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.