Letting people go is a difficult but necessary part of the student leader’s job. When needed, it must be done quickly and with as little drama as possible. The benefit of building a strong evaluation system as explained in F.20 Evaluating Members is that you will be able to identify those members who are not fulfilling their responsibilities, and you will be able to proceed accordingly.
Before we delve into the specifics of letting people go, I must first stress that you should minimize turnover as much as possible. All the systems, processes, and strategies I have outlined are built to not only assist with achieving your organization’s main goal, but also establish expectations that will reduce turnover. People are less likely to leave if they understand and accept what they’re signing up for.
Turnover creates two main problems:
The responsibilities of the person who has left must be shifted to other people or go unperformed.
There will be concern and gossip about why the person left the team which may lead to other members also leaving.
These problems create considerable strain on the team’s systems. However, sometimes letting a member go is necessary. During those times you need to be fair and firm.
When you build your evaluation system, you need to have criteria for when a person’s membership in your organization must be re-evaluated. Essentially, you must determine the number and significance of transgressions against your team. Evaluating transgressions requires you to understand the culture you want for your organization as well as how your meetings, practices, and events are structured. Therefore, I will bucket these transgressions into three main categories: low, medium, high. Low transgressions should be followed by a slap on the wrist if it’s followed up at all. These will only become relevant if they become chronic issues. Medium level transgressions are mistakes that have some sort of material impact on the organization. These should be followed up with an appropriate level of punishment. Generally, if this behavior repeats itself, there may be cause for heightened concern. The last category consists of high transgressions and may require a review of the member’s participation on the team. These are generally considered serious to the point where the team’s reputation has been tarnished or the team’s internal structure has been harmed. In cases like these, you’ll need to dole out a punishment regardless of how poorly the person feels. Behavior in this category is so obviously contrary to the progression of the organization that to leave it unaddressed would set a dangerous precedent.
NOTE: People learn from their mistakes. So, it’s reasonable to show leniency if an individual expresses a willingness to learn and grow. First, the transgressor must acknowledge that they did something wrong. Second, the transgressor, must mitigate the negative effects by providing appropriate funds or performing certain tasks. If a transgressor shows both regret for an action and a willingness to work towards a reconciliation, it’s permissible to be more lenient with your punishment. Everyone should be given an opportunity to be forgiven and to atone for their actions.
I’ve included some examples that illustrate generally what constitutes a low, medium, or high level transgression. These should be specified and applied to your own organizations.
Low Level Transgressions
Late for meetings or submissions of noncritical materials
Leaves meetings early
Inattentive or does not participate in team activities
Mid Level Transgressions
Missing meetings or events
Doesn’t have materials that are requested
Late for major events
Distracts other members from being productive during meetings or events
High Level Transgressions
Missing major events that have an impact of the team’s reputation or internal operations
Doesn’t show up to a commitment that they’ve made on a major event
Insults, degrades, or betrays other members on the team in a malicious way
Drops out of event at last minute which has a financial consequence on the team
Shares confidential team information
You should anticipate and build your rules system around certain types of underperforming members that might make their way into your organization. If a person is not motivated to pursue the team’s success, then they should be quickly identified and removed. Prepare for the following personalities:
The Non-Member: This is a person who doesn’t care about the team, but for some reason or another passed the screen to be placed on the organization. They miss events, show no motivation to pursue the mission, and are generally difficult to deal with. You should eliminate these members as soon as possible. Especially if they’re not showing up to meetings, a simple email will do. Ask them to come in and discuss their situation, and when they fail to show, disinvite them from the organization.
The Excuse Maker: This person claims to be dedicated and will show improvement on a short term basis with coaching. They will provide convincing reasons why they don’t fulfill their obligations. Those reasons may be relatively legitimate. But remember that a person who doesn’t prioritize your organization enough to stay in line with your rules, doesn’t prioritize the organization enough regardless of what they proclaim. Follow the same procedure as before. Email them about a meeting, and when they show up with another excuse provide them a firm guideline for them to follow. If they do not follow that guideline, disinvite them.
The Lazy Subject Matter Expert: There will be some members who are excellent at what your organization does. They may not follow the rules, but when they’re present, they’re superstars. This is more difficult because you’re going to have to balance their contribution with the detriment they bring to the organization. Namely, people will observe them, see they are flaunting the rules, and thus your rules will diminish in power. My recommendation is to lean towards disinviting them. Your rules need to be respected in order for you to run a successful organization. If you don’t want to get rid of them entirely, ask them to come on an advisory basis when you need their expertise. Since they’re likely not attending your organization in full force anyway, it will be a good opportunity for you to have their expertise without them flaunting the rules of the organization.
