Feedback

Is this Termination Fair and Right?

DILEMMA

I work for a small non-profit. Yesterday one of our employees was asked to leave after she had been told her position would last till the end of the year. She was hired a year and a half ago as the house parent for a small maternity home (2-3 residents). The director of the home recently decided that the house parent should have a degree in psychology or social work, as the residents have mental health issues. At the meeting where the director told the house parent she would be laid-off in order to hire a degreed person, she was also asked to sign a paper that said she would not speak negatively about the organization to anyone. The house parent was told she had to sign the paper that very day and was given the impression that if she didn’t sign it, she would be fired immediately versus laid-off in two and a half months, which is how long it takes for the new person they’ve already found to step into the job.

It was a difficult position for the house parent as she and her child live in the maternity home and the child attends school nearby. The whole scene was intimidating for the house parent, a single mom, so she signed. Is this right, and what should I do?

Afraid to leave my name and the name of my organization

RESPONSE

Your friend/colleague is clearly in a difficult personal situation. Sympathy for her personal struggles as a single mother and your frustration with your employer are understandable feelings. Without certain facts, however, it is difficult to accurately and meaningfully address your particular situation. So, I will simply offer some big picture dynamics that you may find helpful.

The director of the home is charged with looking out for the well-being of the organization, the clients, and the employees. Sometimes a perfect balance cannot be struck and trade-offs have to be made. Were there problems in the home that the director felt could be better addressed by having a “degreed” staff member? If there were, your director may not be at liberty to say. Employers may face legal liability for discussing their reasons for letting someone go. So, they are often at a relative disadvantage, and wind up looking like the guilty party. The director is also charged with protecting the “reputational capital” that is so critical to the life of a non-profit organization, so having a nondisclosure statement is not, by itself, a problem (though the conditions under which one is “asked” to sign one may be).

That said, there may be shortcomings in the way your director is managing. For example, if there were performance issues, was this discussed in a redemptive/developmental fashion with the employee prior to the notice of termination? Was the employee given chances to improve performance? Likewise, if there was an implied threat of immediate termination unless the nondisclosure form was signed, this can be seen as unfair given the power imbalance between the director and the employee. Furthermore, it is poor managerial practice if nondisclosure agreements are used to simply cover for incompetent leadership. Clearly, the morale and trust of the remaining employees, such as yourself, may be deeply harmed if this is the case.

Kenman Wong
Professor of Ethics, School of Business and Economics
Seattle Pacific University

If you have an ethical dilemma at your workplace,
email Ethics at Work (eaw@ethix.org).
We will publish some of these in
Ethix along with our diagnosis.

Share Your Thoughts