The Information Age

Knowing When to Fire Someone


Story provided by Harvard Business Review –  

George is the most talented, productive executive Roy ever had to fire.

George had pulled off a string of celebrated victories and won a reputation as a strong performer. Having been hired to lead his hospital’s compliance program as regulations grew increasingly complex, he had put the policies and procedures into order, achieving a goal that had eluded the organization for years.

Roy was grateful that this burden had been lifted off his shoulders. In fact, he was so smitten that he didn’t notice what else was going on — that George (and for the record, this is a composite case) had alienated colleagues and failed to create the sense of urgency needed to persuade employees to complete the required training. George’s excellent work was of little value if it wasn’t fully implemented throughout the organization.

As other team members started to complain, Roy made repeated attempts to coach George to improve his interpersonal and communication skills, but George rebuffed him.

It took Roy a while to see the corrosive impact of George’s more subtle deficiencies and to make up his mind about what to do. Roy was well aware of the cost and disruption of a termination. He spent so long weighing the issues that he nearly caused irreparable damage to his team’s collegiality, reputation, and performance.

Roy eventually realized that keeping difficult people around can undermine what should be a leader’s number one objective: maintaining a positive and productive work environment. If Roy had used a tool such as a simple worksheet to help him evaluate the costs and benefits of keeping George on board, he might have determined that George’s impact on the team’s productivity and esprit de corps outweighed the value of his contribution much sooner, to everyone’s benefit.

In The No Asshole Rule, Robert Sutton makes a case for banning jerks from the workplace because of the devastation they can inflict on coworkers’ emotional well-being and work quality. But skillful individuals don’t have to be full-blown tyrants to wear out their welcome.

Working with people who refuse to accept criticism is one of the thorniest management issues a leader can encounter. What may start out as a modest deficiency — one that could be easily addressed with performance coaching — can shift to an insurmountable management challenge when the employee resists feedback. The original performance issue soon becomes compounded by dysfunction in the manager-employee relationship, making the situation much more difficult to assess.

Because terminating someone is such an important and complicated strategic decision, it helps to have an objective way to measure the impact of a difficult employee, including a dispassionate evaluation of the disruption caused by turnover. Using the worksheet to quantify the factors in a termination decision can help you evaluate the costs and benefits of individuals’ performance, their impact on team dynamics, and bottom-line results. You can list such factors as the employee’s likelihood of improvement, the drain on your energy, and the cost of replacement. The tipping point comes when the cost of keeping an employee is greater than the disruption of letting him or her go. Such a tool could have helped Roy make the decision about George a lot sooner.

Or consider Jeff, a human-resources executive in a large global company (another real, but disguised, case): One of his managers, Karen, had a very strong skill set and brought passion and deeply relevant experience to her role. She performed well initially, but as the demands of her job grew, she lost focus and had increasing difficulty completing complex projects.

Unable to manage her time well, Karen became a demotivating influence on her team members, failing to keep them informed. For close to a year, Jeff tried to help Karen get back on track. Despite being an HR expert and well acquainted with best practices in delivering feedback, he was unable to overcome her defenses and motivate her to work on her deficits. Worse, these conversations generally left her moody and unpleasant to be around.

Karen wasn’t a jerk at all. She was well-liked, but she was so defensive when getting feedback that she couldn’t work on addressing the problems. Over time, Jeff found himself doing more and more of Karen’s job himself. He continued to compensate for her gaps for way too long because the cost and disruption of making a change were so great.

However, Karen’s teammates grew resentful as her deficiencies began to affect the group’s ability to deliver. Jeff knew it was his obligation to minimize obstacles in the way of the team’s performance, particularly as the team was expected to produce more results with fewer resources. Equally important, Jeff felt drained by confronting Karen’s crankiness, especially when his effort had little chance of producing positive results.

Clearly, doing his subordinates’ work was not the best use of Jeff’s time, and facing Karen’s moods was not the best use of his energy.

So in spite of her skills, experience, and institutional knowledge, and notwithstanding the disruption that a vacancy would cause, Jeff fired Karen. Eventually, Jeff’s decision was fully validated by the significant positive impact of Karen’s successor. Jeff’s only regret was that he had squandered so much time avoiding making the decision.

Leaders are responsible for managing the resources under their control. In most cases, the single greatest resource they manage is people, with compensation and benefits consuming as much as 80% of operating budgets. To sustain energy and engagement, and to retain the best talent, leaders must endeavor to make work life as manageable and as palatable as possible for themselves and their teams. Coming to grips with the need to fire a colleague, particularly when you’ve invested so much of your own effort to remediate his or her weaknesses, is one of the toughest management decisions you’ll ever have to make.