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Friday, March 21, 2008

confession: I used to suck at firing people

This is a weird thing to admit, but I think I'm pretty good at firing people. I've written in the past about how I think firing should be done, but I'm not here to brag about this (if indeed it's socially acceptable to brag about such a thing, which I'm pretty sure it's not) ... I'm here to confess my secret shame, which is that the first time I had to do it, I was a disaster and totally oblivious to the advice that I now chant like some sort of weird mantra to other managers.

At the time, I was a relatively new manager, and when I took the position, I inherited a problem employee: painfully slow, constantly made mistakes that were seeding the database he worked on with tons of land mines, impervious to help, a general mess. Rather than addressing it straightforwardly with him like one obviously should do, I did what lots of inexperienced managers do: I handled him way too gingerly. I made "suggestions" and expressed concerns, but never did I tell him directly that the problems were so serious that he would be fired if his work didn't improve. I was vague. I thought I was choosing the kinder option, protecting his feelings, which of course was ridiculous -- there's nothing kind about denying someone the opportunity to know they're on the path to job loss.

Inevitably, I ended up having to fire him -- and because of my vagueness leading up to it, he was genuinely shocked, said he hadn't seen it coming, even cried. I hadn't been so kind, it turned out.

And that's not all. A couple of months later he sued, claiming I had fired him because he had Crohn's Disease, which would have been a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act if it were true. I was baffled -- I knew he'd been fired for poor performance and that the fact that he had a disability was irrelevant (and indeed, we ultimately won the suit). But by not being direct enough about how bad his performance was, I had opened the door to him speculating on what the cause might have been. I could have avoided a months-long legal mess (as well as his legitimate bewilderment) by just getting over my own discomfort and telling him forthrightly the ways in which his performance was unsatisfactory. I put my own comfort ahead of managing well, and as a result, I exposed my company to legal jeopardy and left an employee completely dumbfounded about why he was let go.

Years later, I'm still cringing when I think about how my inexperience and misplaced desire to be nice made me a nightmare manager for that guy. These days, my employees who struggle hear about it -- and some of them take the warnings and improve and some of them don't, but none of them have been surprised by bad news since.

5 comments:

Lisa said...

Funny, you and I were posting about the very same thing this morning! I so get what you are saying and until a supervisor has experienced it, it is so hard for them to "get it." I will keep trying though!

Anonymous said...

Bravo on highlighting the experience. All too often, I find we accommodate problem staff because of our own discomforts - much to the sacrifice and detriment of our productive employees

Liz Williams said...

It's the law of unintended consequences on crack! I love how you've framed this, and how anonymous extended it: Not only does our desire not to hurt someone's feelings end up harming everyone (productive employees, team morale, non-performing employee, company, us), it's so much more painful! Thank you for so clearly identifying the culprit: wanting to be kind. I'm thinking in terms of Orwellian Paradoxes this morning (war is peace,etc.), but it fits here: sometimes the kindest action feels cruel.

I've had to learn this the hard way too - in some ways I think I never stop learning it. My growing edge is to infuse the bracing honesty with kindness - one not erasing the other - to speak up at the first glimmer of a problem, and to follow up like a fanatic.

Thank you for being so honest and so eloquent about this.

Wally Bock said...

Congratulations. This post was chosen as one of the five best business blog posts for this week on my Midweek Look at the Business Blogs.

http://blog.threestarleadership.com/2008/03/26/32608-a-midweek-look-at-the-business-blogs.aspx

class factotum said...

It's just like breaking up with someone. You don't do him any favors by continuing to date him -- or telling him you want "to see other people" -- or saying that you want to take a "temporary break."

Have the guts and the kindness to break up fast and clean so he won't lie at home at night thinking, "She said a 'temporary break,' so she'll be calling me in a week." Let him move on with his life.