Restorative Conversations vs. Letting Employees Go: Which Path to Take?

May 31, 2024 | 
4 minute read

I don’t know how to reconcile something… 

It’s been said that for employees, wisdom is to “hire slow; fire fast”. 

But is that wisdom helpful?  

I just experienced a conversation between my teenage son, his boss, and his boss’ boss (I have multiple sons, so I hope this helps with anonymity). My son and his boss have had some tension lately. And, because he’s a minor, parents were also brought in.  On one side, some unprofessional behavior from my son. On the other side, some unprofessional behavior from his boss. 

This was the first verbal conversation about this with his boss, outside of an email of her sharing her tensions with him. The conversation was tee’d up as a “restorative conversation” before the meeting. Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out to be restorative at all. 

From the get-go, it turned into a he-said/she-said conversation about whose facts were right. Then the boss’ boss took the side of my son’s boss saying things like, “You need to respect your supervisor.”

By the end of the conversation, neither party felt heard or understood. And it seemed because my son was the minor and a subordinate in this conversation, he was told that he needed to respect the rules and his boss.  After that he was let go from his role right there on the call. “Fire fast” is what it felt like. 

There’s a lot of nuance I left out and too much to fully unpack. I don’t personally agree with everything that happened. Also, there is growth & learning needed from both sides (my son and the org). 

The quality of conversations

What I’m getting at is the underlying approach to this conversation in the first place – the conditions that were set that ultimately made this a conversation where no one felt heard. 

As my late mentor, Dr. Daniel Friedland, said, “The primary purpose of every meeting needs to be moving relationships forward. If we’ve moved the task forward without the relationship, we’ve lost the meeting.” 

This meeting did not move the relationship forward at all. My son felt terrible afterwards. Not only because he lost his job, but primarily because he didn’t feel heard in the process. “That felt so unjust,” he said… 

Why was this not restorative? 

The whole scenario made me wonder… why was this not restorative? This is an impact-driven organization that has been given multiple awards for its culture. He’s worked there before in a different capacity and it positively changed his life. Was this all simply the product of conditions that set up bad conversations? I believe the intentions were good on both sides.

What if all of our meetings were able to do what Dr. Daniel Friedland said – move relationships forward?

In the professional world, addressing employee misconduct or performance issues is a complex and often contentious topic. 

On one side, proponents of restorative conversation practices argue for approaches that prioritize reconciliation, growth, and maintaining relationships. On the other, some advocate for the necessity of letting employees go when performance or behavior fails to meet the standards. Both perspectives have their merits and challenges, prompting an ongoing debate about the best course of action.

The Case for Restorative Practices

Supporters of restorative practices emphasize the value of direct communication among staff,  second chances, and the potential for personal and professional growth. They argue that small infractions or first-time mistakes should be met with opportunities for learning and improvement rather than immediate punishment. This approach helps the individual employee and fosters a culture of trust and support within the organization.

Restorative practices, like this restorative conversation process, can be particularly effective in resolving team conflicts and addressing performance issues where there is a clear potential for improvement. By facilitating open communication and understanding, these methods aim to address the root causes of problems and promote long-term positive change. Advocates believe that this approach can ultimately lead to a more cohesive and resilient workforce.

The Case for Letting Employees Go

On the other side of the debate, some argue that there are times when letting an employee go is the necessary and responsible decision. This perspective highlights the importance of maintaining high standards and protecting the overall well-being of the team and organization. When faced with repeated offenses, severe misconduct, or a lack of improvement despite support, termination may be seen as the best way to uphold these standards.

Proponents of this view contend that holding on to underperforming or toxic employees can hinder team performance and morale. In cases of severe violations such as harassment or theft, immediate and decisive action is crucial to ensure the safety and integrity of the workplace. Letting employees go can also send a clear message about the organization’s commitment to its values and expectations.

What is the Middle Ground

The tension between restorative practices and termination is far from straightforward. Both approaches have their strengths and can be appropriate depending on the specific circumstances. Like many things, the “best” path forward is often nuanced and lives somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. Knowing which approach to embrace in a given situation involves careful consideration of the nature and severity of the issue, the employee’s history and potential for improvement, and the overall impact on the team and organization.

Personally, I know that I lean on the side of “relationship”. As we navigate these complex decisions, a question I bring forward for your reflection… When are restorative practices possible, and when is it time to let someone go? 

Let us know what you think.

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