Contrary to how rational and formulaic I may have seemed in my post, When to Get Rid of the “Best” People That Work for You, firing people in a timely fashion has always been the area where I’ve demonstrated my greatest management failures (I’m sure that many who have worked for me might suggest a long list of other actions that qualify for this honor). I’ve always refused to give up on people, convinced that I could help anyone become more productive or knowledgeable; a better leader or follower; a harder worker or one more dedicated to the task at hand. I’ve guided, taught, changed roles, adjusted compensation, added stress, removed stress, kicked ass, coddled and tried everything I could think of and almost everything I’ve read to help people succeed.
In some cases, these efforts were, rewardingly, successful. In almost as many cases, though, the effort to improve someone’s performance ended up being a complete waste of time and often, regrettably, damaging to the organization. “Damaging” might seem a bit extreme, but in my view, it’s a reasonable assessment of what happens when a manager takes too long to terminate employees when things have little hope of working out.
This is what happens: for one of a variety of reasons, an employee isn’t cutting it. It may be a cultural alignment issue or it might be a skill issue. In either case, their failings are obvious to many of their peers and co-workers well in advance of when you, as the manager, figure it all out. So, by the time you take action, the group the employee belongs to is suffering because of their lagging comrade. It’s not that they want the person cut (although sometimes they do), but they just want you to fix the problem ASAP. As you work with the failing employee, the entire group is suffering. The longer you take, the more they suffer. Eventually, their angst about the failing employee wanes and their questions about your management skills grows.
This is even worse when the person in question has a relatively high-level position. Perhaps they are a manager themselves or are responsible for some high-level strategy or implementation plan. While they are failing their co-workers, they are also failing the larger organization that is not making progress towards its goals. Sometimes, the lack of progress toward the organizational goals is irreparable with respect to lost opportunities or time, which always works against you.
These problems are compounded by the fact that the time you spend in trying to fix the failing employee is distracting you from dealing with your other responsibilities which, inevitably, include working with other employees that also need your attention. The opportunity cost is even greater than the actual cost of the failing employee, because your distraction with the problem employee creates problems with a much larger number of people. Productivity falls and the faith placed in you as a manager may be considerably diminished.
OK, perhaps a little melodramatic, but it’s closer to reality than you might think. In order to avoid these firing pitfalls you need to recognize the situation when you encounter it and deal with it quickly. Looking back, I think that there were three reasons why I delayed firing people that should have been fired immediately.
- Fear: I was afraid of the psychological impact on the rest of the organization. I feared that if other employees felt that someone was fired without good reason or that I, as the manager, had not given my best efforts to help that employee improve or adapt, they would question their own bond with and commitment to the organization.
- Cost: The costs of hiring and training a new employee are extremely high – especially the opportunity cost. A fired person, most likely, needs to be replaced, forcing the organization to absorb the costs of hiring for the same role a second time.
- Ignorance: I ignored the obvious signs that the employee was failing and the damage that the employee’s failing was doing to the rest of the organization.
Only when these people were finally fired did I look back with a Homer Simpson-like “doh!” and realize that in reality . . . .
- The best people working with the failing employee knew that he/she was damaging the group and holding them back even before I recognized that the problem existed in the first place. By the time I actually fired the employee, I was one of the last people to recognize that they had to go. It’s disappointing when you speak with group members after the firing and consistently hear: “about time.” Morale can actually increase after a failing employee is fired. Productivity among the employee’s peers improves and the group’s assessment of the manager’s skills grows.
- The costs of hiring a replacement pale in comparison with the cost of the damage being created by a failing employee. Often the actual damage attributed to such an employee is low. It’s the opportunity cost damage – the absorption of your time and the energy of the employee’s peers – that is truly costly to the organization.
- As a manager you need to look for failure as well as success – a weakness of mine. Managers, looking for positive signals, often seek out progress and improvement and sometimes neglect signs of failure or imminent failure. Good managers actively seek out both and find early signals of each. Failure is a better teacher, but it’s also a more expensive one. Don’t let that scare you away from looking for it.
Keep in mind that this holds true for people at any level – janitor to CEO. If people aren’t cutting it, they are hurting the entire organization and need to be dealt with swiftly. This means that an immediate evaluation of whether or not they can be turned around needs to be made and the second that it is determined that they can’t be made to change (moved, taught, motivated or whatever), they must be terminated.
None of this is to say that you should terminate an employee without making a serious attempt at addressing the problem. This is critical to optimize your investment in the employee and to demonstrate to others your commitment and dedication to the people that work for you. Here are some examples of reasonable actions to take if you are addressing a problem with an employee that may lead to termination:
- Tell them about the problem you see and ask them for an explanation. It may be something simple. Discuss the impact of the problem on the entire organization – hold them responsible. Ask for their help in fixing the situation. Communicate that the problems need to be fixed immediately.
- Put them on a formal, written plan. There are good legal reasons for this (to cover your ass in the event of a wrongful termination suit), but it makes sense as a management tool all by itself. Make sure you explain the problems you see and what actions are going to be taken to address them.
- Set metrics – you can’t improve what you can’t measure. Make everything short term – find ways to get immediate feedback on changes made by the employee. Align the metrics with the plan you’ve put in place. Make clear what is being measured and its purpose.
- Set a deadline and stick to it. If improvement hasn’t happened according to the metrics you set, terminate the employee. It’s for the best of everyone.
Nothing here is completely black-and-white and each situation and employee will be different. In my firing failures, I have let the exceptions override the rules too frequently, though. The fact is that it is your job as a manager to make your group – no matter how large that group is – as productive as possible and a single failing employee can create huge problems in accomplishing that task. My experience has taught me that you need to recognize any problems early and deal with them swiftly. If you don’t, you’ll leave yourself open to the potential of creating some real, long-lasting issues in the organization that may remain long after you eventually fire the employee in question.