to serve. It is definitely a delicate balance to lead with kindness and integrity while also holding staff accountable to their defined work deliverables.

  • aa0145

    When wages are below the poverty level, people who are truly passionate about their work go looking elsewhere.

  • David Lynn

    Doesn’t matter what your business is, it’s all an HR problem

  • Kate

    My institution is small and there is no HR. There is no formal complaint process. There’s no policy for any of this outlined in the employee handbook either. Our only way to complain about the two very toxic employees we have is to go to the ED. The toxic employees have made it very clear they aren’t going to change and the ED has done nothing about them. Literally every single person on staff (other than them) has complained to the ED about them.