Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Ask the Administrator: Firing Student Assistants

A regular reader writes:

I'd love to hear people's advice on how to fire student assistants gracefully.  Better still, I'd love to get advice on how to convey to student employees that the job they have with me is as important as the classes / volunteer work / research they have to do.  I just fired my fourth student assistant of the year.  I give them a written description of my expectations for the position when they are hired and a hard number as to the hours I expect.  I also provide examples of what an excused absence would be (doctor's note, documented car trouble - no notice required.  Most other things, at least 48 hours written notice).  I write down what I expect their schedule to be and clip it to the master calendar.  Most of the time, if they ask for time off or to leave early, I say yes.  But still I end up with people who after a couple of months are coming late or not showing up when they say they will.  After the second unexcused absence, I fire them.  I invest a lot of effort in training these people and firing them hurts me as much as it hurts them.  Sage advice would be much appreciated. 


I don't have a student assistant, and have never had to fire one personally, so I invite comments from folks who can speak from direct experience. And I'll just note in passing that managers are rarely, if ever, trained in how to fire people. I consider this an egregious failure on a structural level, but there it is.

My first guess is that they're seeing the job as makework to justify financial aid. I held a fair number of work-study jobs in college, and have to admit that my work ethic on those jobs was, um, let's go with 'just good enough to not get fired.' Every one of those started with the boss solemnly intoning that this was a serious job to be taken seriously, but the speech was quickly belied by what we actually did. If the students are coming in with the expectation that this is just an excuse for financial aid, then I wouldn't be surprised at indifferent performance.

Whether that's the case or not, though, the job is the job, and not every job is for every person. Sometimes you have to be the bad guy. So, with apologies to Evil HR Lady, a few tips on terminations:

1.They shouldn't come as surprises. If your expectations are clear, and you've communicated about the times they've fallen short of your expectations, then you should be okay. Too many bosses do the first step and neglect the second, though, patiently tolerating failure until they just can't take it anymore. To the long-tolerated employee, the 'just can't take it anymore' seems to come from out of the blue.

2.A termination is not a performance review. This isn't the moment to regale the employee with her failings; that should have happened already. Don't explain, at least not at any length, and certainly don't get sucked into a debate or the person's life story. Keep it short and impersonal.

3.Before re-posting the job, take a moment to step back and think about what you're asking the employees to do. If you've burned through four student assistants in a single year, well, there's no elegant way to say this, but the common denominator is you. Are your expectations actually reasonable? Are they relatively consistent with 'industry standards' (that is, what other folks on campus ask of their student aides)? If you're a significant outlier, you can expect the problems to continue. You may believe that you're right, but if you're several standard deviations beyond the mean, arguing with the mean won't help you.

I'm curious to see what my readers who have actually dealt with this issue have to say. So, wise and worldly readers, what say you?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

I have a lot of student assistants--they're my only staff. I've never fired one, but I've not rehired one. The reason I haven't fired one is that they're my only staff. It's next to impossible to hire in the middle of a semester. I have clear expectations, but honestly, I'm pretty flexible. I recognize that their first priority is to graduate. If the job they have for me needs to slide a little, I'm okay with that. All I ask is for the courtesy of notification. If a shift needs to be missed, just tell me. I don't care what the reason is, I just need to know that so I can plan accordingly. I tend to think that most students aren't mature enough to understand the effect their absences or incompetencies have on you. So I'd lean on the side of this being part of their education and before firing, talk to them about job expectations. Explain to them that when they don't show up, it sets you back x number of hours in your work. They may learn more from that than from being summarily fired after 2 absences. Even classes usually give 3 absences before a penalty and most jobs have personal days that employees can take without letting anyone know. So maybe try easing up a bit on the expectations. Another tack might be to try to hire students that seem likely to meet those expectations. This is often difficult, but extended interviews can usually tell you a lot about whether they take jobs seriously or not. No matter what, most students are going to put their classes first as they really should.
With four in one year, the problem may be looking at you in the mirror.
I disagree in that students don't realize the consequences of their actions. More than likely, they assume it will be okay because they think of student work as second to their education. Terminating on the second unexcused absence is a little harsh by any industry standard where there is a union. In most formal situations, there are verbal warnings, written warnings, some kind of sit down with someone of more authority which includes a suspension, and then termination. That kind of process gives both parties time to re-evaluate the situation. I agree in that a longer interview, one that included some detailed explanation of the work you are doing and how this position fits into that work, sounds called for. I tell all my student assistants that they can count on a wonderful letter of recommendation because we'll be working together to build one. I went through a stage when I fired a lot of people. It really did turn out to be about my unwillingness to work with an employee to help them grow.
I supervise a lot of students, some paid, some not. The single best strategy seems to be lots of feedback (positive and negative) on how well their performance is meeting expectations. I try to be right up front with positive reinforcement -- Zig Ziglar's "Behavior which is recognized and rewarded will be repeated" mantra is dead on.

