39 responses to “Termination and Community Organizing

  1. Melinda this is a difficult topic. I find it widely difficult in health care. Even as Kansas City seems like a large community with many suburbs in health care social workers we all seem to know or know of each other. There are many times during outreach and discharge planning I find myself finding a social worker I thought work one place is no working there but soon find them at another place. I found ending relationships was most difficult in mental health. These were client relationships built over years, and the cognitive knowledge to understand the change in case managers sometimes was not there for the individuals or triggered new onsets of behaviors. In health care, changes travel as fast as they occur. In current days it has been what agency has bought out another and who stayed and who left the company. The sure uncertainty of the job market always seems to have everyone looking to insure job stability and worrying less about how to say goodbye but how to stay connected to find the next new position.

  2. Goodbyes are always hard, especially when you are with an organization you love and believe in, or where you really care about your clients. The hardest thing I have faced is being able to trust that someone else will care as much as I do for those that I have cared and worked so hard for.
    I liked what you said about letting people know when you are leaving an organization. I have never really thought about being intentional about that. Maybe in being intentional about our goodbyes will help us in our future pursuits.

  3. I agree that in the aspect of termination, macro and clinical social workers face a lot of the same struggles. A colleague of mine recently went through a similar scenario as yours regarding leaving the agency and staff she supervised finding out before she was able to tell them herself. I thought it was very inappropriate for others to share her information before she even turned in a notice just because they had outside information, but no matter how inappropriate or unfair it is, things like that will still happen at both levels. Preparing for termination tends to be a very thought-out and planned process, and this post definitely hits on topics that a community organizer needs to be aware of.
    I recently experienced termination in my practicum setting and I made sure to notify my client weeks in advance so she could prepare for what was coming. I also planned out a week by week schedule of what would be happening including a meeting with the new case manager to ensure they were familiar with each other, and a final session to say goodbye. I feel that something like this is also necessary for macro practice because you don’t want to spring something as big as leaving on people with no notice. Providing transition reminders and final closing sessions seem very appropriate as well. One of the main points that you listed above was that no matter how much you plan for termination, it can always be tough and not go as planned. I feel the best way to be prepared for this is to be resilient enough to endure the hard times of transition in order to stay positive for the next community organizing challenge coming your way.

  4. I have only had to make goodbyes on a clinical level. Each time it was different from the last. Often times it was hard because of the long term care I provided clients and the amazing relationship that I built along the way. Other times it was difficult because I knew patients would not be coming back even though I was sure that they needed to. However, with the end of my administrative practicum nearing I am going to experience a number of macro level goodbyes. I will have to let all of my contacts and connections that I have made on behalf of the agency know that I will be leaving. I will also have to let them all know who to contact in the future and assure them that their services are greatly appreciated. I think the hardest part about this will be ensuring that everyone is directed to the correct employee within the agency once I have left. It will be much easier this time around to end connections with clients because it is much more of a business relationship compared to a clinical relationship. Clinical level goodbyes are much more personal and emotional than macro level goodbyes (or that is what I am assuming since I have not ended my administrative practicum yet) and are much harder to do for me, personally. We should teach social workers what a professional termination of services looks like while also educating them on the possible effects of termination on both a clinical and administrative level. These things become very apparent during practice, however.

    • I think it absolutely depends a lot of the context. In my experience, macro-level terminations can be just as difficult as clinical ones–policymakers, for example, often have a really hard time pivoting away from someone who has been a reliable source of information and ally. It sounds like you have a good structure in place to facilitate successful terminations at your current placement, but I also wonder if the experience of having negotiated terminations in a more fraught clinical context is helping, too? As in, you know why termination matters and are attending to the emotions involved, even if they’re not as intense this time around?

  5. Melinda, your article has provided some very important advice/information on how to successfully terminate at the macro level. My previous job had me working in a large section of the country and during that time I was transferred once (to a different territory) and eventually taken out of the field. I tried to contact all of the key people as soon as I was informed, but men can be worse than the most gossipy of women – they spread the word around ahead of me which made for awkward situations and bad feelings.

    With all of our information technology at our fingertips, how quickly will it really spread when we leave our jobs in our macro or micro practice? I would like to think that given the time, we would be given the opportunity and the respect to terminate when the time came to do so.

