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A Christian Approach to Firing Employees

By Michael Zigarelli
From Regent Business Review

CBN.comPrior to 1985, the hotel chain Days Inns of America was a Christian company. Its founder, Lon Day, Jr., sought to honor God by running family-oriented facilities, by not serving alcohol, by giving away more than 2.5 million Bibles to customers, and by offering a large share of the profits to charity. He also honored God with his stewardship of the operation, growing the company to more than 300 locations in fifteen years.

Day also cared immensely about his employees and even hired four full-time workplace chaplains to counsel workers who were in need. At the same time, workplace realities occasionally dictated that problematic employees be terminated, especially for taking kickbacks or for harassing female co-workers. According to Day, dismissed employees would typically plead their case with a fervent: “You can’t fire me. I thought this was a Christian company!”

Day’s response to them? Simple and final: “God will always give you a second chance, but you have had your second chance with us!”

Some managers, like Day, seem to have little difficulty letting employees go. But for others, the prospects of terminating a subordinate can turn even a seasoned business professional into a nail-biting novice. And when that professional is also a Christian, there’s the added difficulty of reconciling the firing with God’s call to servanthood, forgiveness, and love.

However, we need to make one thing perfectly clear up front: no where does scripture support the notion that it is sinful or even poor witness for a Christian boss to fire a subordinate. No where. God’s Word does not per se prohibit firing people. Quite the opposite, as we’ll see below, under certain circumstances, terminating employees is both sanctioned and encouraged in scripture.

It’s also the case, though, that we Christians have several responsibilities before we can invoke capital punishment in the workplace – responsibilities that include, but go well beyond, respecting legal mandates. As usual, God has set a higher standard of conduct for those who follow Him.

A Theology of Termination

Let’s look more closely at the specifics of this “higher standard.” On one hand, grace is the central pillar of the New Covenant. Calvary is God’s supreme sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins, and as God forgives us, so we should forgive others. Even in the Old Testament we read of the virtues of forgiveness and patience with those who have offended us. Proverbs 19:11 is illustrative: “A man’s wisdom gives him patience, it is to his glory to overlook an offense.” One could argue, then, that since firing is the antithesis of forgiveness, Christian managers should not exercise this option.

On the other hand, both Testaments also indicate that it is entirely appropriate to excommunicate individuals from a group because of their behavior. For example, staying with Proverbs for the moment, at least two passages stand out in this regard:

“Drive out the mocker, and out goes strife; quarrels and insults are ended” (Proverbs 22:10)

 

“Remove the dross from the silver, and out comes the material for the silversmith; remove the wicked from the king’s presence, and his throne will be established through righteousness” (Proverbs 25:4-5)

Proverbs 22:10 makes plain that removing problematic individuals should reduce conflict. Digging a little deeper, the word translated here as “mocker” carries the connotation of “scorner” and “arrogant talker.” This is a person whose inflated sense of himself creates disputes and generally disrupts the work environment. The verse, it seems, gives us the green light to oust such people from our workplaces.

Proverbs 25:4-5 builds on this thought with a promise that goes beyond reducing conflict. “Dross” is the residue left behind after an ore has been purified by fire. From the smelter emerges pure silver, material that is productive metal for the silversmith. Likewise, for a work group to be as productive as possible, its dross – its “wicked” and, by implication, its “mockers” – must also be separated out. What should be the natural result of this “purification” process? The proverb teaches that the king’s “throne will be established by righteousness.” In a modern business context, purging of these employees from the group can pave the way for effective, God-honoring leadership.

We find a parallel New Testament instruction in 1 Corinthians 5, where Paul excoriates the believers in Corinth for tolerating an unrepentant, sexually immoral church member. Expel this man immediately, the Apostle says unequivocally, because he will contaminate the church community. “Don’t you know that a little yeast works its way through the whole batch of dough?” Paul asks rhetorically. “Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch...”

Juxtaposing all of these teachings, then, it appears that we may have a problem. There is no doubt a tension in the Biblical text between forgiveness and discipline – a tension that lies at the heart of the Christian manager’s dilemma about discharge. Since the Bible appears to support two different and competing paths, what is God’s will in this area?

