Effective Practices : Human Resources
Complaints, Corrective Processes and Termination
Human Resources Section 6
1. When a student, parent or colleague has a complaint about the performance or conduct of an individual employee where are these concerns directed?
2. Who determines if a colleague’s conduct requires formal corrective action?
3. If a performance problem persists or escalates what subsequent steps are taken?
4. What role does documentation play in the corrective process
5. Can termination take place mid-year? What needs to be considered?
6. How and when do schools work with a human resource attorney?
7. How are members of the personnel/faculty development committee selected?
8. What do schools report that works best in their processes for correcting performance issues?
9. What are the underlying philosophies that inform the policies and procedures used in this area?
When a student, parent or colleague has a complaint about the performance or conduct of an individual employee where are these concerns directed?
Most schools surveyed have a practice of encouraging or requiring direct speech as a first step. This approach asks that all concerns be brought first to the individual involved, and that an attempt be made to resolve the matter on a personal level. All faculty and staff members know that when an issue emerges the first question to ask is, “Have you already tried to bring this matter to the attention of the person directly?” If the person with the concern is unable to confront the situation alone another member of the faculty will accompany him or her for the conversation.
If the matter has been brought directly to the person involved and the issue remains unresolved, it is typically the faculty chair that deals with the matter. The faculty chair receives the complaint and opens a file on the issue, taking notes and attempting to clarify the facts. The file will note who brought the complaint, and which facts have been directly observed, which are reported by the individual’s child, and those that are matters of intuition, speculation or gossip. Many social conflicts can be simply solved by taking this first step of clearly distinguishing who said what, when they said it, and to whom. The chair, with active listening, will attempt to gain a complete picture and understand the basis of the complaint.
For relatively simple, straightforward matters the faculty chair may elect to take the matter directly to the teacher involved. If the complaint is of a more serious nature, the faculty chair will inform the personnel/faculty development committee. Either the faculty chair or the committee chair will advise the individual that a concern has been raised. The committee will decide if more information needs to be gathered and how to do so. For example, the committee may decide to get additional observation of the teacher’s work if the report is mostly rumor or speculation.
The goal in these situations is for the matter to be resolved or brought to a place of balance. The situation must be livable for all involved before a matter is laid to rest.
In schools with strong mentoring and evaluation programs (see: Mentoring and Professional Development and Mentoring) it is unusual for a concern to come to the faculty chair that has not already been raised out of the regular processes of the school. Schools and colleagues are best served when a school seeks to understand the needs of their employees and participate in creating strong developmental plans that help ensure colleagues’ success.
Another variation is to ask parents to refer concerns directly to the personnel/faculty development committee. The committee follows a fact-finding process similar to that outlined above, and will meet separately with both parties and then arrange a joint meeting to try to bring closure to the issue. If the matter is primarily a personal issue between two people the faculty development committee might call on the services of one of the school’s trained mediation teams. Schools frequently mentioned the benefit of having several teams of parents and teachers that are specially trained in interpersonal mediation.
Issues that are performance related stay within the faculty development committee. The faculty development committee will meet with the individual and his or her sponsor, and together they will craft a personal development plan to support the person as he or she works to deal with the issue. This plan will include specific goals and a timeline for completion. The faculty development committee will check in regularly with the individual and the sponsor to ensure that the plan is on track and that acceptable progress is being made.
At times the personnel/faculty development committee will refer an issue immediately to the College. Usually these are cases where an immediate and time intensive response needs to be created that can’t be handled in the time and with the resources available to the faculty development committee. In those cases the College may create a special group to handle the matter.
In many cases the development plan works well and both the school and individual are well served. However, if things are not working out the faculty development committee will make a recommendation to the College regarding termination, or suggest that a larger group needs to take the matter up. Of course the personnel/faculty development committee has been keeping the College apprised of the concern and the status of the development plan all along so none of the members are surprised or uninformed when the matter is referred to the College.
Several schools mentioned the importance of reminding parents on a yearly basis of the school’s insistence on direct speech as a first step (see: Working Together in a Social Way) and that the faculty/college chair is the proper place to take a concern that isn’t resolved directly. These reminders can come in the form of a letter to parents from the faculty chair, inclusions in the school’s parent handbook, and verbal reminders at new parent orientation meetings and back to school nights. However, the most effective strategy is for all staff members to be disciplined and to consistently steer complaints back to the “person concerned” as a first step.