  6. I haven’t experienced any macro social work goodbyes, so it is hard for me to directly relate to these kinds of goodbyes. But I know, for sure, that this would be terribly difficult for me. I’m awful at letting go of people. I’m nearing the end of my foundational clinical practicum, and goodbyes are coming. I’ve worked with mostly the same kids at an elementary school since August, so I’ve developed some close relationships. Ideally, I’d love to have lunch with each one of them to spend some quality time and say my goodbyes. Most of them know that they won’t be seeing me next year, but I don’t think they realize how soon that’s coming. I’m making each of them a bookmark from me with a small personal note. I’m thankful that I have this opportunity to have a more definitive goodbye. I know that for my advanced practicum at a medical center, doing more short-term work, I won’t have this luxury.

  7. Both kinds of goodbyes are hard in their own ways, Annie–these, where you have fewer people with whom to terminate but deeper relationships from which to disentangle, and the shorter-term but intense connections to many people, without much time to prolong the termination process. What are you learning about what helps you say goodbye? What does our Code of Ethics remind us about why this is important to get right? What should be the guiding principles that inform our thinking about this separation process?

  8. When I left the shelter, I felt the clients deserved better than to have staff members come and go on a whimsy but what i have found is quite amusing–some have no idea, over a year alter, that i dont work among them. It may be due to the state of service organizations in our city that makes this condition common. nearly every former client greets me when I see them, followed by the inevitable question, “Are you still working at the shelter?” After the initial chuckle i inform them that I have not been there in over a year I receive a shrug and a compliment for my service or a congratulatory “Good for you.”

    Lawrence has a large population of people who seek services for a variety of reasons and the city has mobilized in many directions. Soup kitchens, food and clothing banks, voucher systems and a generous nature that comes from a young population the condition that I have experienced through the abrupt termination process was that the need and the service workers are many, so many in fact that the clients seem unable to differentiate on from the other. While this seems to make my departure and lack of termination process much simpler to transgress, it also speaks clearly about the state of social services community wide. Apparently none of us are making an impression, or we are spread so widely throughout the community and are little more than a blur in the clients’ day. Either way, I am mercifully left with no sense of regret but am humbled by a sense of insignificance. Either way, I must question what we are doing wrong.

  9. Wow, yeah, Jon–how can we think intentionally about termination in terms of clients’ needs and rights, when the service delivery system is fragmented to such an extent that termination may not even be noticed, let alone attended to? I appreciate your reflection that this should serve as a reminder of our own modest role in the system…and also that we need to think about how clients experience this context from their perspective.

  10. Kelly Harrington

    The termination of my role as a community mobilizer with a coalition in Wyandotte County had little impact on the work of the coalition, largely because the coalition was well-established with strong leaders and another community mobilizer who had been with the coalition for much longer than I had and would stick around to carry on the work. That’s not to say that I didn’t get phone calls with questions after I left, but they didn’t last for more than a few months. That being said, in reality I never fully terminated my relationship with the coalition because I kept finding ways to continue attending monthly coalition meetings for a year after I terminated, partly because I wasn’t done contributing, and partly because I wasn’t ready to let go of the coalition members with whom I had built strong partnerships.

    Many of the principals of termination that we learn in the foundation year of the MSW program apply to community organizing and mobilization, but I think the nature and boundaries of the relationships between a community organizer and community members and partners is different than the relationship between a clinical social worker and a client. While it would be unethical for a clinical social to continue a relationship with a client after termination, it wouldn’t necessarily be for a community organizer. In fact, it is likely that a community organizer will cross paths in some capacity with the community members and partners with whom they worked. I recognize that I struggled to maintain boundaries after I left my job as a community mobilizer and it would be helpful to know how community organizers should set boundaries after termination, and how to stick to them.

  11. Totally, Kelly–I was thinking that it would be so odd if you had continued to get together with a clinical client after termination, probably not too strange to continue to do so in a coalition context…and, yet, potentially at least somewhat unhealthy there, too, albeit not unethically. What would have helped you at the time? What kind of support should you have gotten from the organization, the profession, and/or your community colleagues?

  12. madelinegiesler

    In my termination process at a domestic violence agency, it is a bittersweet process of leaving a place where I have spent so much time learning and growing. I had the experience with one of my clients that taught me I was not in control of the goodbye. She stopped showing up in February after 5 months. I closed her file in March after requesting for a response from her. I would have liked to have gotten some closure or feedback on her experience in therapy, but I learned to let it go. Some people are less comfortable with goodbyes or with confrontation, and so I just hope that the client benefitted in some way from coming to therapy sessions.

