Q: We recently fired a long-tenured staff member for lack of performance. The attorneys advising our process have advised us not to discuss this issue with congregational members. Many people are up in arms over the firing, and our inability to talk about it is making things worse. How should we handle this situation?
A: The lawyers advising you are protecting the legal interests of the congregation by discouraging conversations that could be referenced later in a court of law. However, the legal needs of the congregation are only one set of needs to be considered at a time like this. Congregational leaders must also consider congregational members’ need to trust the actions of their leaders, to act with personal and communal integrity, and to care for members of the staff team, all of which are crucial in sustaining congregational health. Leaders must carefully consider how they can talk about an employee dismissal in a way that avoids the risk of legal exposure but satisfies the community’s need to know that their leaders have acted appropriately.
The key to achieving this balance is understanding the difference between maintaining confidentiality and keeping a secret. We are keeping secrets when we fail to tell people crucial information that they have a right to know. Secret-keeping builds mistrust and creates barriers within a faith community.
In the presence of secrets, anxiety levels rise. As people become anxious they look for information to appease their anxiety. In the absence of information, they begin to speculate, and what they invent to fill the information void is almost always worse than the reality.
Confidentiality, on the other hand, appreciates that some things should not become communally known—that it is often in the best interest of the individual(s) involved in the situation and/or the congregation to protect facts that might be hurtful, misunderstood, or misused if shared. When congregational leaders treat employee dismissal information confidentially, they talk about the dismissal in ways that protect the reputation of the employee, minimize the legal risk to the congregation, and satisfy the congregation’s need to know that their leaders have acted appropriately and ethically.
Here are a few simple guidelines that will help congregational leaders treat employee dismissals confidentially without creating a culture of mistrust.
Talk about process, not content.
If congregational leaders handled the employee’s dismissal appropriately, a process was followed to examine the charges against the employee and to engage a disciplinary process leading up to termination. Congregational leaders can talk openly about the congregation’s progressive discipline policy, assuring them that these steps were followed, but they should keep information about the employee’s behavior confidential. The congregation has a need to know that its process and leaders operated with integrity, but they do not need to know the details of the dismissal.
Although an attorney would never endorse this, I believe it’s also important to acknowledge any mistakes that were made by the leadership during the dismissal process, and to talk openly about the regret felt about those errors and the corrective actions taken to mitigate their impact. A congregation is a covenantal community that requires transparency in its process, even at the risk of some legal exposure.
Talk about the values of the congregation and how those values were honored in your process.
Leaders can stress the attempts they made to preserve the core values of the congregation in the decisions that were made. They can also talk about the struggle they engaged in while making this difficult decision, without sharing the details of the employee’s situation.
Talk about the leaders who were involved in the decision.
Acknowledge which congregational leaders had access to the details of the decision, not so the congregation can pump them for information but so they know that trusted members were involved in the situation. In particular, emphasize the checks and balances and multiple levels of review used to insure that the employee was treated fairly.
Help people grieve and talk about their relationship with the terminated employee.
This is particularly important for the long-term or much-loved employee who is dismissed, or the employee who is also a congregational member. Help people explore the changed nature of the relationship. Talk about what they should say and do if the employee seeks them out to complain or gossip about the situation. Whenever possible, talk with the dismissed employee about how their departure will be communicated to the congregation. Fired employees are more likely to operate in the best interest of the congregation when they have been consulted about how their exit will be presented.
Susan Beaumont is a senior consultant for the Alban Institute.