Weekly Wrap: Do Real Managers Really Resist the Urge to Fire?

As a long-time manager, I’ve written a lot about how firing an employee is one of the toughest and most difficult things a manager ever has to do.

But if you are going to be a manager, it’s also one of those unpleasant duties that, as they say, comes with the territory.

I once worked for a guy (lets call him BB, for the Big Boss) who had more than 300 people under his supervision, and he bragged incessantly about how he had never had to fire anyone. It was a nice story, but totally untrue because BB simply got around the problem by delegating that duty to another manager — even when it came down to firing someone who directly reported to him.

One of the worst things you can do to someone

That’s not something any real manager should ever brag about because real managers sometimes need to do the tough stuff. Anyone who has been a manager for any significant length of time and never had to fire someone is either, a) lucky enough to be winning the lottery, or b) avoiding their managerial responsibilities when it matters the most.

Here’s what I wrote about that earlier this year:

As someone who has done his fair share of terminations, they never, ever, are something you get used to, nor does the process get any easier the more you do it. That’s because it is one of the most difficult things you will ever have to do in life, and unless you are less-than-human yourself, you most always find yourself thinking, as you are doing it, “this could be happening to me.” …

I don’t know any good manager who likes firing people, but unfortunately, it’s part of the job. Hopefully, it doesn’t happen often, but when it does, you owe it to the person you are firing to sit them down and tell them the reasons why. …

Taking a person’s job away, for whatever reason, is one of the worst things you can do to another human. Doing it in person doesn’t make it better, but it does make it more personal and is one small thing that can help the departing person walk away with some small measure of dignity.”

I’m reminded of this because the always insightful Liz Ryan wrote recently in Bloomberg Businessweek that Real Leaders Don’t Fire People. Her point: that firing an employee is not something that should be done suddenly because we think they don’t fit or are not working out, but that’s the way too many managers and executives operate.

Confusing, complicated, and thorny

She’s right about that, at least from what I’ve found in my experience. And for the record, let’s make it clear she’s not talking about George Clooney, Up in the Air-style layoffs where a bunch of people are getting let go at once, or even a Ronald Reagan, I’m-sending-a-message-to-you-striking-federal-employees mass canning.

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No, Liz Ryan is talking about the kind of firing where Joe Employee, who has been having trouble seeing eye-to-eye with his or her boss, walks in one day and is shocked to find they’re being let go because the boss suddenly feels, “this just isn’t working out.”

Here’s what Liz, the veteran HR pro, says about that:

Managing is hard and confusing. People are complicated and thorny. Some are irascible and some run hot and cold. Like the other important people in our lives — spouses, children, siblings, parents, and close friends — our employees confound and annoy us. So how do we respond? If our answer is, “these employees tick me off; I think I’ll fire them,” we’ve abdicated our responsibilities as managers and leaders.

There aren’t people who should be fired from our organization “immediately” because they fall into some category of non-fit employees.

Let’s own up to some facts: We hired each member of our team from a field of candidates. We made choices one-by-one, presumably with careful attention to the pros and cons of engaging each of them. If we didn’t hire them, we inherited them from another manager or got them into our crews by way of acquisition, and we’ve kept them on the payroll through the current day at our own discretion. In other words, we own them. Yes, the law allows us to summarily give them the boot. But is it the right thing to do — or merely the easy thing?

I’d argue that managers who fire people more often than once in a blue moon are lousy managers unsuited to lead teams. … digging in when employees aren’t happily singing the company song is the essence of leadership. When we bite the bullet and sit with our most-challenging employees, asking them to share world views with us, we can learn something if we truly listen. The conversation opens up. When we say, “You’re fired,” the conversation is over. The learning stops.”

In this holiday season, I’d second this wise and generous counsel from Liz Ryan and simply say that firing someone and taking away their livelihood and sense of self-worth is one of the very worst things you can ever do to another human being. Yes, it sometimes has to be done, but it should be the action of last resort and done carefully and sensitively. You owe that to your fellow employees not just during the holiday season, but every day of every year.

Working the room at holiday events

Of course, there’s more than whether to fire employees in the news this week. Here are other HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of HR and talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Minimum wage takes a maximum leap in San Francisco. Don’t look now, but the San Francisco Chronicle says that come January 1, San Francisco will become the first U.S. city with a minimum wage over $10 per hour. “Thanks to a 60% voter approval rate, SF passed Proposition L in 2003. This provision requires that the city enforce an increase in the minimum wage every year that correlates with inflation. That means, if you want to get down to dollars and cents, that this New Year’s Day,  SF’s hourly minimum wage will rise from $9.92 to $10.24. Compare this wage to that of the state and you may see San Francisco workers as lucky: California’s legal minimum wage is $8 an hour. Now compare it to the federal minimum of $7.25. Luckier still!”
  • Why raises have becomes so rare. Wonder why it is so hard to get a raise these days? Time magazine’s The Curious Capitalist blog digs into that question and finds that “slow or no wage growth is part of a larger trend. … Optimistically, one would hope that this trend, like most others, will reverse, and wages will see some steep increase to get back in-line with productivity. And perhaps that would have happened if not for the recent recession. But with so many people out of work, just looking to get a pay check again, it’s hard to see a rebound in wages coming any time soon.”
  • Are you working the room at holiday gatherings? Miami Herald workplace columnist Cindy Krischer Goodman notes that, “Tonight I’m going to a business-related holiday party. It means leaving my house and family at one of the busiest times of the day, dinner time. When most of us strive for work life balance, we know there are some instances when we have to give up family time for work events, particularly around the holidays. But if I’m making the trade-off, why not work the holiday scene efficiently?” She gives some great tips for how we all can do that.
  • What would you do to get more pay? Kronos, the Massachusetts-based company that makes sophisticated time an attendance systems as well as “workforce management solutions that enable organizations to control labor costs, minimize compliance risk, and improve workforce productivity,” have made another one of their popular animated videos to illustrate their latest Time Clock survey. The subject? How “Respondents Around the World Have Cheated Employers to Get More Pay.”

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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