    I talked with my clients about how we would handle bumping into each other in public to plan for the unexpected. I think it is extremely important as I transition into my professional career to maintain healthy boundaries with clients inside and outside of work.

    I think the process of termination as a social worker is quite the conundrum. We are trained to value human relationships from the Code of Ethics, yet we have to eventually close files and end contact with our clients. The goal is for clients to be able to transition out of services in a positive manner. It is also complicated for a social worker to determine when the work is truly “finished”. Looking at goals and outcomes can be a starting point, but it is also important to empower the client to decide when they would like to terminate services. The clinical director’s favorite way of expressing goodbyes with clients is, “Don’t worry, you’ve got this!” This positive approach is a great way to hand off the torch to clients while expressing confidence in their abilities.

    On the administrative side, I completed the projects assigned to me and reported on the outcomes and feedback surveys. I have talked extensively with a new intern coming in that is also interested in combatting human trafficking and expanding services in the Johnson County community. I feel a little better about leaving the agency because an intern will still be advocating on behalf of that population for at least the next year. I can share some of my knowledge and ideas about expanding services for human trafficking victims to future interns.

    • I’m glad that you are getting such an intensive termination experience in practicum, really–the whole process of transitioning the work to a new worker and navigating the ambivalence of being glad to move on and yet sorry to go is so real, and you will be better equipped to handle it later in your career for having traversed it now. if that helps at all! What support are you getting from the organization to help with your transition? I’m always interested in organizational practices that support students in managing these complexities, and I’d love to hear what’s working, and anything that’s not. Oh, and I love your lesson from the client, too; YES, when we learn to listen to clients’ cues, we are often surprised by just how skilled they are in taking care of themselves!

  13. The only termination I have experienced in the Social Work field is when I was in my practicum at the shelter. Most of the clients knew from the beginning that I was a practicum student and would be leaving at the end of the semester. The goodbyes weren’t as bad since I was able to prepare myself and others. While I was there, I grew close to some of the children and their family had the opportunity to move into transitional living. It was hard not knowing how the children will be from a month from now or even day to day. I currently work as a Spa Manager and have been here for 9 years. I started getting services here at age 12 then hired at 15 and was the first 15 year old hired. My boss became my second mom over the years and when I went off to college in Warrensburg it was hard to say goodbye. The people at the spa were like family and I had been there 6 years before going off to college. I still came back and worked on Holidays occasionally. After I graduated with my Bachelors degree I came right back where I left off and was able to get promoted to Spa Manager. When the day comes that I have my Masters and have a job in the Social Work field will be a day where my emotions will be all over the place. You begin to gain a sense of comfort and sometimes change honestly scares me! Whether it is goodbyes to friends, family, clients, or co-workers it is never easy.

  14. Good points, Kaitlyn, that transitions and terminations aren’t just about social work, social workers, or our clients; any time that people are changing roles and shifting patterns of interaction, there is both opportunity and loss. Honoring that will help to prepare you for future transitions in a social work context, but it’s also true that it never gets ‘easy’. Thank you for sharing.

  15. I have never had a difficult time saying goodbye…I have a difficult time doing goodbye. My professional experiences have kept me within the same field: child welfare in Wyandotte County. When I signed up to complete my Master’s, I knew “goodbye” had to be done. I miss my co-workers, affiliates, and clients. When I bump into someone from my prior jobs I know things are different for me, for those individuals, and for the organizations I worked for and with.
    At one job, we had a termination process for our clients. We were asked to share with our clients immediately that we had plans to leave. We were instructed to meet with them, send letters, and remind them during any conversations about the deadline of the termination. We also prepared them into transition. A new case worker would “follow” the terminated and start to take over. While I think this process was helpful to a client, it was difficult for me to see and experience. The replacement was different from me and made different assumptions about clients I had grown to love. What made it exceptionally difficult, was that I moved to a position where I overlooked the progress of my replacement. There were occasions I felt guilty for leaving because the progress of specific clients declined after my departure. But there was not much I could do, I had to continue to act on my “goodbye.”

