It’s an enduring business fantasy to think that all your problems could be solved if management would just allow you to fire certain people. You know, the average folks, those who turn in reports late now and then and don’t display big type-A energy on team Zoom calls. Even experienced managers who should know better fall into this way of thinking about direct reports: “If only the CEO would sign off on me firing Joe for [insert vague reason], then we’d definitely make our numbers next quarter.”
I’m here to tell you a hard truth: Firing is failure. Sometimes it’s necessary and inevitable, but it’s failure nonetheless. An even bigger failure is when this imaginary lack of support for termination gets used as an excuse to do nothing about a personnel issue.
One upside of the Great Resignation is that it’s shining an unflattering light on managers who default to termination without working to repair performance issues or, worse, fire folks because they’re simply average. Guess what? No one is lining up to fill those openings, so you had better get a new plan.
Silicon Valley soap operas do nothing to help. Netflix famously includes in its culture deck the line, “Adequate performance gets a generous severance package.” The message: Only A-players need apply! No room for the average Joe or Jane!
I’m not sure why a company’s claim that all of its employees are above average is greeted with less laughter than Garrison Keillor’s droll and comic assertion that all of Lake Woebegone’s children are above average. When Keillor says it, it’s funny. When Silicon Valley says it, it’s hailed as visionary leadership and quoted in MBA programs.
The truth is that human ability falls on a bell curve. If you got rid of everyone except for A-players, you’d be pretty lonely as a leader — and not much would get done. Individual contributors at the center of the bell curve do the majority of the work at any business: The POs that need to be filled out. The merchandise that needs to be put on shelves. The cabling that needs to be run. In short, the unglamorous work that is as invisible yet essential as your heart pumping blood in your body.
That’s not to say that leaders at any organization should accept poor performance. Far from it. I’m just saying that a fetish with the top of the bell curve isn’t even tenable at shiny SIlicon Valley firms anymore. It’s a complete nonstarter at the vast majority of companies.
You know, the ones in the middle of the bell curve.
So if this odd fantasy of being able to fire your way into some elite nirvana is misguided, how do we get on the right track?
Boss, leader, supervisor, your entire mission is to help employees to do their jobs in the best possible way, no matter where they are on that curve. Author Daniel Pink helped us understand that the best work results come from those with mastery, purpose and autonomy. So the way that a boss helps an employee is by providing the needed tools and training, outlining a goal and getting out of the way. But of course, everyone needs feedback on how well they are doing their jobs — mastery exists only insofar as external feedback says that it exists.
Yet many leaders are fearful of an employee’s reaction to even slightly negative feedback. Again, cue the weird Mr.-Burns-in-all-of-us fantasy: “If I just get rid of Joe, I won’t have to have an unpleasant conversation.”
Wrong answer, of course. Termination actually means that you need to have significantly more unpleasant conversations, ones in which you inform people that their livelihood has disappeared.
I don’t know about you, but I’ll go with, “When you fail to turn in your reports on time, it has a negative effect on delivering our quarterly results. Let’s talk about this.”
One way to make these conversations easier to give is to remember that feedback is a gift. It’s a course confirmation or a course correction. And when you provide feedback regularly, any single piece of advice or correction is also not that big of a deal. It becomes a big deal when you avoid feedback. The longer you hold off on a course correction, the more off-route you and the worker become and the harder it is to get back to the right path.
Feedback is not just a gift to the employee. It’s also a boon to the supervisor and the business because the right kind of feedback involves curiosity and asking clarifying questions. Like, “Did you know that your reports are late?” and, “Did you know that your reports being late has business consequences?” and, “Why do you think this is happening?” before moving on to, “How are we going to fix this?” Sometimes a supervisor with an open mind will learn something, like that a tool or process is not working the way you thought it was and that it’s causing reporting delays that are out of the employee’s control. Maybe Joe is spending hours compiling data that you thought was calculated automatically.
You say you have a truly bad actor? OK. So you’ve documented this by having multiple feedback conversations, observing for a reasonable amount of time and noting that corrections aren’t happening, right?
If not, regroup. I see many folks jump to the “bad actor” hypothesis without having multiple feedback conversations or digging deeper. Sometimes they’re right, but not always. And in any case, getting support for a termination is going to require documentation that you attempted performance management.
Oh, and a note to executives: Provide training, encouragement and time for your managers to interact with employees, and set an example to show that it’s a priority. In fact, frequent feedback conversations with reports should be linked to managers’ performance reviews.
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If accountability conversations don’t help, maybe the employee is in the wrong role. As the saying goes, “Retrain and reposition is always before replace.”
Remember, when you have to terminate — it’s just not working even though you’ve tried, tried and tried again to correct course — it means that the hiring manager-supervisor-employee relationship failed somewhere along the line. Termination and bringing on a new employee is expensive in time and in direct costs. It’s not something to celebrate. Apart from the psychic scarring that both the leader, no matter how callous, and the employee suffer, termination always, always has negative team morale consequences.
This seems counterintuitive at first, because the weak player’s departure should actually improve morale. Nothing kills the spirit like the rest of the team being required to pick up an unreasonable amount of slack, right? Get rid of the problem, promise a new hire, joy should ensue.
But termination inevitably has people thinking, “That could have been me.” It doesn’t matter whether that could actually have been them. It’s far better to encourage a too-weak player or a bad actor to voluntarily move on to a new role during feedback sessions before involuntary termination.
Smaller organizations may not always have another seat on the bus for someone who is in the wrong role. In that case, look to professional networking.
When the supervisor/employee relationship is healthy and the employee sees that the supervisor genuinely cares, an honest career conversation can lead to that “reposition” happening outside of the organization. I’ve had candid conversations with more than one poorly performing employee whom I suspected did not really enjoy our line of work, and I’ve discovered more than once that my suspicions were correct — that this was the root cause of the poor performance.
In those situations, because the relationship was good, I was able to help those folks find positions that they enjoyed more. Problem solved. No termination required, just happy farewells.
But the supervisor must build the trust relationship prior to that critical juncture. Way prior. By the time you’ve reached an escalation point, the trust level that you have is the highest trust level you will ever have.
As in any relationship, the person with more power is more able to trust because she has less to lose. Therefore, the supervisor must give trust prior to getting trust from an employee. This is where most work relationships fail: At the beginning, supervisors think “new employee, let’s trust her not at all,” which gets everyone off on exactly the wrong foot for later critical conversations.
Ultimately, firing is failure because you as a leader have failed to lead the employee to the place you need him to be. You can slice and dice this however you like, but that’s the bottom line. True leaders learn and do better next time.
Jonathan Feldman is an award-winning chief information officer, speaker and writer. He was honored with Frost & Sullivan’s CIO Impact award; named to Government Technology’s Top 25 Dreamers, Doers and Drivers roundup; and frequently appears among lists of top CIO and IT influencers. Jonathan has been referred to as a pioneer of cloud computing, digital transformation and civic tech, with Forbes calling his efforts “IT done right.”
Jonathan co-authored Code for America’s open source book “Beyond Transparency” with Tim O’Reilly and others. His column with InformationWeek magazine, which won an American Society of Business Publication Editors award, started many industry conversations about positive IT transformation. He has spoken all over the world about remote work, the future of work, talent management, leadership and digital transformation, and he is often quoted in the media about these topics. He tweets at @_jfeldman(opens in new tab).