When I was 10 years old, I had a job cleaning up a greasy-spoon diner that was run by my grouchy aunt. It was a great job for a little kid, and during summer vacation I could just go to the kitchen door and get a free lunch. One night as I was finishing up, my aunt came out from the back and gave me the evil eye. Then she fired me. She said that I was doing a lousy job of sweeping around the stools. Needless to say, I was shocked and devastated; like most people, Id seen myself as a model employee. It was the last job that I was ever fired from, and in retrospect, maybe I didnt do such a hot job sweeping around those stools, and perhaps I wasnt a victim of age discrimination.
The range of attitudes toward firing people is enormous. Lets start with a distinction between firing and layoffs. This article is about people who get fired for performance or behavioral reasons. In the United States, the practice of firing large numbers of people mostly productive workers for reasons totally unrelated to performance has become a norm in the past 20 years. Only one value, so-called shareholder value, has driven a process that has euphemistically been called downsizing or rightsizing. The well being of workers has become largely irrelevant in these actions. Wall Streets corporate heroes have been people like Jack Welch of GE or Chainsaw Al Dunlap of Sunbeam, who took great pride in the number of workers that they were able to get rid of.
The picture in other advanced countries has been substantially different. In Europe, there are strong worker protections. In France, the government was shaken by massive demonstrations when it sought to implement a policy that permitted first-time workers to be terminated without the normal onerous processes. In the former communist countries, almost nobody was ever fired for cause, producing an unhappy situation in which workers stated, they pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.
Although the Virgin Islands is a U.S. territory, it stands much closer to the European end of the spectrum with respect to the ability to fire people. There are understandable historic reasons for these protections, but a basic question remains: are strong worker protections and an inability to fire people good or bad? And good or bad for whom? Clearly they are good for poor workers who are thus able to hold onto their jobs. But what impact if any do these rules have on the economy and on other workers?
When you ask these two questions, the negative consequences of not being able to fire people become readily apparent. First, the harder it is to fire people, the less likely it is that employers will hire. Second, we know that in most workplaces the lowest common denominator over time sets the norms, so that the unproductive or troublesome worker often becomes a kind of negative role model. Each of these problems is a big deal. A reluctance to hire contributes to slow growth or stagnation and reduces opportunities for young people coming into the workforce. The lowest common denominator as the acceptable standard means lousy customer service, poor productivity, an indifference to quality and a failure of workers to grow and develop. One doesnt have to scratch far below the surface to see these problems in the Virgin Islands.
So where is the right balance? This is a policy rather than an operational question, but in many settings the first step is to have a policy discussion. At the heart of the discussion is fairness, but not just fairness to the employee in question. Years ago there used to be a counter worker for the old Antilles Airboats. She was extraordinarily rude, and her continued seemingly eternal presence was grossly unfair to the customers, who had few other choices, and to her fellow workers, who had to listen to a litany of complaints about their colleague from hell.
Sometimes there are situations in which the whole workplace is out of control and drastic actions have to be taken. I once had a client who assumed the leadership of a community health center in which lateness, absenteeism and poor performance were rampant. She found that the only way to get people to realize that she was serious about changing the place was to take a life by firing someone every week or two. Within six months, the situation had stabilized, the message had been delivered, and we were dealing with more typical organizational problems.
Fairness to the employee revolves around a set of straightforward questions: is this person incapable of doing this job at a minimally acceptable level? Are they unwilling to learn and to try? And most important, are they poisoning the work environment? If the answer to any one of these questions is yes, it is time to think about firing them. At this point it is worth asking the two clinching questions: if I were hiring again, would I have taken this person? And can I envision this situation getting better? If these are nos, it is time to take action.
There is a belief that nobody ever gets fired to soon. This is true, but not for the reasons that most people think. Firing people is hard. It should be. Corporate heroes like Welch and "Chainsaw Al" who seemed to enjoy firing people are some of the worst leadership and managerial role models that one could have. But avoidance is also unproductive, especially if the person is toxic rather than just incapable. Here are some useful tools for actually terminating someone, protecting their dignity and, at the same time, protecting yourself and the organization:
Deal with your ambivalence. You have eliminated the alternatives, and you are sure that this is the right thing to do. Dont put it off. Delay just means more sleepless nights.
Be certain that you have the authority and any needed documentation. Think through all of the terms of the termination. For example, should the person come to work during the notice period? Usually, the best answer to this question is no.
Get to the point. Dont confuse the issue. Termination meetings should last no more than 20 to 30 minutes. Prepare a script and stick to it. Be sure that what you say is consistent with previous conversations. There should be no surprises.
Dont try to be a grief or job counselor. It wont work and you will simply confuse the issue.
Listen to what the person says but do not respond defensively or make any reference to irrelevant issues.
Be sure to follow up with a next-day memo or letter that is consistent with everything you have said.
People sometimes make the point that firing someone is a management failure. In a basic sense, this is correct: you picked the wrong person or you didnt get them to perform at a satisfactory level. It is also somewhat beside the point since you must now deal with the problem at hand, and some of the questions presented above provide the guidance as to whether this needs to be one of those infrequent cases in which the best choice is to fire the person. Usually if you have gotten to the point of seriously considering it, the answer to this question is yes.
Editor's note: Dr. Frank Schneiger is the president of Human Services Management Institute, Inc., a 25-year-old management consulting firm that focuses on organizational change. Much of his current work is in the area of problems of execution and implementing rapid changes as responses to operational problems.