When a Staff Person Isn't Doing the Job
Steps to follow before taking drastic measures.

From time to time, I suspect a staff member is malfunctioning. This hardly constitutes evidence for firing, although it may eventually lead to it. What are the steps to take before that drastic measure is called for?

Quietly investigate. As soon as I suspect trouble, I put my ear to the ground. I ask questions of secretaries or other staff. I do so quietly and casually, asking, "What's going on with So-and-so? How are his groups doing? Anything new coming on line? What's happening in the department? How many people were in his last class?"

Meet with staff. If two or three staff members suggest there are problems with the person in question, I call a meeting of the entire staff, not including the person in question. I ask how serious the problem is. Is it worth looking into, or should I just forget about it? That's usually when something comes out.

Encourage staff to be honest with the person. I encourage the rest of the staff to tell the person, in a tactful way, the problems he's causing them—when he didn't come to a meeting, or when he stood somebody up, or when he avoided a job that they got stuck with. They shouldn't keep bailing him out. In the long run, it's better to talk with a problem person. Often honesty from peers will solve the problem.

Probation. If that doesn't work, I talk to the person, asking for his or her perspective on the problem. Unless something unexpected comes to light, I'll inform the person that if he doesn't show significant change in the next six months, he will be dismissed. I list specific things that trouble me and ways those things can be cleared up. I explain that we will have regular meetings to evaluate his work along the way.

Sometimes this is enough to turn things around. For example, a former staff member didn't realize that we expected creative leadership from him. He thought he was to follow the pattern of a predecessor and merely maintain the status quo. When his creativity and aggressiveness began to lag, I called him in and said, "I think things could be going better."

He listened intently, wanting to know what he should do differently. When I told him, he said, "You give me three or four months, and I'll turn this thing around." I asked for some goals and objectives, which he had for me within a week.

I said, "Okay. You meet those goals, and you're back in business."

He came back in four months, after meeting every one of the goals. He hadn't realized he was supposed to be aggressive. All he needed was honest feedback.

Bring in the board. By the time I put someone on probation, I have informed the trustee board of what I'm doing. If the board has any questions, they will talk to the person. Before I decide to terminate a staffer, I also ask the board for advice. Board members who are gifted in management and administration often counsel me on how to handle malfunctioning people.

One time I asked a staff member, who used his time poorly, to keep a log over the next 30 days. I wanted to know when he came to work, how many hours he put in, whether he studied at home, where he went. I wanted to know everything he did from the time he got out of bed until the time he went back to bed. My board encouraged me to do that. It turned out to be an excellent approach. Naturally, board members are pledged to confidentiality.

Get the person to tell you what you said. When I talk with someone about job performance or about an unpleasant decision, I ask the person to repeat what I said. Because they are emotionally off balance in this situation, people may hear things differently than I say them.

Once, because of her poor performance with a particular age level, I had to ask a church schoolteacher to teach a different class. She left the office and immediately called a friend, saying, "Can you imagine! After 14 years of teaching Sunday school, I got fired." Word got back to me, with the question: "Why did you fire So-and-so?" I hadn't fired her; I'd merely told her she was being moved to a different class. Letting people summarize what I've said during the interview eliminates needless misunderstandings.

Adapted from "Dealing with Staff" and originally taken from Mastering Church Management , copyright 1991 Christianity Today International.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is published with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations."

Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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