As is sometimes the case in scripture, it is through wrestling with seemingly incompatible instructions that we ultimately hear God’s voice more distinctly. By affirming passages that point in different directions, we often gain comprehension of a more intricate scriptural principle, a principle that is unexpressed by any one passage. Such is the case here. Through texts like those cited above, God offers at least three lessons for the Christian manager who is contemplating discharging an employee.

Three Practical Lessons from Scripture

First, we can interpret the tension in these teachings as a divine reminder that there is seldom a quick-and-easy answer for dysfunctional behavior. God shows us through His bi-fold teaching that the Christian manager should neither impetuously fire a subordinate, nor overlook every offense. Neither extreme satisfies the Biblical edict. Lesson One, therefore, is this: avoid hasty decisions about firing or retaining employees, opting instead for the more time-consuming path of circumspection and prudent reflection.

Second, the Bible instructs that the default attitude throughout our decision-making process must be one of patience and forgiveness. Of the two teachings that hang in tension with one another – essentially, law and grace – grace is clearly the superior one. Again, this does not imply that we can never fire an employee. That’s an over-simplification. Rather, Lesson Two is that for the decision-maker, grace must envelop law at every stage of this uncomfortable process. In practice, this would mean that the Christian manager should (1) offer employees opportunities to correct problems, (2) evaluate whether employee difficulties are really a function of poor management, and (3) consider assisting employees who will be exited from the organization.

Lesson Three acts as a counter-balance to Lesson Two: occasionally, it will be not only appropriate but actually advisable to drop an employee from the payroll. From a scriptural perspective, an individual who undermines one’s leadership, who arrogantly scorns others, who perpetually creates conflict, who is corrupt, or who cannot follow the work rules, is tantamount to “dross” that must be removed for the common good. The Christian manager, like all other managers, has a duty not just to employees, but to all other stakeholders as well. So, responsible corporate stewardship will sometimes dictate that troublemakers, criminals, and even perpetual under-performers have their relationship with the organization involuntarily severed. There is no sin in this, provided we’ve first followed Lessons One and Two.

Overall, then, harmonizing the difficulties in scripture gives way to important insights on this complex issue. God calls us to invest significant time and energy in this consequential decision, judiciously balancing compassion and standards – grace and law – whenever we are considering firing someone.

Termination Tips Based on Scriptural and Secular Realities

In light of this theology of termination, let’s consider the practice. Borrowing from the voluminous practitioner literature on firing people, here is some Biblically-consistent guidance.

Know and Respect Man’s Law

Even those who do not recognize God’s prescription to terminate with care often do so anyway. That’s largely because employee dismissal has evolved into risky business in most of the industrialized world. In the United States, governmental scrutiny of the employment relation is everywhere, from federal, state, and local statutes to administrative regulations to common law. One can hardly establish a personnel policy or make any employee-management decision without considering Big Brother’s opinion. Moreover, people are growing more litigious. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employee discrimination charges rose about 120 percent during the decade of the 1990s.

Consequently, one of the first termination tips offered by almost every expert is this: have a familiarity with the structure and parameters of employment law. Given the pervasiveness of the law, and given the scriptural mandate to respect man’s law (e.g., Romans 13), this is wise counsel.

In the U.S., the basic structure of the law is that an employer has a free-hand to discharge for any reason unless the employer is constrained by some law, some court case, or some contractual arrangement. That is, the default condition, called “employment-at-will,” does not require an employer to have a performance-related reason or any “just cause” to dismiss an employee (this is not the case in many other industrialized countries, or in unionized environments). Rather, the only requirement is that the termination cannot be motivated by those criteria prohibited in anti-discrimination laws, common law, or contract.

Several websites provide a thorough overview of this legal dimension of employee-management (see, for example, eeoc.gov, nolopress.com, and ahipubs.com), as do many popular press books. As a primer, though, the table below presents a snapshot of the current legal boundaries in the United States.