  16. Really insightful post, Rebecca, differentiating between ‘saying’ goodbye and really living healthy, productive terminations. As you correctly identify, they are certainly not the same thing! One important reminder about terminations, that makes me actually really grateful for them, even when they’re difficult, is that none of this work is about us. Not really. I think that’s one thing that makes termination difficult, this sense that it is somehow wrong for the world to go on without us…but it’s important to remember that it does and it must.

  17. What an interesting way to merge clinical and macro skill sets. I also had the misfortune of not being able to control my goodbye at one of my jobs. One of the people in the business office found out I was leaving before I had the chance to notify anyone but my supervisor and her immediate supervisor. My supervisor overheard this person telling someone who did not even know me that I was leaving and that the program that I was a part of could not keep positions filled for very long. I did not plan on telling my co-workers until a day or two from then, but because the news was already spreading, I had to rush my goodbye. Granted, I still had a couple more weeks and I was leaving to go back to school, but this took the control of the situation completely away from me.

    Additionally, I think the hardest goodbye has been for my current practicum. I have been invited to sit on the board and have been told multiple times that had they the money, they would hire me (the exec. director continues to actively look for funding). This actually makes it harder for me than if it was a “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” situation. Generally, even when I have found the work engaging, I do not have as much of an issue with transitions. It also does not help that the project I have worked on all year is not complete – even though we did not expect it to be complete and the duties outlined in my learning contract are complete… and then some. I have the permission and blessing of the exec. director to continue working on the project at my own pace, which helps me a little bit with the transition. I also plan on volunteering with the annual fundraiser, so something else to look forward to.

  18. I have already learned some of the same things from experience. This semester, the director of the program that I was interning in was fired. I wasn’t told directly by my supervisor, nor anyone else for that matter. The other intern in our program was told by the director of the agency, however. But, I found out randomly. It was never clear to me what the boundary lines for us as interns were. During those following weeks, we still questioned: Can we still contact her? What do we do with client questions that only she would know? She is an expert on HT… Who do we go to now with specific questions? What do we do with all the clients she was seeing?
    I spoke with the other intern in the HT program and he spoke with the executive director of the agency. He asked her what she had planned for the clients that the director of the HT program was seeing. Her response was, “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that!”……! I think that this was the most disheartening part.
    We certainly need to think of the clients when we approach termination, whether that be the supervisor firing the employee, or the employee leaving. We cannot simply leave survivors hanging without a plan, and it makes it more difficult for those working in the program if there is no system set up on the back end. I think the situation could have been handled better, had the interns been notified clearly and directly by staff–especially since we answered and worked directly with this person. I think in a situation that could be like this in the future, it would be best if the situation be planned out. Who will reach out to each client? who will speak with the interns and part-time staff and when? etc.
    Furthermore, when I began termination of services with the clients that I was working with, I directly contacted them to let them know of the changes well in advance and set up meetings with them and their new contact, so that they could become well acquainted with that person. Each situation worked out great, and I clarified any questions pertaining to the goals and situations and details of each survivor and what we were working on. It felt that this transition was much more smooth than the experience I had earlier in the semester.

  19. Wow, Julia–that certainly sounds like that situation was not handled well. The questions you were asking are those that should have been asked from the beginning, and I’m sorry that it took you pointing out the potential damage to clients, for the organization to come up with a plan that would address their needs. I’m glad that your own termination process went more smoothly– certainly a lesson in the importance of planning and communication and transparency and accountability. Thank you for sharing.

  20. I think about termination a lot and I chose community organizing because I felt like terminating from a clinical setting would be easier, this story changed my mind about all of that. First, thank you for sharing, I feel like I learned a lot about you and the way life works reading this piece. I also would like to thank you for answering questions that I have had about termination in a macro setting because I felt like nobody was looking at this. It is very important to me that we, social workers, recognize that fostering relationships and then severing them can be emotional trauma. I am dreading the day I have to terminate from my practicum placement now but lucky schools have to end, community organizing does not have such an easy stop point.
    I have had my fair share of goodbyes when it came to community organizing. When my grades started dropping and I could not participate in We The People, a racial equity group fighting for police reform, I lost friends quickly. I remember feeling like I could not exist in social justice spaces the same because I “gave up.” I became depressed because the circle that I considered my family so easily dropped me when I was not available in the way I was before. Now we are all good but it took me straining my way back into the mix and sacrificing tons of sleep. The breaking up is hard part resonated the most with me and made me think about that story. All of it made me think about moments that I avoid thinking about because I’m already an empath.
    I might have to rethink the idea of community organizing, I cry at the drop of a dime often, I would hate terminating this way but I guess termination is inevitable, right?