If a student's made a bad call, we complete the task, and then I sit down quietly with them and say that in future, it's very important that they (arrive on time / don't knock over the reagent bottles / stop setting the micropipettors to volumes outside their range / not forget to change the media / not be rude to the visiting scientist). We make sure we're communicating, I let 'em know that they're still doing OK otherwise, and that's that. Most of them seem so upset to have disappointed me that they never make the mistake again, and I never have to yell.

I also agree with some of the other commentors: four in a year seems awfully high. What do you have these kids doing, and what are they paid?
When I was in an academic library, I supervised a lot of student assistants with work-study jobs. I rehired the few who took it seriously and were fairly competent and fired a couple who were completely unacceptable. Frankly, the vast majority of the tasks the students were asked to do were stultifyingly dull, just a step above make-work, so I kept my expectations accordingly low. For almost all of the jobs, we worked out a mutually acceptable schedule around their coursework. Then they got a sheet of paper with the job requirements and expectations, which came in 3 copies, all of which had to be signed. The student got one, I kept one, and the third went to the Dean, to go into their permanent file. The sheet had their schedule on it, assigned tasks with satisfaction criteria, procedures for not showing up (with telephone numbers and e-mail for notification purposes), and the retention/firing policy (essentially, verbal warning, written warning, you're out). I think making it as close to a real-life work environment helped most of my students take it seriously, at least to the extent of showing up.

I only had to fire 3 students in 5 years. One student was fired for letting an unauthorized person into the stacks (for the purposes of having sex with a minor, but our policy at the time only let us fire the student for the access violation). That one was a simple, "You are so fired, and if you're still confused as to why tomorrow morning, you may make an appointment to talk with me about it." The second and the third ones were fudging their time sheets, and that took the full verbal warning (I know you weren't here when your timesheet says you were; don't do it again), written warning (documented fudging with a big fat bolded NEXT INSTANCE WILL RESULT IN TERMINATION), and then termination. Handing them the written warning and the termination were done in the presence of the Dean so there was a witness and an opportunity for the student to refute the charges.

So I would say that your one-strike rule is probably unrealistic unless the student assistant is responsible for the safety of others, and maybe you need to be more clear about expectations and consequences. OTOH, it could be that you are sufficiently low in seniority that you are drawing from a pool of students that others in your department have already rejected, so you may have to adjust your expectations to take that into account.

Just my two cents.
- Original Lee
I've got to agree with DD on point #3; this correspondent seems to have an inflated sense of self-importance. The giveaway line is: "the job they have with me is as important as the classes / volunteer work / research they have to do." Well, no. Classes and research are investments in the student's future, maybe the most important he/she will ever make. A work-study job is a gig to pay the rent and tuition. School comes first. That's no excuse for not showing up to work and not calling in, but I suspect there is another side to this story...
I only have one student assistant, but I went through one to find him. I used the vague "I'm not going to be able to bring you back next semester" copout. Which really only works if you can put up with them till the end of the semester.
In Texas, a "Right To Work" state, no show no call usually means termination for equivalent work outside the university. There's really no reason why the such minimal market standards and courtesy shouldn't apply to a work study position.

