Recently I received a phone call from my friend Matt.  Matt is the heir to a large construction company and has been tasked with taking the company to the next level while his parents ride off into the sunset.  Matt has spent thousands of hours on the side of highways operating heavy machinery, as a supervisor and as a laborer.  Only recently he has begun to step into the office and actually start to run the company.  Today he is learning what it takes to actually manage people, more importantly he is learning how to hire and fire.

Before we go any further I want to spend a few minutes making sure we are all comfortable with the word; fired.  Yes, fired.  Say it again, fired.  You’re fired.  You’re dismissed from this company.  Your services are no longer needed at this company.  You no longer fit with our company direction.  We need to part ways.  You’re fired.

I’m tired of listening to manager’s talk about “moving” someone out of the company or “helping an employee find a new career path.”  The truth is, my belief is that we need to get more comfortable with the concept of firing an employee.  Our sensitive world that we live in today has caused us as managers to feel bad for firing an employee.  It has given all the power back to the employee and created a situation in which the employee thinks they are entitled to their career.  An employee needs to earn their job each day they walk into the office or step on to the job site.

Now back to Matt.  Over the past few months I’ve spoken to him several times about an employee who has been causing some stress in the company.  We’ll call this employee Sam.  Sam has consistently defied the company line and “stirred the pot” with groups of people in and outside the walls of the business.  Matt’s new position within the company has him evaluating everyone’s employment and watching their next steps.  Sam’s mis-steps have given Matt something to watch closer.

On this particular week Sam had chosen to cause some additional problems prompting Matt to vent to me.  I think his only intentions were to use me as a sounding board for the issues he was dealing with in Sam; however he got something more from me that day.

After listening to his rant for a few minutes and the extreme frustration that I’ve heard over years with Sam, my advice was to fire him.

He replied with a typical, “yes but Sam does some good things and we are so busy right now that the timing isn’t right.”  This is where I launched into what would eventually become my white paper and my motivation for making sure that as managers, we no longer take the nonsense that is employee disruption and failure.

See what we fail to remember as managers in the midst of our busy days is that the employee not only causes us headaches, but also begins to create division amongst your staff, cause you thousands if not millions of dollars in problems that you will only uncover once they have been let go, and more importantly, make you look like an absolute failure within your company.  We are graded as managers on several levels; one that is often overlooked is our ability to hire and fire, or what I call the bookend of finding the right employee.  Now we won’t launch into how important hiring is, that is an entire separate white paper in itself.

There are three principals that stand behind a good manager when it comes to letting an employee go and just as I detailed them for Matt that day, I will detail for you now.

1.       Failure is determined by the individual

Often times an employee who is failing wants to blame everyone around them for their mistakes.  They grab anyone in their sight.  We’ve all seen it in our career and some of us have been a target even if we’ve done nothing.  Just like when a child is called out in school for talking they point the finger at the peer they were in conversation with.  The truth is an employee will use this to what they believe is their advantage and grasp at the empathetic side of a manager.  Managers are supposed to be coaches, teachers, mentors, guides, leaders, etc.  Often times these traits we are supposed to embody are lost in translation and we become parents, therapists, allies, and parole officers.

It becomes a real challenge to look across the desk at an employee and tell them they are fired for lack of performance when the previous four months you have had that employee in your office in tears telling you about their impending divorce and custody battle.  As a manager we turn empathetic, we think that if we show this side of help and allow them to sacrifice their job for their tough times then it will pay off in the end.  “Yes you can take the week off to meet with your attorneys and see your children,” becomes an acceptable statement because you want to help.  Your thinking is, in a year from now when this is all taken care of this employee will remember the great help I provided them by looking the other way for a few months.  The truth is, this employee is human, and humans (for the most part) like to point fingers in times of failure.  We hate to think that we have done anything wrong.

So when the numbers are not being met and it becomes time to release this employee, the empathy starts to kick in as managers.  I’m not stating that we should not be empathetic, or that we shouldn’t help out those employees.  But this is the time when we have to remember
that failure is determined by one person, and one person only, the employee.  As they start to point fingers at others in the organization and remind you of all the issues they have dealt with in their personal life, we have to check empathy at the door and think about all the days that the employee had to achieve success and to do the daily tasks that could keep them employed.  Remember, failure is not determined by you.  It isn’t a metric that is set, it is a method of evaluation after you set the bar on January 1st each year.

The therapist doesn’t lose his job when the patient takes their life.  The parent doesn’t go to jail when their child commits a crime, and the parole officer doesn’t lose their job when their parolee doesn’t follow the rules.  Failure is determined by the individual.  Not you.  Your job is to set the ground rules and guide them.

