Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
I write today’s Kerrying On to budding entrepreneurs, company owners, and everyone else who has worked in or managed a work team in an ever-changing business environment. That is to say, I’m writing to anyone who has been employed in the industrialized world since, say, 1950.
I’ll start with a warning. This month I’ve chosen a rather sensitive topic and I do so with fear and trepidation. The topic is so controversial that I’ve already softened the message by choosing a rather uncourageous metaphor that has been around for decades (“making sure the right people are on the bus”), when what I really want to talk about is what to do when you discover that certain employees aren’t working out and you have to let them go. Because if I had only one piece of advice on what it takes to survive the slings and arrows of a turbulent work environment, it would be this. No matter how unpopular the decision or painful the task, leaders must find the courage and develop the ability to gracefully and respectfully let people go.
Most of us are quite bad at it and it costs us dearly.
We typically suffer the consequences of keeping the wrong employees around for far too long because firing people can be absolutely gut wrenching. In fact, the act of terminating an employee can be so painful that we’ve created no end of euphemisms to indicate that “the bus is moving along and, I’ll be darned, it looks like you won’t be on it.” Here’s one of the more popular expressions—”downsizing.” No, that’s too negative. Nowadays we’re “right-sizing.” That’s it. Doesn’t it just feel “right” not to be on our silly old bus?
And how might you let people know that they’re going to be on the bus any longer? There’s always, “Not counting tomorrow, how long have you worked here?” Or, “Everybody who has a secure position in this company please raise their hand—not so fast Chris!”
This type of gallows humor bespeaks the deadly tone that typically accompanies the act of letting people go. It’s hard enough to “right size”—even when the business climate calls for cutting back. Then at least you can blame the environment for disconnecting people from their gainful employment. You’re not firing them; you’re merely doing away with the job. However, when a person simply isn’t up to the job and you’re about to replace them with someone who is—oh boy; letting them go under these circumstances can be really painful.
The problem of keeping underperformers on the payroll is so widespread that almost no organization is spared its ugly consequences. For instance, as a consultant to several large corporations I soon learned that one of the top employee complaints (no matter the business or decade) was that the company was filled with “dead wood.” At first I figured everyone was pointing at everyone else, but I was wrong. They were all pointing at the same handful of people. There was no argument as to who wasn’t up to their job. It was public knowledge. In fact, when I talked with HR executives about the reported “dead wood” problem, they too agreed that there were a bunch of people who were no longer performing up to standard, but, “You know, it can be so hard to let people go.”
Now, I’m not suggesting that you should start firing people willy-nilly, but I am suggesting that having people around who can’t do their jobs not only kills their positions, it also causes no end of grief to everyone around them. When people can’t carry their fair share, others have to pick up the slack, and it’s not long until they start to resent the underperforming individual—and the company leaders as well. Employees begin to wonder when their leaders will grow a spine and hold people accountable. Equally bad, these same leaders are often unavailable to assist and coach top performers because they’re so tied up trying to manage those who can’t perform to standard.
Not everyone who is unable to perform his or her job is a threat to a company’s morale and long-term viability. If a person is incompetent and unlikable he or she’s usually out the door in a few months. Who can put up with an incompetent curmudgeon? But what if the person who can’t do his or her job is really likable? Worse still, what if he or she’s eager to learn, but just can’t seem to pick up the requisite skills? Worst of all, what if he or she’s likeable, willing to learn, and loyal? This employee will probably outlast the founders.
But he or she shouldn’t. No number of ancillary qualities or secondary skills can make up for an employee’s inability to perform his or her actual job.
So, as your company starts to grow, count on the fact that some of the people you hire aren’t going to be able to perform the job as the job requirements change. And requirements are going to change. Some employees won’t be compatible with the change, and you shouldn’t keep shuffling them around. Let them return to the marketplace in a position that requires their skill set.
In a similar vein, sometimes people who look terrific on paper and nail the job interview don’t do well on the actual job. Put all new employees on six-months probation. Review them monthly and hold them to a high standard. Better to catch mismatches early on than to drag them out for years until one day the employee reports to a new supervisor who asks: How in the world did a person who doesn’t actually know how to perform his job last for ten years, and now what am I supposed to do with him?
As a person who has run one company on his own and co-created another, I’ve had to come to peace with the notion that it’s my job to keep the company as competitive as possible—thus securing the jobs of every employee and not just the one. In the words of Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame, when it comes to the long-term viability and morale of a company: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”
The first step to being competitive is ensuring that every single person is not only competent, but very competent. We owe it to all our employees to provide them with the equipment and other resources to perform their jobs. We also owe it to all our employees to provide them with the best and most competent colleagues possible.
In summary, if employees aren’t up to par, we need to train them or move them to a position where their skills match the position. And if they can’t be trained or relocated, we need to let them go. We need to give them the chance to land a job they can and will master. We need to consider the needs of the many. And like it or not, that means that occasionally we’re going to have to change the people who are on the bus. This may not ever make you very popular, but sometimes it’s the right thing to do.