A different approach to resolving complaints that is used in some schools is to tell parents to take the concern first to their child’s class teacher or to the sponsor for the student’s high school class. If this conversation does not produce satisfactory results the issue can be brought to any member of the College of Teachers. The College member will bring the concern to the full College, an action plan will be devised as is appropriate, and a response to the parent from the College is prepared. The College will often times use the personnel/faculty development committee as a resource in the manner described above if the issue is one that requires shepherding over time.
Questions for Further Consideration
- Is there a group designated for such questions in your school?
- What qualifies as a complaint?
- Has an agreement been ignored? A rule broken? Who in the school has been delegated to handle this?
- Is the complaint a difference of opinion? Of vision? Is the vision for the school or classroom clearly articulated? Does the teacher know it? Do the parents know it? How would they know it?
- Is this a legal or safety issue? (see Mandated Reporting)
Who determines if a colleague’s conduct requires formal corrective action?
In most mature schools the personnel/faculty development committee is the body that determines whether formal corrective action is required, and notifies the College of all such cases. In some schools the committee is mandated to propose and implement an action plan, with the stipulation that the College be kept abreast of the issue. In other schools the committee is mandated to recommend action to the College, and implement that plan after it has been approved.
Several schools mentioned the importance of creating a culture in which feedback on performance is invited and viewed as a support to self-development. Setting high standards and inspiring colleagues to meet those expectations often negates the need to deal with concerns in a crisis atmosphere.
Questions for Further Consideration
- If your school does not have a College is there a smaller board or faculty group that takes on personnel/faculty development?
- How is this group chosen?
- Can this group instill confidence in the community that they are working with the issues while upholding the privacy and dignity of the individual in addressing their challenges? How?
If a performance problem persists or escalates what subsequent steps are taken?
If the conduct persists the development plan will be reviewed and additional support provided where appropriate. A timeline is established that indicates when various goals are to be met. For example, it might indicate when additional mentoring help will be brought in from outside and indicate when progress evaluations will be made. Notes documenting all meetings with the employee and the results of progress evaluations are placed in the colleague’s personnel file.
At some point the personnel/faculty development committee may recommend termination to the College. These recommendations could be for immediate termination, to ask that the individual not recommit for the coming year (a resignation request), or that the school not rehire the individual (fired). These recommendations come when all efforts have been unsuccessful in changing the colleague’s behavior to a necessary degree.
The College is usually the group that makes the final determination regarding termination of employment for teachers. Typically the College and Board make termination decisions jointly for administrative staff members, although in some schools the Board holds this prerogative alone. It is usual in those cases however for the College to have an opportunity to share information and perspectives before the Board makes a final decision.
The colleague’s own perspective on termination of his employment is important, and is often reflected in the type of reference the school provides to future prospective employers. For example, if an individual is able to self assess, sees difficulties and tenders a resignation this will be communicated when references are requested. Similarly, straightforward information is provided when references are given for terminated employees who were unable to see areas of difficulty and unwilling to work for transformation. (see Reference Checking)
Questions for Further Consideration
- Do you have criteria and processes for termination set up now?
- If you use consensus decision-making, should termination require consensus? Why or why not? (See: Decision Making Processes)
- What is the responsibility of the Board in your process? Is this established and mutually agreed upon?
- Has the school’s termination policy been reviewed by counsel?
What role does documentation play in the corrective process?
The schools studied in this survey spoke repeatedly about the importance of good documentation. Often times extended periods can elapse from when a person is terminated and when legal concerns arise, and good notes can quickly refresh memories that have faded with time.
Documentation can include a clear description of the difficulty, summaries of mentoring and other support provided, details of escalating consequences, and details describing severance pay and other pertinent details. Documentation can also include notes by the colleague summarizing his or her understanding of the facts presented at various meetings. The intent with documentation is to be sure that the situation is clear for both the employee and the school. (See Documentation.)
Can termination take place mid-year? What needs to be considered?
Most Waldorf schools describe themselves as at-will employers (see: At Will Employment) and do not have contracts with their teachers, allowing them to terminate employees for cause during the school year. While these situations are infrequent they can occur, and are usually instances where the school has clear documentation of its concerns and the steps taken to provide feedback and corrective guidance to an employee. In these cases the school, typically under the leadership of the College, will need to make special arrangements to announce the departure to the students and the school community and to plan for a smooth transition to a new teacher.