And a work study job is a job, albeit a relatively easy one given in order to help pay for school. Just the time savings in not commuting make a work study job more valuable than the alternatives.

Since the alternatives are stuff like Walmart or McDonald's or temp agency stuff (which can add time spent commuting), this is a benefit to their education, NOT secondary to their education. If a work study won't live up to the responsibilities agreed upon, which were made available to make their life easier, firing is fair.

However, these expectations have to be made explicitly and up front before they start working, or it can be unexpected and seen as unfair.
Uh, even in unionized environments no show no call isn't acceptable. I could care less whether Texas is a "right to work" state. Come to think of it, that designation is Orwellian double speak at its best.
We're comparing work study to WallMart?

IMHO, work-study--or any oncampus employment--should at least in part be "meaningful." Ideally, related to the student's degree or helping her learn valuable skills about the university, about research, etc. that will help her later in life. It should be viewed as part of the learning experience, not outside it (I realize this works less well with some of the necessary but more mundane jobs on campus, such as food service, and reshelving books in the library).

I have fired student workers, but in general, I try to keep them on until the end of the semester. Most of the really negative experiences I've had have caused me to learn something about the way I run the office: we never talked about dress code, say, or what to do when you need time off. The one iron-clad rule I have is that SCHOOL COMES FIRST. We re-negotiate hours during midterms and in the final weeks of school, when the students are insanely busy (especially if they are writing lots of papers). I ask them to keep this in mind when taking on projects, volunteering for things, and I think they DO understand what being absent does to me and to my office, because I've explained it to them.

I tell students that the great advantage to working on campus is that we are generally more flexible then the "real world" and will work around student schedules, taking tests and papers into consideration. It looks to me like the original poster dispatched of this advantage and I'd be hard pressed to recommend working for her/him to a student.
I had 3 student assistants over the course of my time at a CC as webmaster, and I guess I was insanely lucky.

I did have to "fire" my first assistant, although it was probably as graceful a firing as might be imagined. He was working both for me and for another unit at the college. He only had so many hours, and they had way more work for him. So his hours kept getting used up early.

Finally I just said, I've been cool, but it's getting to be a problem, because you're never here the last week of the month. He said he was surprised that I'd put up with it for so long! And we parted quite amiably.

My next 2 assistants were both talented and very responsible. I lost the 2nd one only because of some stupidity with her state child-care benefits. (Again with too many hours: she had another job off-campus that paid more, so she stuck with that one.) The 3rd pretty much took over my job for at least 6 months after I left.

I will say that it helped having assistants who were older students. #1 was a former machinist; #2 was in her early 20s, but had been working & was a parent, and #3 was a retired Army chaplain. (I think I learned as much from him as he learned from me.) They were all already fairly responsible adults. :)

In my interviewing, what I was looking for most of all was a willingness to learn, because I knew they weren't getting quite what I needed out of their program. That may have also had something to do with it.

But as I said, I think I was just lucky as much as anything else!
Thanks for the helpful comments folks.

Lest you think I am some kind of ogre, two of the last four people I fired had issues with their schedule – they told me they would work Friday and then signed up for Friday classes. I have an office that needs to be open Fridays and I also teach at that time so I hire students to cover the phones / front desk. Students are told this during the interview and it is part of the position description (and until this year, I never had students pull a bait and switch like this!) Another student made a series of filing mistakes that resulted in the loss of some critical application documents. At the third correction / counseling, I had to let her go. Another student committed to 30 hours a week over the summer and then signed up for a 15 unit load of difficult courses in summer session and ended up never working more than 20 hours (in addition to not showing up twice). I offer pay that is 30% more than the average student position because I know my schedule is not flexible and I’m beginning to wonder if that’s the best strategy. People appear willing to agree to anything in order to get the position. I also understand now why students have been expecting me to be so flexible about their schedules (when I really can’t afford to be – the office is open when it’s open.) That would appear to be the "industry standard" on campus.