2.       A Leaders respect is built by his staff; destroyed by the weak employee

A leader is not only judged by the individual employee but also as a whole by the team.  When we read about the President’s approval rating it is a number that is cumulative based upon thousands of people’s point of view.  What we don’t know is how many of those people scored him a zero and how many of those people scored him a 100.  We all have employees who would score us a zero and others that would gladly check the 100 box.  This is just a part of being in a leadership role.  I’ve always argued the 30/40/30 rule.  30% of the staff will love me today, 30% of the staff will hate me today, and 40% will be neutral on me, and those people who hate me today will love me tomorrow and vice versa.

As a whole if you keep the staff happy and keep your name respected then you will have a strong approval rating as a manager.  Whether you are seeking it or not, it’s imperative to a staff.

Among several factors, I believe the strongest of these that will drive down your approval rating is how slow you take to react to an employee that needs to be dismissed.  Winners want to be surrounded by other winners; just like losers like to hang out with losers.  When you have a group of winners, they want you to clean up the losers as quick as possible.  Every day that you spend “thinking” about cleaning up the problems is another day that you waste for your organization as well as you fail your staff, and drive down your approval rating.

Let me paint the picture of Matt in his organization.  Matt is thirty.  He has no college degree yet he is the hardest worker that I’ve ever known.  He has little people management experience in an office but the heart of a lion.  Matt’s parents own the company that he will one day take over, and as VP of the company that he has spent the last 12 years working his tail off for, Matt is doing everything he can each day to get ahead.  Getting ahead for Matt also means that he is working to build a “new” company, a progressive company that his conservative family never dreamed of.  Getting ahead also means for the owner’s kid that he needs to build respect within his organization.  Disgruntled employees love to sit around and talk about the kid that was handed the business.  Matt has learned every day how hard it is to gain this respect as a leader, and not just the kid of the owners.

My pitch to Matt was that respect is built over time and destroyed over drinks.  If Sam was consistently driving down employee morale with his negative attitude, his lack of goal achievement, and his slow to move attitude, then this eventually became a reflection on Matt the leader.  The last thing Matt needs is to have a group of his staff comment on how weak Matt is.

In an organization the bar is set by the weakest employee, not the strongest.  If Sam is the weak employee he sets the bar for achievement each day and he sets the bar for work intensity and load.  Why would Employee X work any harder than Sam if Sam is allowed each day to mail it in and on top of it be a negative attitude in the organization?

This message resonated with Matt as I informed him that if he ever wanted to be viewed as a leader, he had to get rid of the failure.  In this instance, the failure is Sam.

3.       Over a period of time; you become the problem

In the mid-80’s in South Beach Miami, Colombian Cartels were introducing cocaine into the United States.  They used an elaborate scheme of middle-men to distribute to the buyers.  Over time, the Colombian’s learned that if the middle-men couldn’t get the job done then they would just eliminate the weak links and go direct to the buyers.  The Colombians were not empathetic people, and they didn’t just chalk up a loss and move on.  Now they didn’t just fire them, they actually did away with them resulting in over 600 homicides in South Beach in 1988.

Now I’m not insisting that you should pull a page from the Colombian’s book when making these difficult employee decisions, but what I am telling you is that over time if you don’t handle your problems you will become the middle man and the higher power that you report to will start to turn the sights on your employment.

Over time, you become the problem.  Successful organizations are successful because they fire on all cylinders.  Every level of employment is in tune.  Organizations that fail are failures because they have managers that are slow to make employee decisions amongst their other failures.  Good people make good companies.  Products become a success because the general public decides the product is good.  Companies become failures though because they employ the wrong people.

If you are comfortable being the problem as the failed manager then don’t make this decision to release the employee.

This point was a simple one to make to Matt.  Over time, did he want his parents, the owners of the company, the other VP’s, or anyone else on his peer level to believe he was the problem while he allowed an employee to run wild in his organization?  Absolutely not.  This is why this third principal resonated strongest.

The Conclusion

Matt called me less than three days later and informed me of his decision to let Sam go.  He said the decision was easy once he looked at these three concepts I shared above.

While I could choose to feel bad for Sam, the truth is I felt bad for Matt for having to deal with this situation.  Too often in society we feel bad for Sam.  Sam is the victim; Matt is the bully.  As managers we walk the line between empathy and failure.  On one hand we want to be empathetic to our staff yet at the same time we want to endorse success with them.  Terminating an employee is a tough decision but don’t make it about your own inabilities, remember, failure is dependent upon the individual.

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