  21. Wow, there is so much here I want to respond to, Isaac. First, yes, it’s true that some practice settings have sort of ‘built-in’ termination points (like in a school). I have to say, though, that I’m not at all sure that it makes it necessarily easier. It takes some of the judgment away (“do we terminate now? is it right?”) but it also increases the likelihood that you’re terminating at a time and point neither of you feel good about. Second, I am really sad to hear about how you were treated when you had to pivot to a different place in a community organizing effort. That happens commonly, but, to me, it says something important about the primacy (or not) of relationships in that particular effort…which should tell us something. It isn’t an easy lesson to learn as an organizer. I am grateful to the (mostly Latina moms) people involved in some of my early organizing who (nicely, but firmly) reminded me that this work is not the center of everyone’s universe, and that if I expected it to be, I wasn’t at all meeting them where they are. Embarrassing, really, that I had to be reminded (but at least it stuck??). I hope that you find community organizing efforts that embrace you more completely; it is easy to get transactional with this work, expecting something specific in exchange for ‘working together’, but that’s not a healthy place for the work to stay–from either perspective. Thank you for sharing.

  22. Yvette Martinez

    Termination…I can relate to not controlling the ‘goodbye’, I was hoping that I could let my co workers and clients know that my practicum was ending but my supervisor took it upon her to let everyone know, which was fine. I was just not able to experience the termination myself so this is something I feel like I will struggle with, on my own… Besides the staff, at the end of my practicum, I only had to termination two clients. It was not common for me to have to a big client list, majority of my termination experience at the hospice house were with client families. I found this difficult in the beginning, I would see family members around the lawrence area who would recognize me or if I saw them first, I would go the opposite direction. Until I got some clarity on termination, I was not sure how to act so I had more than one meeting with my supervisor about this. I believe that different examples of termination should be expressed during our practice class; Washburn does a great job of teaching their students about termination, breakups, or saying good bye; would make it healthier and useful. I found it helpful during my supervision meetings when we included Washburn students when I talked about termination. On a macro practice level, I would just say that examples will help students; given a clear statement or set of rules that students should follow. I think that just being aware of different situations and different example of good byes is very helpful because if we don’t know, we assume….that can cause a few problems for example…the clients family might of thought that I was avoiding them or didn’t care if they saw me go the opposite direction.

  23. I’m so sorry that you didn’t get the chance to practice termination, Yvette. It is an important part of your developing practice competency, and that should have been part of your practicum experience. I have no doubt that you will come to handle it with grace–and that sometimes it will nonetheless go poorly. At least, those have been my many and varied experiences with termination, in the macro context.

  24. chelseamusfeldt

    This post really interested me because lately I have been wondering how I will say goodbye to my current practicum, since the end of practicum is quickly approaching. Although I wouldn’t mind taking a shift here and there, I don’t know if my schedule for the summer and, of course, next school year will make that a healthy possibility. I have been thinking of questions such as: How will I let the friends I have made know I might not be returning? Will people judge me for leaving before my year is up, even though this was a practicum placement and not a true volunteer decision? Overall, how does the organization manage tabling when the interns aren’t around? What about the clients in the walk-in clinic (that I do not participate in) – will they be okay over the summer without care? I feel like a few of these questions shouldn’t be on my mind (the more agency-centered ones), but the theme in all of the questions is saying goodbye. I have been able to come up with more of a plan after reading this post. First, I know I need to be conscious of who I tell first, and understand that some people may find out before I get the chance to tell them. This doesn’t apply to callers, since we don’t establish relationships with them (or, aren’t suppose to, anyway. I surely haven’t, but I know some volunteers have become favorites of regular callers). I also need to accept that fact that if I’m not at Headquarters, then the problems/issues needing answers aren’t my responsibility. I can think of one specific person who may play the “conveniently forgetting the goodbye” card after my exit, but standing my ground is something I need to do, even though I have a history of caving in. I think, due to the nature of the organization, separating will be easier than if I was in a face-to-face, seeing the exact same clients or coworkers every day type of situation. As for the questions at the end of the post, I don’t have very good answers. I haven’t experienced a real macro practice goodbye. I have to admit, before really thinking about it, I would have assumed that exiting an organization on a macro level wouldn’t be so hard. I think, as a macro worker, I would make my organization a part of my identity — and that would be extremely hard to separate from. I guess I felt that way when I graduated from Nebraska — I didn’t feel ready, even though realistically I was. I think teaching social workers about termination in macro practice should include something about that — your agency has played a huge part of everything you’ve done for x amount of years, the people you interact with have become so important to you, etc. – and figuring out a way to still stay involved with your cause (even if it’s just educating yourself) without feeling like you’re still connected by a cord with the agency and the people you serve.