Looks like I need to find someone who’s not in school!
To the anonymous OP:

Or...you need to hire *2* student workers.

Don't give them 30 hours...or a full Friday. Split it between 2. If you have the budget, schedule a slight overlap.
No offense, but you can not be that clueless - student schedules will remain in flux until the first day of classes. A required class will open up, so they drop an elective; they here that So-and-so is hard and jump sections, ect. After the first week of classes you need to go back over the schedules and confirm everything. And don't take what they say for granted! Those three hours between chem lab and calc are going to disappear regularly.

Make sure there are at least one extra person scheduled at all critical times. Try to rehire former students when they move on to four year schooling. Consider offering hours to adjuncts, there is always grading and prep to cover the down times.
I've found that I can eliminate a lot of the problem students (but not all...) at the interview stage. The best indicator I have found of student quality is whether or not the student shows up to the interview on time. I still don't get it perfect, but I also do as another poster suggested and hire one more student than I think I will need (and never more than 15 hours/week, usually 10 hrs during the school year). Since I pay by the hour, when the flakey student gradually stops showing up, I'm just as happy. By that point I've generally started giving the flake less important stuff and the good students harder tasks. Good students I renew and give raises to at the semester, bad students I don't rehire.

I have had to fire one student-- she came to work drunk on a Sunday morning and totally screwed everything up.
"the job they have with me is as important as the classes / volunteer work / research they have to do."

I agree that you shouldn't hire students; you could not have gotten me to agree with this (especially classes/research) for any random campus job.

It sounds like the position you're offering is just incompatible with hiring students, and you've diagnosed the problem, so, um, good luck with the hiring process? :)
From the point of view of a community college English teacher working a 5/5 schedule: Student assistants? Student assIStants?! Student ASSISTANTS??!!??

I sure wish I had your problems.
Take a course in HR.

From your local community college; it ain't rocket science.

Or- get the syllabus and educate yourself in an hour or so.
I've been a student assistant in an office position, and my advice for making sure your office never lacks a receptionist is letting your student workers know how to keep in touch with each other. My former workplace ensured this by meeting as a group the day before classes started to fix the schedule, corresponding heavily over email through the next week or two about who had to make changes and who could take over or exchange those hours, and getting in touch with the other student workers about switching shifts during the semester when individual conflicts came up. It was almost always possible to find a substitute, and I don't know of the place ever closing because no one came in for a shift. The same policy existed for termination after unexcused absences, but nobody was ever terminated because of it, either (that I know of, anyway).
out of curiosity... if one of your employees signed into work and they clearly did not work, would you just terminate them from their job? or will you go all way to report them to judicial affairs and have them suspended or expelled from school?
I have yet to really fire a student in person; i've only fired two no shows (did not show up ever again for work)via e-mail.

I've also started giving annual reviews and the communication lines have helped CONSIDERABLY. I would highly recommend this tool to retain and change a bad situation. I had one person with an unclaimed disability, one who was so afraid of making mistakes she didn't do anything, and others with just crazy notions about responsibilities that were never really clearly addressed during their training for whatever reasons.

Student employment is a unique situation for each institution and each department, and so I was truly surprised and amazed by the folk who were scolding the posters here. Give the support people! We're an underpaid, underappreciated group of managers who do have important roles.

I've worked with well over 125+ student employees over the years, and there are no real secrets or shortcuts to the business other than great communication and taking the student employees and the job seriously enough, but always allowing room for fun.

Oh, I also work full time and am part-time student the rest of my time.
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