Article

NextGen Know-How: Why I Fired Our Family Au Pair

kind manager consoles a female employee after she has been fired
Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CPCC, PHR Photo
Executive Coach/Consultant
Envision Excellence

5 minutes

Effective leaders must learn when to give feedback, when to coach and when to let employees go.

In August, our family welcomed an au pair from Italy who was supposed to be with us for a year. With a busy household of three young kids, my husband and I were hopeful this was the answer to our struggle of navigating sports practices and games, work travel and two businesses. Having an extra set of hands would reduce some of the stress of managing five different schedules. 

Within two weeks of her arrival, our ideal vision of a life with our au pair had faded to the reality of additional stress, disappointment and unfulfilled expectations. A week into her stay, we gave our au pair some candid and supportive feedback about how she could engage better with the kids, and we resolved to give her additional driving lessons because her driving skills were much lower than we had expected. A week later, during her fifth driving lesson with my husband, he had to grab the wheel to avoid a catastrophic accident. We realized we could never trust her to drive our kids, which was one of our main goals of the program. We sat down with her and our local consultant from the au pair company and respectfully shared the news that we weren’t a good fit for each other. She was upset and disappointed, as were we, but we felt confident in our decision. It would have been easy to avoid the difficult conversation by convincing ourselves that she was a nice girl and we should try to make it work, but the bottom line was that she was not a good fit for our needs. Dragging it out for another two months would have been stressful and unpleasant for her and for us. 

Although most people were supportive and understood our decision, we were criticized by a few who thought we should have given her more time to adjust. However, we felt strongly that the issue was not the adjustment period; her fundamental skill level was not a match for our needs. Being a nice person didn’t make her effective at the job. 

Despite the criticism, we stood by the decision to part ways, which was the best choice for our family, and ultimately for the au pair. Keeping her in a situation that did not fit her skills was not in her best interest either. Being an only child herself, she was overwhelmed by three small kids, and would fit better with a family with fewer children who did not need a driver.

This type of situation occurs often in our organizations—should we keep someone who is not meeting expectations or terminate employment? These decisions are not always easy, but they are decisions that leaders must have the courage to make. Keeping on low performers because people like them does more damage than good to your culture. Choosing to preserve relationships over making hard decisions can frustrate your high performers, increase turnover and have a negative impact on employee engagement. 

Although these situations can be uncomfortable, we can handle them with respect and kindness. As leaders, we need to set expectations, provide timely and meaningful feedback, and provide coaching and support. It is our responsibility to do what we can to effectively lead an employee to better performance. If performance isn’t improving, we can part ways with an employee with compassion and kindness.

It is important to take into consideration the whole system when making important people decisions. Sometimes that means making a decision that is best for the company over our own department, and sometimes that means letting go of someone who is not a good fit for our team. Keeping an employee who is not a good fit not only has a negative impact on our teams and culture, but also on that individual employee. Releasing that person to find a better fit for their skills is the kind and respectful thing to do. In our case, keeping our au pair because she was kind (and because we felt bad) wasn’t addressing the fact that we needed someone who could engage with our kids, set limits and take them to activities. Keeping her was not the right choice for our family system.

Time and again I have seen leaders accept mediocre or low performance to avoid an uncomfortable conversation or situation. I have frequently been called upon as an executive coach and been asked to coach a leader who has been ineffective for 10, 15, 20 or more years. Many times these ineffective leaders have received little or no feedback about the impact of their actions, performance or behavior. The organization has worked around them, and both sides have suffered. It is our responsibility as leaders to be honest and direct with people so they can improve or find an organization where they will be more successful. 

Our au pair left two weeks ago to join a new family in New York who have two children and don’t need a driver. By parting ways, our au pair was able to find a family where she has the skills to be effective and successful. And we can now find an au pair who will meet our needs and be fully successful in our family. 

Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CPCC, PHR, is a certified executive coach, leadership consultant and founder of Envision Excellence LLC in the Washington, D.C., area. Her mission is to create exceptional cultures by teaching leaders how to be exceptional. Maddalena facilitates management and executive training programs and team-building sessions and speaks at leadership events. Prior to starting her business, she was an HR executive at a $450 million credit union. Contact her at 240.605.7940 or lmaddalena@envisionexcellence.net.

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