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How to get fired without getting burned.

You can protect yourself.

It your worst nightmare: An elected officer is in town and wants to stop the association office. He or she appears alone or with an attorney, and has one purpose in mind - to fire you.

Many employees, regardless of their positions, lose their jobs during economic recessions. In the association community, financial and competitive pressures among members often result in the wrongful discharge of chief executive officers. Firings also can be prompted by decreases in membership and income.

During these times, it is important to realize that the vast majority of chief executive officers are not fired (you can substitute the euphemisms forced to resign, nonrenewal of contract, etc.) because of poor performance. Rather, they often lose their jobs as a result of political, personal, and other factors - such as staff sabotage or a board or committee member who wants to become the executive director. Ours may be the only career in which some employers can and do lust after the employees'jobs.

Sought-after positions

Even in trade associations, where board members typically are company owners or high-level executives, a volunteer who anticipates losing his or her company or position, or who plans to retire, may instigate a power play to remove the chief executive officer and take over the position.

As one wrongfully discharged executive recently told me: "When your salary gets high enough, all sorts of people want your job. Whether they can perform in the job is of secondary importance."

Even if you have exercised all of the traditional precautions to protect your position, you still can be terminated without cause. The existence of an employment contract does not guarantee your job; contracts can be - and are - illegally breached every day in the nonprofit sector.

When the contract is breached, executives most likely will retain an attorney on a commission basis, whereas the association will have its resources as well as the resources of the company holding the directors' and officers' liability insurance. If you're listed as an officer of the association, you may be covered by the association's directors and officers' liability policy, but once you lose that coverage, you will face a long and expensive battle with uncertain results.

Even though you do not want to stay in a position where you are not wanted, here are 10 tips you may want to consider should the nightmare of wrongful discharge become reality:

1. Terminations rarely occur without some type of warning-for example, a deteriorating relationship with the elected leadership. A chief executive officer who feels that termination is imminent has to be on guard against an in-office meeting that could be turned into a termination session. Why? If you vacate your office before separation documents are signed (even if ordered to do so), you may later be accused of voluntary resignation. If possible, try to schedule or move what looms as a termination session to a neutral location, such as a hotel or restaurant.

Taking precautions

Also, don't wait until you're terminated to make copies of all documentation relevant to your performance, including salary reviews and board minutes. Otherwise, upon termination, the association has total access to your files and you have absolutely nothing. It's under these circumstances that you hear of chief executive officers using their extra keys to return to the office after hours to retrieve copies of valuable documents and personal property.

2. Try to be represented by your own attorney. A short delay in the termination session may allow you to retain representation. If the session continues and you do not have an attorney, ask to have an impartial witness in the room. Do not sign any documents unless they have been reviewed by an attorney, preferably one who specializes in nonprofit and/or employment law.

3. Negotiate for more time, even 24-48 hours, so that you can collect your thoughts and recover from the shock of the confrontation. Those doing the firing are counting on manipulating you during a moment of weakness. A delay period will allow you to retain an attorney and develop a strategy so that you are on equal footing with the other party. This time also can be used to contact board members and gather other information on the background of the termination. For all you know, the elected officer could be acting without board knowledge or approval.

4. Because your executive responsibilities continue until your termination is official, ask the association's chief elected officer questions to determine whether the termination decision was reached legally. This is done for the protection of all concerned.

For example, did the board convene at a legally announced meeting or a hastily called backstabbing session held by telephone? Some states stipulate the method and timing of meeting announcements for nonstock corporations, as do most association bylaws. If the decision was reached by an executive committee, was it properly authorized by the board? Did the board vote to approve the firing decision?

Were the votes recorded in written meeting minutes and were the minutes approved by vote or signatures of the directors? Was there a quorum at the meeting? Does the person doing the firing have copies of your employment contract, past meeting minutes, and the termination vote of the board or committee? Was the entire process consistent with the terms and conditions in the association's constitution and bylaws?

Legal underpinnings

Failure to properly execute a termination can expose the directors and their companies to wrongful discharge. and breach of contract litigation in the future. Don't hesitate to point out these facts.

5. Ask for a letter of recommendation or at least a letter indicating that the separation was without cause. Positive letters from staff members also can be requested. These will be invaluable in your upcoming position search. It also is a good idea to negotiate the issuance of a joint press release about the separation. This may discourage volunteers from making disparaging remarks about you (especially to prospective employers) following your departure.

6. Despite the terms and conditions of the employment contract, try to negotiate additional severance pay. Threemonth's severance pay is not sufficient in today's economy; it may take one year or longer to obtain a comparable position.

Most chief executive officers do not realize how difficult it is to perpetuate their association careers. You will not be able to knock on doors of prospective association employers. You have to wait until an executive director resigns, retires, dies, or is terminated, or a new association is formed. If you have been the top staff executive for a number of years, it also is unlikely that you will obtain a comparable position in the for-profit sector. A new job in a lower-level position also is out because you are now "overqualified."

7. Try to negotiate the part-time use of the association office, computers, telephones, postage and office supplies, and so forth for the job search following the termination. Fees for a professional outplacement service also can be negotiated, as can extension of insurance coverage-important today because of the high cost of premiums.

8. Avoid making statements about your intentions that could harm future settlement attempts through litigation. In other words, don't threaten to sue or suggest any type of action at the moment of being terminated - it tips your hand and may influence negatively the association's course of action. Equally important, do not sign a release document that includes any negative references to you or your performance.

9. If you are age 55 or older, ask if the separation agreement can be positioned as a voluntary retirement rather than a resignation. A retiree who has changed his or her mind about employment is generally perceived more positively than an executive who has voluntarily resigned.

10. Make sure the elected officer who is firing you knows what he or she is doing, and be firm about it. The vast majority of volunteers do not want to risk legal exposure for themselves, their peers, or their companies by executing a wrongful discharge or breach of contract.

Does the elected officer know that it could take the association a year or more to retain a new chief executive officer? Does the volunteer understand what will happen to the association and its staff when you are gone?

It has been said that the chief executive officers of associations only have real power twice: when they're hired and when they're fired. Avoid the temptation to fade away in fear when terminated. Instead, turn the termination into the first positive steps of your position search. You can be fired without getting burned. Bernard F. Whalen is execulive director of the National Assoiation of Store Fixture Manufacturers, Plantalion, Florida.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Perspective
Author:Whalen, Bernard F.
Publication:Association Management
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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