Two Shaking Hands at Meeting

I Never Fired Anyone Too Soon

One of my TEC members terminated the employment of one of his direct reports recently. The now gone employee had lost the confidence of his team. Performance was off plan. Morale was down. My member moved quickly to remove this key member of his senior management team. When I asked about the abrupt termination, my member responded, “I never fired anyone too soon.”

Truer words, in a business context, may have never been spoken. Anyone who has ever managed an employee who was not performing knows the drill. Marginal employees are given every opportunity to succeed. They are coached and prodded. They are rewarded for temporary improvement and threatened when the inevitable backsliding occurs. Managers agonize. Co-workers fret. Performance is sub-optimized.

The question is why. Why do managers allow marginal employees to drag down the performance of the team and perhaps the entire organization? And then, after why, what are we to do about it? Here are a few suggestions.

Popularity over accountability. Patrick Lencioni, in his leadership fable, The Five Temptations of a CEO identified an issue for many leaders. We want to be liked. Being liked by close friends is one thing. The need to be liked by direct reports threatens accountability within the organization. It often leads to feelings of favoritism and unfairness.

What to do about it? The CEO in Lencioni’s fable quit rather than deal with the issue. Pretty dramatic. And not exactly a career enhancing decision. It is, however, not bad advice. If you are interested in being popular, join a country club. If you want to manage, give your people direct, honest and timely feedback.

The devil that you know. “Well, boss, I know Randy isn’t performing up to the expectations of the job, but at least we know what we’ve got. If I had to hire someone new I’d be starting over with an unknown commodity. It could be worse.”

Mark Belling is fond of saying “rationalization is the second strongest human drive.” Anything is better than dealing effectively with the fear of firing an underperformer. At best “the devil” is a poor excuse for a bad hiring process.

TEC Resource Specialist, Tom Foster, has a better alternative in a hiring process based on matching time span capability with the level of work and decision making required on the job. Foster replaces the gobbledygook of the typical job description with a specific role description organized around Key Result Areas. The process is described more thoroughly in Foster’s book, Hiring Talent.

The Performance Improvement Program. “We can change this guy. He has all the talent in the world. We’ll suck up the lost productivity and improve his performance over the long run.” Really?

And/or, “I made the hiring decision. We’ve got to give him a chance or I will look like I made a mistake.”

When rationalizing the effectiveness of the Performance Improvement Program, ask these two “acid test” questions instead. 1) If the employee quit, would you be really upset with the loss? 2) If you had it to do over again, would you hire this person for this job? If the answer to either acid test questions is “no,” the marginal performer should be offered up to industry straightaway.

We don’t have sufficient documentation. “We’re going to get sued if we terminate this individual. She is in a protected class.” Yep. You’re probably going to get sued. And the settlement amounts have grown to the absurd. It is better to settle and chalk it up to “bad management” than let some EEOC bogeyman drag down the rest of the organization. Better yet, buy some Employment Practices Insurance, stop worrying and get on with it.

Overall, the lack of documentation suggests a lack of a management system that insures an accurate understanding of what is expected in terms of job performance and provides timely and specific feedback on performance compared to expectations. Another TEC Resource Specialist, Jim Cederna, developed a process he calls the Personal Development Plan that provides structure to the expectation and feedback loop. Cederna’s process includes a set time line for improvement or exit. He leaves it up to the employee to make the changes necessary to be successful, but with a timeline that insures management action.

Other Processes. There are numerous variations on the “weed or feed” approach to hiring, firing and retaining good people. Top Grading provides a no-nonsense framework for hiring and retaining only A-players, for example.

Jack Welch at GE was legendary for his 20-70-10 forced grid rankings of all employees and the determination to weed out the bottom 10 percent each year. It was also thought to be cruel and unusual punishment for GE people. As he points out in his book Jack: Straight from the Gut, however, the process to remove the bottom 10 percent of his people was just the opposite. Welch thought it was brutal to keep people around who were not going to grow and prosper. According to Welch, “there is no cruelty like waiting and telling people late in their careers that they don’t belong.”

Red Scott, a colleague of mine from Florida put it another way. “The best thing you can do for a good employee is fire a bad one.” A structured weed or feed process will help get it done.