Category Christian School Education
Title A Biblical Model for Discipline and Dismissal
Author/s Thomas J. Cathey, EdD
Preview Though letting a person go under the "at-will" presumption is legal in most cases, it is not always the right or wise thing to do.
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"We are in an 'at-will' state. Can we dismiss an employee without giving the employee a reason?"

The ACSI Legal Legislative Department receives this question often. The first step in answering it is to understand the term. "At-will" states permit an employer to terminate an employee at any time for any reason, except an illegal one, or for no reason, without incurring legal liability; likewise, an employee is free to leave a job at any time for any or no reason with no adverse legal consequences.

Over the years, the courts have carved out exceptions to the "at-will" presumption. The three major common-law exceptions are public policy, implied contract, and implied covenant of good faith. (Not all of these exceptions are recognized by all states; more information on the exception definitions can be found at the National Conference of State Legislatures website, www.ncsl.org.) Though letting a person go under the "at-will" presumption is legal in most cases, it is not always the right or wise thing to do.

Our Legal Obligations

ACSI encourages schools to establish contracts with their teachers and staff to articulate and protect the rights and responsibilities of each party. Contracts must provide protection fairly for both parties and be treated with appropriate caution; a school that fails to honor its contracts will be in legal danger. Properly applied contracts encourage a secure, healthy working relationship and prevent teachers from resigning halfway through the year.

However, some schools choose not to offer contracts, or offer contracts that do not change the at-will aspect of the employment. In such cases, if a school plans to dismiss an employee (or not renew their contract the following year), is there an obligation to disclose why? Legally, no. But I contend that as believers, we should give employees clear reasons for dismissal or not renewing a contract.

Our Christian Duty

As Christians, we have a biblical obligation to treat others as we would want to be treated. The Bible teaches that all people will know we are Christ's disciples if we love one another. Luke 6:31 says, "Do to others as you would have them do to you." We expect our employees to be Christian role models before students and parents; likewise, we must be Christian role models in how we deal with our employees.

We should treat our employees as image bearers of God (Genesis 1:27). Ephesians 4:13 encourages administrators to provide opportunities for growth. This is why the Christian school should have a good supervision policy and should conduct evaluations throughout the entire school year.

Our Leadership Calling

Some teachers will fail to perform the duties outlined in their job descriptions; when this happens, we must evaluate them and give them a performance improvement plan. It is our obligation as leaders to be honest and fair with our employees; failing to give feedback on their work is not a kindness, but a disservice. We must be willing to tell them when and how they need to improve. They deserve honest feedback, fair performance plans, clearly stated expectations, and cooperative-never adversarial-critiques.

If teachers fail to meet the expectations set forth in the performance plan, and the time comes to end the relationship, you can sit down with them and go over the goals of the improvement plan, how they were not met, and why, therefore, their employment will not continue. This model, I believe, more closely adheres to the Christian imperative for compassion: you can bless them and release them in the knowledge that you have done all you can to help them improve.

Employees may be shocked that you are dismissing them, but they should never be surprised. If you dismiss them without clear reasons, they may begin to wonder if they were dismissed because of their age, race, sex, or disability. This can lead to a costly and damaging discrimination lawsuit.

Gross misconduct can require you to dismiss an employee immediately. In this instance, we recommend that you place the employee on administrative leave, gather all the facts, and then meet with the employee before dismissing him or her. Be sure to lay out the facts and reasons for the dismissal.

ACSI also recommends a Matthew 18 principle and Christian Mediation and Binding Arbitration Agreement in your employment contracts. However, you must follow the correct guidelines for these to be enforceable in your state.

In conclusion, I believe it is best for Christian schools to be honest with a dismissed employee, not only because it helps prevent having to defend the decision in court but because it is the God-honoring way to treat employees.


Thomas J. Cathey, EdD, Director for Legal Legislative Issues Note: ACSI's CD resource, Personnel Resources for Christian Schools, provides the Christian school with templates for employee applications, job descriptions, contracts, evaluations, and many other resources to help from hiring to firing. The CD can be found at the Purposeful Design Store at http://pdp.acsi.org/ pdp/ProductInfo/6013.aspx. A great book on supervision, Guiding Faculty to Excellence by Gordon Brown, is available at ACSI's online store.

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