Want to Perform Like Great Companies? Don’t Be Afraid to Fire

After I left, they kept the “team captain” on for another decade — until she became a “pariah,” which she kind of always was, and was asked to leave.

At another company we kept a combination “expendable-crew-member-pariah” for seven years until we finally released the person back into the wild.

I’ll get to my nomenclature in a minute. The fact is, no one likes to fire folks, but too many of us hold on to the one thing that holds our businesses back — the wrong talent in the wrong place for any length of time. Usually much too long.

So take a deep breath…

Yes, great companies sometimes fire people

I’m not just talking about those subordinates who, after tedious training, patience and futile remedial “this is why we hired you again” chats, continue to perform poorly, but also the crappy bosses your business hired and/or promoted and put into place managing people who just wreck the joint.

You may have read the recent New York Times business blog article The Dirty Little Secret of Successful Companies by Jay Goltz. If not, I recommend it. (Thank you Christine Perkett from PerkettPR for pointing it out!)

Jay writes:

If you want to run a great company — a company they gives great customer service and delivers a great product and has happy employees and a good bottom line, you occasionally have to fire people. Who? The people who after exhaustive training and coaching and counseling cannot do the job.”

And that includes management (and mercy, have I worked with some HR supplier doozies).

Most of us who run businesses of any size are pretty damn bad at letting go of people who just can’t do the job, and we’re extremely relieved when they leave on their own accord.

Right. How often does that happen in the real world?

It’s a still an extremely tough job economy right now — I know first hand — so why would any sub par pariah leave a job they’ve had for years when their employer continues to dance around and tell them they’re doing a great job?

Then there’s the whole fear-of-litigation problem. I worked with a company who’s CEO and VP of Human Resources had been working painstakingly for almost a year to build a case for terminating an employee, and they were still no farther along making the final decision than they were the year before.

Sometimes, life is like nation ball

Ever play nation ball? I’ve written about this before and really loved the game growing up. It is a dodge ball variant that really rocked with fast-paced action, mystery, misery, intrigue, redemption, success, failure and ultimate victory.

Like the workplace.

In nation ball (as in many games of my youth) there were usually these players (queue the nomenclature):

  • The Team Captains. The playground leaders who always picked the teams.
  • The Go-To Guys and Gals. Those who are always picked in the first few rounds of team selection.
  • The Expendable Crew Members. Those who had some nation ball skills, who aspired to be the go-to kids, but were known for getting picked off early on.
  • The Pariahs. Those who stood on the sidelines because they were never picked. If they were, they were the first to go. Always.

This was the hierarchy. HR was made up of the teachers and playground aides (the watchdogs) who only cared about maintaining order and compliance; not a lot of T&D (training & development) going on to facilitate better nation ball skills (or tether ball, or four square, or hopscotch, or kickball, or…).

It wasn’t about “everybody’s a winner” and “everybody gets to play.” You either fought to be a go-to, or you remained expendable. Or you were a pariah.

Right or wrong, those were the rules of the playground and probably the unspoken rules at your company today.

Sure, with all the talk of employee development and engagement and retention and the need to hold on to your best talent, you’d think that wasn’t the case.

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But business is crazy-fast these days across most industries and there’s limited time to help the expendable crew members, and goodness gracious, the pariahs as well, especially when you want to stay in business.

When the Go-Tos become bottlenecks

So we try to ignore them; the focus is on the go-to’s.

Management always goes to the go-to’s first. The ones who go above and beyond. Work early and work late. The ones who get things done, who help grow the business, who own the knowledge capital of your organization, which — don’t forget — can also include management.

The go-to’s are bottlenecks.

Wait, what? Yes, they are bottlenecks. The ones who slow down the crazy-fast, but not in a good way.

The go-to bottlenecks are the top talent we want to retain, but we’re jeopardizing the business the way we treat them — and we’ll lose them someday.

Yes, there’s a ton of chatter about these go-to folks having to do much more with much less, and they want to jump ship no matter how cold the water.

And they can. Because you choke them while the pariahs breathe freely.

What do you do? Unthrottle the go-to bottlenecks.

  • Create formal and informal go-to learning networks for mentoring and career development.
  • Empower, develop and train the expendable crew members so as to develop more go-to’s.
  • Allow go-to’s and expendables in training to dial up and down their roles and responsibilities.
  • Recruit and hire those with go-to potential — FT, PT, contractor, etc.
  • Reward the unthrottled go-to’s and empowered, developed and trained expendable crew members.
  • Don’t be afraid to fire those who can’t be empowered, developed or trained.

Did you get that last part? Don’t be afraid to fire. Period.

Oh, and watch out for the – Smack! — ball.

This was originally published on Kevin Grossman’s blog at Marcom HRsay.

Kevin W. Grossman is the Talent Board president of global programs responsible for all aspects of the Candidate Experience Awards worldwide, the first nonprofit research organization focused on the elevation and promotion of a quality candidate experience. He also produces and hosts multiple “world of work” podcasts including The CandEs Shop Talk and WorkingTech. A certified Talent Acquisition Strategist (TAS) and Human Capital Strategist (HCS) by HCI, he has over 19 years of domain expertise in the human resource and talent acquisition industry.


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