When I heard a student affairs administrator make this statement awhile back, it gave me pause.
She explained that big budget cuts at her institution a year or so ago meant she had had to find ways to accomplish the university’s mission with fewer staff members. She began the process by assessing employees’ strengths relative to their positions. As a result of her assessment, she kept some employees where they were, she moved a couple to positions she determined to be a better fit for their talents and skills, and she let others go (with several months’ notice and assistance with their job searches).
The competencies she displayed—building and maintaining trust, assessing people and situations well, and making difficult (even painful) decisions without pause—are invaluable.
“Releasing an employee troubles, disturbs, and unsettles every leader,” writes Phillip Clampitt and Robert DeKoch in Transforming Leaders Into Progressmakers: Leadership for the 21st Century (2011, p. 166).
Therefore “cutting your losses [is] . . . an act of judgment and courage,” they concluded.
In higher education, the phrase “cutting your losses” sounds insensitive and incongruent with our culture of learning. Instead, we teach, correct, guide, and motivate . . . sometimes indefinitely. We may convince ourselves that “if only I were a better supervisor, then he/she would be a better employee.” And so we try yet another approach and give the employee more time.
The costs of keeping marginal employees, of course, can be very high. Their actions (or inaction) can affect recruitment and retention of students, the learning environment, risk and liability, and customer service. They also can affect morale, as other employees compensate for deficits or create ways to work around them.
What does it take to be able to handle challenging personnel decisions well? How can we develop these traits and/or skills? What are your thoughts about the statement: “We cannot afford mediocre employees”?
Our students deserve our best, including courageous leadership. How are we building and sustaining our value to our campuses?
Lisa Tetzloff is the Director of the Office of Student Life at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.