  25. This is a tremendous reflection, Chelsea–really insightful. I really respect the candor you express here, in terms of how conflicted you feel about leaving, the extent to which you struggle to come to terms with the parts of the exit that are really beyond your control and your responsibility, and the reality that your organization–and the work–will continue even in your absence. I also really appreciate your insight that our organizations become part of our identities, and that this, then, shapes how we feel about (and how we approach) the departure. I am confronting that right now myself, since I’m leaving AEDI. I realize that I will continue to care deeply, and even work on, wealth inequality, but I also acknowledge that that won’t look the same or happen in the same way, as it has over the past few years. I am grappling with where to draw those boundaries and how to ensure that I’m being honest about my interests in staying ‘connected’ to this work. Thank you for sharing.

  26. Ashley Richard

    My last practicum placement was heavily burdened by the ever-increasing loss and support of funders and donors, so I saw, for the first time ever, how that can tear apart an agency, piece by piece. It was inevitable, yet painful every week to see parents pulling their children from the school due to lack of resources and for the art class to go to the gym to play basketball every day due to scarcity of art supplies. Unfortunately, due to the debt the agency was in, the next service cut was the counseling service provided to all students, focusing particularly on the students with PTSD (which was, in fact, the majority). This service was one that had been built on for decades. It was one that students depended on; one that had community partners. So, cutting that program was how the new administration decided to “reorganize,” which, to me, was completely unethical. But I was a practicum student. Just a practicum student. The day the new administration let go most of the social service providers, they asked all six interns to pack up their things and go (immediately). We didn’t get to say goodbye. We didn’t get to say goodbye to the students, the staff, or the community partners with which we were working. A lot of hearsay troubled the school after the decision to cut the program was made. We learned that the new administrator had told the students that the interns and counselors abandoned them and asked how that made them feel. That’s extremely problematic to me, on several levels. If the new administration had their sights on eliminating the program, they should have discussed this with everybody (although that’s rarely how it goes). I mean, surely they didn’t seek consultation on this one…right? Local members of the community have expressed distrust in the agency and had theorized that the agency will have no other option than to close in the near future. Sometimes, this can be planned for. Other times, it cannot. One day, a colleague from my previous job drove to her last workplace like any other day. As she walked up to the front door, she noticed a sign on the door. The agency had closed, literally overnight. She tried opening the doors, but they were all locked. The local news covered it for one day, and then it was forgotten about by most. Not by others. I know that it will take time to establish emotional boundaries with ourselves when these things happen, but we also must remember that in this field, we will terminate in every practice, like you said. We have got to be skillful (while continuing to seek support and be that for others) in navigating each situation and applying those skills to create the “softest” handoff possible.

  27. Oh, Ashley. I read this through twice–what a gripping and really heartwrenching experience. And what your former colleague went through sounds completely crushing, too. As painful as those times must have been for the professionals, how much worse for people that the experiences were happening to–the clients–without having really any recourse, or any way to replace, often, what they had lost. And then we wonder why people question whether a new service will be sustained, or whether a scholarship will really be there when they graduate, or whether they can really ‘count’ on what has been promised. I am so sorry you had to go through this, and so devastated that this was handled this way, for all those who have to grapple with the fallout.