A Basic Overview of U.S. Employment Law

Conduct the Termination Meeting Wisely

First, it’s always a good idea to have the meeting in a private setting. Commentators are unanimous on this point and for good reason. Public or quasi-public dismissal is humiliating and engenders revenge.

Second, keep the meeting relatively short and to the point. Your criticisms should be honest and factual, avoiding subjective or unsupportable conclusions. Calmly explain your rationale for the decision and avoid arguing with the employee. You may find this difficult, especially if the employee throws the blame back on management or becomes verbally abusive. But arguing will only escalate an already tense situation, so permit the employee to vent without responding in kind. Remember, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).

Third, you may want to offer the employee a chance to resign in lieu of being fired. For some employees, this will seem like no choice at all, but for many others, it’s an opportunity to save face. Especially for employees who could see this coming, they may be less bitter about the situation if they can honestly tell others that they voluntarily resigned.

Fourth, and contrary to the conventional wisdom, it’s a good practice to dismiss early in the week rather than later. Traditionally, managers have fired employees on Fridays, but anecdotal evidence suggests that this simply prompts the employee to stew all weekend and to react more violently on Monday. Dismissing early in the week reduces this festering effect because the employee can begin seeking employment the very next day.

Lastly, be sure to have all information on benefits available for the employee. Can health insurance be continued? Will there be severance pay? Will you agree not to challenge any unemployment claims? Whatever the benefits your organization confers on discharged employees, the termination meeting is the ideal time to present them since they offer a ray of light in an otherwise black conversation.

Help the Employee to Transition

A central objective here is to avoid marring the cause of Christ in this seemingly heavy-handed action. One way to do this, when appropriate, is to provide enough severance pay for the employee to transition to another job in a financially-seamless manner. Additionally, in light of God’s concern for family stability, you may also want to take into account the individual’s family situation in both the decision to terminate and the size of the severance.

Another way to keep this individual on his or her feet is to pay for a professional outplacement firm to assist the employee in locating suitable work. Maybe even draft a letter of recommendation for the employee as well, especially if you are letting him or her go because of a bad fit with the organization. The point is that we should maintain a servant’s heart in this process, since our Christian responsibility to love and serve our neighbors does not terminate along with the employment relation.

Humility is the Key to a Godly Decision

If you have yet to deal with dysfunctional or nefarious employee behaviors in your career, you will. And if you already have, you will again. There’s simply no avoiding it. So before that moment arrives (or arrives again), think through how to handle the situation in a Biblically-consistent manner.

As we’ve seen, though, there’s a real challenge here. God’s Word is always the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, but on the issue of firing employees, the Bible offers a somewhat complicated teaching. One thing that we know for sure, though, is that in this process, as in all things, our first calling is to humility.

In practical terms, that means moving slowly and introspectively, asking questions like: “Did this person know the rules and expectations? Was improper training or some other management blunder the real culprit here? Have I really measured this person’s performance accurately? Is my decision motivated too much by profit concerns or by my personal dislike of this employee? Have I considered the individual’s family situation? And overall, am I honoring God as Boss and reflecting His face through my decision-making process?”

These are hard questions and they take time to answer. But spending more time on our people is just part of the deal if we truly intend to take God seriously in management. We will put more effort into decision-making and we will respect inconvenient – sometimes counter-cultural – guidelines that our peers blithely ignore. That’s humility before God.

No where is this more essential for the manager than when contemplating termination. Our distinctive as Christians must be a humble willingness to invest the time to balance discipline and forgiveness – to always seek God’s way. Sometimes God’s way will entail giving second or third chances, retraining the employee, offering lateral transfers for fit, and so on. Other times it will entail delivering a pink slip. But one thing it will always entail is walking with our employees in hard times, whether we’re walking them back to their work station or out the door.

Michael Zigarelli, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Management at the Regent University Graduate School of Business and the editor of the Regent Business Review. You can reach him at michzig@regent.edu

Copyright 2005, Regent Business Review (www.regent.edu/review). Used by permission.

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