When your services are no longer required

How corporate personnel strategies have crept into the church, and why they are not appropriate there

August 24, 2016 | Feature | Volume 20 Issue 17
Henry Neufeld, Special to Canadian Mennonite

“So this is how Mennonite Church Canada handles layoffs due to shrinking budgets. This was my mom’s experience today: show up to work; given the news; laptop taken away; password changed; escorted off the premises to a taxi. Who treats my mommy that way?” (Posted by Daniel Rempel on Facebook)

Sadly that summary by Elsie Rempel’s son is more common than it should be. Elsie was one of five staff dismissed by Mennonite Church Canada late last year. This style of dismissal is happening too often, whether in Mennonite Church Canada, Ten Thousand Villages, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) or thrift stores. A strategy not uncommon in the corporate world, it emerges with increasing frequency in Mennonite organizations.

Usually it’s a surprise to the employee. They’re told their services are no longer required, then given a letter (often with legal wording) and asked to leave the premises. Some are given an hour or two to retrieve their personal effects, others are told they may return to the premises after office hours. The employee might be asked to sign a letter agreeing to the terms of dismissal, sometimes including a “gag order” prohibiting the person from making public comments.

Of her termination, Elsie said it was “incredibly sudden, I was stunned. . . . There were things on my calendar. . . . It felt like I was pushed off a high diving board without any process.” With speaking engagements scheduled when she was let go, she said, “With no access to my computer I couldn’t even let them know.” She found that being told her services were appreciated and valued while being fired was difficult to accept.

Elsie wishes that she had been given several months’ notice to finish her work. “That would have been better than the generous severance I got,” she said. Besides the financial package, she received many messages of thanks and condolence, including from MC Canada board members.

Randy Wiebe was dismissed after more than 11 years at MC Canada as its chief financial officer. Executive director Willard Metzger told Wiebe it was for financial reasons.

Wiebe said he experienced a full range of emotions—shock, disbelief, sadness and anger—and wondered, “Why me?” It was a “hard and cold process,” he said. “We used to have a people who cared. . . . This is the church, we’re not there just for the money.”

MCC: ‘Abrupt and harsh’

MCC Canada fired James Loewen in 2011 after he made some partisan political comments during an election campaign. The comments appeared in the Globe and Mail on a Friday and Loewen was fired the following Wednesday.

Executive director Don Peters said at the time, “I understand that this action . . . may be seen as abrupt and harsh.”

That’s because it was abrupt and harsh. With no negative performance reviews, Loewen was dismissed without any process. He was the one who requested a “facilitated dialogue” with MCC Canada to address his situation.

Loewen taught conflict resolution in a Caribbean country for MCC then continued working for MCC in Canada in restorative justice. At the time of his dismissal, he was working on a major grant application for services to prisoners. He acknowledges the inappropriateness of his comments and feels a reprimand would have been appropriate. “This was one incident in a 12-year career with MCC,” he said. “It was handled in an unskilled way.” He said he sought to “open a path for learning and reconciliation” with MCC.

Peters, in a statement signed by him and Loewen, wrote that Loewen’s comments “placed MCC in conflict with its constituency and supporters, and compromised James’s role as spokesperson for [MCC Canada] in the context of his work with government departments.”

When asked recently what damages Loewen’s comments had done, Peters said, ”I’m not commenting.”

Peters refused to discuss specifics of the Loewen dismissal for “privacy” reasons. Peters was not prepared to comment on the impact of Loewen’s firing on Loewen’s family. When asked about

accountability to the constituency, Peters said staff are accountable to the executive director, who is accountable to the board. The board says this is a personnel matter; not a board issue. Catch 22.

How to avoid the pain and scars

A former employee of one of these organizations describes “corporatization” as taking over. Corporate strategies might be appropriate for church-related agencies but all, especially those dealing with personnel, need to be challenged, rather than calmly accepted. There are many reasons for dismissing people: downsizing, poor performance, illegal behaviour and funding shortages, among others. Firing someone is never easy, but cold, legalistic terminations leave a lot of pain and scars.

Marion Janssen, a Vancouver area human services consultant, is often hired to deal with dismissals. “Most people don’t know that they’re going to be terminated,” she said. “I get anger, tears, questions. . . . It’s a terrifying experience [but] some are relieved.”

Consultants realize dismissals are an affront to the dignity of the employee and acknowledge the process, which can be cold and efficient, as less than ideal. Most bosses delay terminations as long as possible, since they affect everyone in the organization, morale suffers and staff become more cautious.

Consultant Keith Anderson has worked for MCC B.C. and Menno Place. In terms of his work, he sees “no distinction between faith-based organizations and public organizations. If a person is dismissed without cause, it’s important [for the organization] to err on the side of generosity.”

A better way

There has to be a better way. And there is.

A Harvard Business Review article says that letting an employee go should be the last step in a careful, fair and transparent process that starts long before the actual firing. If possible, the firing should not come as a surprise. Haste and secrecy often violate policies of transparency and openness.

When asked about some of these dismissals, the common administrator’s response is, “We can’t discuss it because of confidentiality.”

But secrecy is a more accurate description. There are simple strategies to overcome concerns about confidentiality that seem to have escaped some administrators.

One former MCC B.C. employee, when told he was being dismissed, was given a letter which he felt contained vindictive clauses. “That was most hurtful,” he said. “ Nobody would discuss it. . . . A meaningful dialogue would have been preferable.”

The organizations we love have gone down a corporate path on some issues, but the path should include compassion and love in the name of Christ. Can they find their way back to this path where a conversation and a handshake may be enough?

Henry Neufeld attends Point Grey Inter-Mennonite Fellowship in Vancouver.

See also “Advice for those ‘no longer required’”

 

For discussion

1. Under what conditions is it appropriate for a church or church organization to lay off an employee without warning? If the organization pays a generous severance package, does it matter that it comes as a surprise? How is an abrupt termination disrespectful to the employee?

2. Henry Neufeld writes, “Most bosses delay terminations as long as possible, since they affect everyone in the organization, morale suffers and staff become more cautious.” Is this concern about morale enough reason to end employment suddenly? Are there other reasons for an abrupt termination? How does fear of legal action impact this process?

3. Neufeld comments that church organizations have been acting too much like corporations when it comes to dismissals. Do you agree? Is concern for stewardship of donated funds a reason to act harshly?

4. When it comes to telling staff that their services are no longer required, do congregations do a better or worse job than church organizations? What advice would you give to church organizations when they are forced to reduce their staff?

—By Barb Draper

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Comments

I am entering the sunset years of my career. I’ve enjoyed the privilege of working in for-profit, non-profit, private, public sector, faith-based and secular organizations. This has included banking, education, construction, relief & development, and para-church corporations. Some have been small and some have had thousands of employees and billion dollar balance sheets. I’ve never experienced a personal firing. I did once voluntarily accept a severance package, in lieu of a new position, as part of a public-sector merger. It was a dignified and affirming experience that left me with admiration and gratitude for the individuals involved. They even called me a year later to see how I was doing and to see if I was interested in a job that had become available.
As someone who has had responsibility to hire, mentor, encourage, evaluate, discipline and sometimes fire individuals, I find comparison between corporate and faith-based human resource methods meaningless. Respect for basic human dignity and self-worth is due everyone, everywhere. There are no exceptions. We should neither expect more or less than that from MC Canada and/or MCC.

- Ron Janzen, Winnipeg, MB.

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