  28. I think “termination” is a scary word for a lot of people, and not just because of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. You read or hear “termination” and this overwhelming sense of finality often accompanies it; for social workers, termination may as well be synonymous with incomplete, as so frequently I hear of friends and co-workers nearing a termination event (whether it be with clients or with something less tangible, like a project) lamenting the aspects of that work or relationship that will be left unfinished following termination. Truthfully, reading through many of the responses to this blog post re-affirmed my thoughts; the anecdotes shared regarding termination were frequently negative and more than a little disheartening. I share this thought of mine because I also want to share my experiences with termination, specifically my relatively positive experiences. Thrice now I have terminated my position with a social service agency; once was to pursue a growth opportunity and the others were both heavily due to my decision to return to school. During each instance I was able to provide considerable notice of my impending termination and, as such, develop and carry out a termination plan for my clients. Really, my plans were not particularly flashy—I just provided my clients about two-weeks’ notice I would be resigning as their case manager while maintaining business as usual otherwise—but I got the feeling that my candor resonated with my clients and made the transition from one case manager to the next much easier. There were even a few instances where I was able to personally introduce clients to their new case manager before I left! Granted, I realize my experiences with termination were very different than many of the others described here and I in no way wish to devalue other folks’ personal experiences. Maybe I was just lucky. Really though, I just wanted to illustrate how termination does not have to be a negative thing. Termination can just be a new beginning for both you and your clients.

    Now, I also realize I am not discussing how new beginnings can also be scary depending on who is experiencing the new “adventure” or how they are experiencing it. There is a lot that could be unpacked here but, frankly, I do not think discussing the minutiae of termination really impacts my overarching assertion in any significant capacity. Regarding the relationship between termination and community organization, I think planning for termination early on in the organization process would be prudent, especially considering the oftentimes volatile nature of advocacy. Acknowledging that you may not (or more likely, will not) control the goodbye, to me, means I should spend time early in the engagement process planning for termination. In my personal experiences with termination on the micro-level, I made it a point to reach out to my clients and honestly explain the changes which were going to occur; putting together a simple plan to communicate such changes with the community you are organizing seems like a feasible endeavor. Honestly, I think open and frank communication is really what is important, whether regarding termination or “mere” status updates. An important facet I feel I should highlight though: I get the feeling I am being overly idealistic here. Between my personal experiences with termination being largely positive and the simplicity I have used to approach said termination events, I get the feeling I am describing an “easier said than done” situation. I feel I need more practical exposure to community organizing and the challenges associated with it; I need to understand the complications that plague rallying communities for change and the difficulties in overcoming these barriers. I do think a certain degree of naivety could be beneficial in a field often fraught with burnout, but I also acknowledge there are a lot of really basic experiences I lack which would be important if I were ever to engage in community organization.

  29. Thank you for sharing these experiences. Looking at your terminations through a macro lens, what was going on in those organizations that facilitated what you experienced as non-pathological terminations? What about the organizational culture and communication style aligned with your approach? How do you think your same preparations might have unfolded differently in a different organizational context?

    • Discussion on what the organizations were experiencing at the time of my terminations is an important point. With both of the terminations I discussed, my ‘replacement’ was decided before I officially left my position, but more importantly the replacements were already employees of the organizations I was leaving. The organizations were able to forgo the hiring process, transfer my workload to another without negatively impacting the budget, and prepare my clients for the impending transition. The organizations were fortunate that my termination did not ‘surprise’ them too much; I believe the organization’s ability to quickly and readily respond to my decision to terminate my position aided the positive experiences I have had with termination thus far.

      Regarding culture, both the positions I have discussed had fairly independent cultures; that is to say, employees were given relative freedom in deciding when and how to accomplish their work, so long as the work was completed by due dates imposed by management. This in turn afforded me personally a related working environment where I felt comfortable enough to openly communicate my thoughts and concerns with relevant management. Despite having a high volume of work, I was rarely stressed and I think this influenced my positive experiences with termination as well. Had I been working in a more restrictive work environment or an organization with a different culture (for example: management only discusses absolutely relevant information to its staff and nothing else), I cannot say I would have been quite as comfortable, which may have lead to me being less willing to be so open to disclosing my decision to terminate my positions (I provided close to a months notice rather than the standard two weeks), ultimately resulting in terminations more similar to what many others experience. As I said before, I truly may have just been lucky with terminations thus far.

