by Bec Oates
Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom, and Propel Sophia seeks out the voices of truly wise women and asks them to share worked examples of how they express faith in daily life. Pull up a chair at Sophia’s table, won’t you? There’s plenty of space.
“It’s not you, it’s me.”
That’s how it started. I had just begun my own business and this was the first time I had to have the awkward conversation of telling someone they were being let go, transitioned, receiving a pink slip, given the boot, canned, de-cruited, given the old heave ho. You know what I mean.
I decided to spare the person the pain of the truth, which was that they were not suited to the role and were not performing the duties they agreed to. So I offered some thin and lifeless explanation—like budget—as the reason I was offering them a career change opportunity.
“It’s not you, it’s me,” I said. Which was dishonest and unkind.
Please don’t judge me. Because it was hard to end someone’s employment and no one had taught me how to do that. Besides, what should I have said instead? It IS you and not me?
Well, maybe not. But perhaps there was some truth there. It was about you and not about me.
After two decades in a business of my own and now working for an aid and development organisation, I’ve learned that what an employee needs from me to enable a healthy and honest conversation is more important than what I need to feel.
She needs me to stop being concerned with how awful I feel. She needs me to stop plotting how quickly I can get this conversation over with and run away. She needs me to stop thinking about me.
Maybe part of deciding how to let go of employees is found in Ephesians 4:29: “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”
It’s not easy, but it’s helped me remember the right questions when it’s time to part ways: what do you need from me? Do I encourage a season of pruning, correct a workforce imbalance, release someone into something new? Or all of the above, if you know what I mean.
As an employer I’ve had many of those conversations no one wants to have. I’ve hurt people. I’ve avoided them and been passive aggressive. I’ve told untruths. All in an attempt to protect myself. It was cowardly.
But I have discovered one simple truth that keeps me on track. I need to see each worker as Jesus does. As his workmanship (Ephesians 2:10), created in his image (Genesis 1:27), fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). I need to respect you and honour you in my interactions. I need to speak to you with honesty and clarity.
I need to go into those awkward meetings, remembering that this is about you, not about me, and get myself out of the way.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. If I’m honest, I walk into these conversations with my heart racing and my hands trembling, and I don’t always get it right. It’s easy to descend into blame and accusation, or avoidance and dishonesty when emotions are heightened—and who wants to do that?
But when I remember who I am speaking to and the privilege I have in serving them, I am often afforded a peace from God that is beyond myself. I’m speaking to a child of God! If I ask God to help me, he does. He helps me see you as he does.
I should expect emotions to flow. I should expect that there will be times when I am wrong in my assessment. I should expect that there are real consequences to hard conversations.
But not having hard conversations is worse.
Yes, proactively engaging is hard. It’s easier to avoid the issue and hope it goes away, but inevitably it doesn’t and we find ourselves all of a sudden addressing it when it is causing us the most pain and we are at the peak of our frustration. And that kind of surprise hurts. Avoidance and silence hurts. Timely honest feedback takes effort, but people deserve it.
Ambiguity and avoidance do not build others up. Clarity does.
People already know the truth. Speaking it is often a relief, and so we need to be truth tellers. We might struggle to be plain and truthful in our speech, knowing it’s uncomfortable to name it: I’m closing a door, encouraging you to embrace a new season, proposing a different leading, if you know what I mean. And if I’m using a euphemism, that’s a clear sign that I’m not being brave, honest, or clear.
Of course, the awkwardness of it all often leads me to filling the silence with inappropriately witty banter or sickening positive affirmation that seems all too insincere since I’m terminating your employment. So, I try to do better.
And one last thing: it’s a hard no from me for the feedback sandwich. That is, say something positive, then give the difficult feedback, then say something positive. That feels a bit like a hug, a slap and a hug. It’s insincere because you inevitably say something positive just because you want to say something negative. As if the human in front of us isn’t on to us.
So, given all of that, how do we have healthy conversations around the termination of employment?
Honestly, clearly, and bravely, remembering who you are talking to, a soul for whom Jesus died.
Bec Oates is a former hair stylist and small business owner, who now serves as the Director of Marketing and Communication for Baptist World Aid Australia. She and her family live in Sydney.