Most schools report that in cases of mid-year termination there has been substantial effort and lots of good documentation of those steps. A termination decision is clear and conscious, and rarely do schools feel the need to use severance packages. In rare instances a school may choose to use a severance agreement with a terminated employee. These agreements provide some consideration (typically additional compensation) in exchange for the employee’s agreement to dismiss all claims against the employer. The school’s attorney must craft the wording of these releases; specific state and federal laws apply and must be accommodated in the wording of a release if it is to be valid.
How and when do schools work with a human resource attorney?
Most schools report that they have established relationships with outside law firms that specialize in school issues. These firms can be very helpful partners when consulted early on, assisting in creating situations that serve the both the employee’s and the school’s best interests.
Many schools also have Board members that are attorneys, and these individuals can also be used for general advice. Care should be taken not to place an attorney with a specialty in a particular field in the uncomfortable position of giving guidance in an area outside of his field of expertise.
Some schools have legal committees, comprised of attorneys at the school who have served in the past on the school’s Board of Trustees. These committees are very helpful in reviewing all standard documents such as contracts, release forms, and documents regarding performance. They can rewrite forms and help to edit documentation to assure its accuracy and effectiveness.
How are members of the personnel/faculty development committee selected?
The personnel/faculty development committee is a committee sponsored by the College of Teachers, and mandated by them. Individuals are selected in a variety of ways at each school. In some schools faculty members nominate individuals they see as possessing the necessary skills and talents to serve on this group, and then the faculty votes for the candidates. In other cases the College will name the members of the committee, while a third approach is for the faculty to nominate individuals and for the College to make the final determination from the list of candidates named. Efforts are usually made to have a representative from the early childhood department, lower school and high school. Typically, many of the members of the committee are on the College, but this is not a requirement. Most schools recognize however that having at least one committee member serving on the College helps to provide an important link that facilitates good work. More information on this topic is found in the section on professional development and mentoring. (See Mentoring and Professional Development and Mentoring.)
What do schools report that works best in their processes for correcting performance issues?
One thing that works very well is the school’s clear communication of its interest in having the employee correct the situation and remain at the school. There is a strong belief that transformation is possible, and that the school will work to put things into place to help correct the issue. It is much easier to transform someone that wants to change than it is to rehire and start all over again. While things can and do get difficult at times, the school’s motivation is clear for all to see.
The proactive stance in the school regarding evaluation and mentoring is very important. The culture must include a clear understanding that no one is above review, and that self-development is a critical aspect of life in an anthroposophic institution. This idea should ideally be included among the first conversations with prospective and new employees.
The personnel/faculty development committee members in particular must believe in the person and his ability to transform. This belief is supported by the school’s experience with some colleagues whose performance was very shaky at the beginning, but there was clearly something at work and this led to the individual’s eventual success.
What are the underlying philosophies that inform the policies and procedures used in this area?
The school understands that organizational development in an anthroposophic institution must begin with self-development. No observation made by another is as thorough as the observations made by the spiritual world, and these judgments are made on a continuing basis. Members of the school community understand that a concern is an invitation to review something more closely. This understanding has allowed the creation of a culture where there is openness to both self-review and to those done by others. Doing these reviews in a regular, conscious, disciplined way makes us disciples in the truest sense.
The key underlying philosophy is human interest and a belief in the possibility of transformation. The school is genuinely interested in seeing colleagues improve their work. Notwithstanding this human interest, the overriding focus is on what is best for the school, and what the spirit of the school demands.
Complaints, Corrective Processes, and Termination - Effective Practices Summary
- Clear guidelines for direct speech are published and encouraged throughout the community.
- Designated channels for complaints are known and used in a disciplined manner.
- A personnel/faculty development committee handles both evaluation and complaint processes.
- An effective mentoring and evaluation program can provide early intervention for most performance issues and complaints.
- Impartial mediation is often called for in the case of personal conflicts. It is good to have a plan for mediation in place before conflicts arise.
- It is helpful to develop a culture that welcomes evaluation as a support to self-development.
- Documentation at all phases of evaluation and corrective action processes is vital.
- Decision making processes for termination should be clearly articulated and in place before crises develop.
- Personnel/faculty development committees should represent the highest confidence of the colleagues and should have regular reappointment.
- The key underlying philosophy is the belief in the possibility for positive transformation by any individual.