  30. Stephanie Stauffer

    Thank you for acknowledging that the process is not so black and white. It has become clear that many aspects of social work involve wading in the gray. It seems that community organizing requires so much relationship building that “goodbye” must mean leaving a piece of one’s self in the hands of others and trusting that the movement will carry forward. I have never had to terminate in a community sense but have had to say goodbye in advocacy practice. It has helped me to remember that clients come to the relationship having an array of experiences/skills and trusting that those experiences, our time together, and the resources shared will carry the client to the next moment. The “unknown” is difficult but acknowledging that I was able to contribute to the journey of another for at least a moment is humbling. I never thought to consider what it would mean to terminate from community organizing, but it seems that it is complicated by the ongoing nature of the work, the overlapping/messy/web-like nature of relationships and boundaries, and the dynamics of power inherent in the work. This is something that I will need to continue to think about.

  31. I appreciate your reflection on the importance of celebrating, at the moment of termination, Stephanie. Too often, our focus is on what is lost, which can obscure our view of what we gained–or even what we achieved. What precipitated your termination in advocacy? Was it because you had achieved your goal, because you were moving on, because you acknowledged the goal was unwinnable, or some other reason? How do you think the motivation affected your experience?

  32. My daughter has been seeing the same therapist for about three years. We have both formed a relationship with this person, as she has helped us through some tumultuous experiences. Around nine months ago, I started to question whether this therapist was doing enough, and I was growing frustrated with the lack of communication. I reached out to a former counselor I respected, and see as a mentor, to seek advice on whether I should look for a new therapist for my daughter. In a few minutes, my mentor helped me to understand that if I decided to end therapy with my daughter’s counselor, that that would be its own separate process—a process that would take time and would require intentional and thoughtful steps. I needed to see beyond the personal and give respect to the process (and risk) of saying goodbye.

    As I reflect upon terminating social practice services, I recall the messages that I’ve sent to former counselors, updating them on my life and growth. Receiving their excited responses helped me to appreciate that, in many—if not most—circumstances, counselors don’t receive updates from former clients. They devote time and energy to carefully terminating services with a client, knowing that this person will go out into the world and potentially never contact them, again. It’s interesting to think about how much energy and importance we devote to making first impressions in American society, but give little thought or value toward ending relationships. I have much to learn as an aspiring social worker!

    • That fact is true in macro practice, too, AJ, that termination is a process in itself, and often an intense one at that. Which doesn’t at all mean that it’s not worth it, or that you shouldn’t develop the insight to know when a relationship needs to end and the skills to do so gracefully…just that it’s not like ‘turning off a tap’. It’s part of the planned helping process for a reason! Thank you for sharing your experiences in thinking about termination, deciding not to pursue it, and reminding us that termination doesn’t always mean the ‘never again’ goodbye.

  33. I have yet to encounter what it is like to develop any social work relationships that have run their course where I have had to navigate the termination stage. However, I imagine that it is similar to what it is like when one leaves a job and has very good relationships with their colleagues. Regarding community organizing, I can only imagine at the moment how complex the termination of partnership can be. I look to obtain the appropriate skill set to at least try and make the transition as mellow as possible. It is nice to have been exposed to the reality of this as a professional experience and as such one can look forward with knowledge of what is to come when delving into community organizing.

  34. This post gave me a lot to think about, especially since we are talking about terminations and endings in our practice class as well, so I appreciate the comparisons you drew. While I am not too worried about my own ability to draw boundaries for myself, I now have more to consider in terms of issues that might arise for a social worker who transitions roles, workplaces, or even fields. Great point that, just because a relationship has terminated, doesn’t mean that the ambiguities surrounding boundaries will be resolved. There is always, always, always more work to be done on issues of social justice and equity, and there are always threats to that work, so endings will never be ideal and will always be complicated. In our practice class, we learned about interweaving talk of termination from the very first session, which might be helpful in macro contexts as well. At the same time, though, it seems like focusing on or emphasizing the inevitable end of relationships might be distracting and suggest that you are not fully committed to the work. However, macro practitioners need to set communities up for success by empowering others so that the work and change don’t rely on that one social worker’s contributions.

  35. This was very interesting to read as I had not thought of ending a relationship on a macro level. Most of the time when we discuss terminating a client or ending that relationship, it is at a micro level so it was very interesting to read about it from a macro aspect. In my mind, ending with an organization would be easier than with an individual person but now I can see that it is not that simple. Especially when that organization does not let everyone know you are leaving/have left so then you are continuously being contacted and having to break the news over and over.

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