The Struggling Juggler: These members are having a difficult time managing their priorities but are making every attempt to be a good member. Perhaps they’re simply adjusting to college, or they’ve taken on a bit more coursework than they can handle. However, at some point, they’ve show consistent dedication and are committed to your organization, but simply can’t commit right at this moment. I lean towards giving these members an opportunity to improve. The rules may need to be flexible here. A truly dedicated struggling juggler will appreciate your understanding and could contribute handily in the future.
The Difficult Situation: There will be some members of your organization who are excellent members, who contribute often and with vigor, and are dedicated. However, for some reason or another they suffer a string of difficult times which makes it impossible for them to attend meetings or go to events. In other words they’ve run out of points or broken the rules, but you know that they have potential to be great members. Generally speaking, I would lean towards giving them time to sort through their difficulties. Perhaps even give them a semester off and invite them back the following semester. Similar to the people in the fourth category, they will feel grateful for your understanding and will likely come back with energy.
The important takeaway is this – if a member, for whatever reason, is breaking the rules, this needs to be addressed in some capacity. You can show leeway in appropriate situations, but you need to get the member away from the eyes of others. You do not want your general body members to be demotivated and disrespectful of the rules of your organization. If a member is not performing up to par, document their transgressions within your system and prepare to have a difficult conversation that may end with the member leaving the team.
There are two types of member exits: the first is when a member leaves voluntarily and the second is when you ask a member to leave. Your main goal when someone leaves the organization voluntarily is to get back to business as quickly as possible. In many cases, you can’t control why a person chooses to leave. Perhaps, they’ve decided to focus on school work; perhaps, they’ve had a difficult time on your team; or perhaps, they have a personal reason. In order to minimize people leaving due to circumstances under your control, I recommend checking in with your members often to gauge on how people are feeling about the team, its initiatives, and its event calendar. The best way to do this is to be open with your group members, take feedback well, and try to incorporate as much flexibility as possible without jeopardizing the main operations of the organization. But, in many cases, people will leave regardless. Unless it becomes a pervasive issue, I would not address it to the organization. You need to ensure that people believe that the organization is alive, well, and thriving. Unproductive discontent must be addressed if possible and quarantined if necessary.
Especially when higher ups in your organization leave, or in the case of a mass exodus, it may be important to address the issue with your board or organization. As with any such communication, I would be tactfully honest unless there are reasons that cannot be shared. If the person leaving has raised a legitimate concern, emphasize that you are working to deal with the concern, and then follow up. If the person left for reasons that you cannot explain without damaging the organization, then that may be a time to give some generic reasons including school work, personal life, and the like. However, I will mention a caveat here. It’s likely that any person on your organization will have connections within the organization. People will inevitably reach out to their friends who have left. This is why it’s important to minimize the drama. That way, when people reach out to their friends, they’re more likely to assert that the reason they left had nothing to do with the team. However, if something has come up which would be damaging to the organization if revealed, then it’s important to address that point head on. There may be a time when a person leaves and feels vengeful. Be cognizant of this and pre-empt any vitriol they may levy towards your organization. Do not be untruthful or nasty, but remember that your organization is of the utmost importance. Do not let a rogue individual slander your team. If you let it happen, people will assume its okay to do so, and you’ll have an even larger issue on your hands.
When you are asking a person to leave your organization, you must do it privately and quietly. Once you’ve acquired the necessary documentation to establish that a member is not in good standing, set up a meeting with that member so that they can explain themselves. If they do not show up to the meeting, send them an email disinviting them. If they do show up, present them with your evidence. If they ask to prove their dedication, it is at your discretion to allow them to do so. If you choose to follow-through and disinvite the member, then you should be polite and firm. Thank them for what they’ve done so far (if applicable) and let them go on their way. At this point, you should eliminate their access to sites and applications, and follow up to ensure that they return any equipment that might belong to the team.
Questions to Consider
How many people do you want involved in the decision process for letting a member go? The more people involved, the more the drama increases.
How will you work to ensure that friends of the person leaving do not themselves leave?
Are there any patterns with regard to when and why individuals leave the team? Are there any actionable steps you can take to address these issues?