[published on The Mission]
“That really hurts!” I cried as the masseur drove his elbow deep into my back. “Take the pain!” he replied in a heavy Swedish accent. “There is good pain and there is bad pain… you have to have the good pain to not have the bad pain.”
This is true in business. Good pain is pain that leads to relief. Bad pain is just that. Most of the time you have to push through the one to eliminate the other. Case in point…
It was obvious that the SVP of product was wrong for the position. His peers knew it, his direct reports knew it, but for some reason the CEO couldn’t bring himself to let him go… and so he didn’t. This went on for some time. Finally, the pain became too great and he was terminated. A few months after the deed was done, the CEO questioned the head of HR, “Why didn’t we do that much sooner?”
Avoiding pain only prolongs it.
This situation occurs far too often. Why? Like water, we take the path of least resistance. Let’s face it, letting someone go is hard (and it should be). It’s especially difficult in a smaller company where every employee is like a family member (sometimes they are a family member or friend or neighbor or even partner). There is no HR department to “handle” things.
Difficult or not, when a person isn’t right for the job, you are doing a disservice to both the company AND the individual if you let him or her stay in that role. It doesn’t matter who they are or how they got there. If an employee demonstrates problem(s) in one or more core areas (e.g., competence, work ethic, integrity), they must either be moved to a position where they CAN be successful, or terminated. How many problem(s) depend on the nature of each (e.g., you might have a 3-strike policy for competence but a zero-tolerance policy for integrity).
The good news is that competence, work ethic, and integrity are relatively straightforward. Employees either have the skills to do the job or they do not. They either work hard to get the job done or they do not. They either act with complete integrity or they do not. No one controls these things for them. It’s not like movement of the stars.
Here are a few common fallacies that keep someone in the wrong role:
- the individual is irreplaceable,
- the individual can change,
- the individual can grow into the position, and
- removing the individual might create a legal risk or liability.
If you’ve ever said this to yourself (or even out loud), here are a few things to consider:
- NO ONE is irreplaceable,
- an EXCEPTION is not the rule,
- be careful not to PROMOTE someone to the level of their incompetence, and
- problem(s) with competence, work ethic, and/or integrity are VALID REASONS to let someone go.
“All of these behaviors can and should result in employment termination for the employee. Anything else is disrespectful of your other employees and will breed cynicism and ill will.” — Susan Heathfield, Top 5 Reasons to Fire an Employee
How can you prevent this?
Clear conversations from the onset are key. When metrics are clear (e.g., at our company, this means a, b, c, d), they’re easy to measure. When there’s a disconnect (a gap between how the employee perceives their performance and how you perceive the same), that’s when change must take place. But, don’t wait. Establish final performance metrics and the timeline. Be gentle but firm like the goalpost in the end-zone. It’s not moving anywhere but it has two feet of foam padding around it. At the end of the day, some employees will change, some will quit and some will need to be let go (but this last group becomes very small).
- Just take the pain! Is it not better for the individual to find a position that works for both the employer and the employee? Why would you rob him or her of that?
- Look for other areas and do the same. You’ll find that this principle applies to much more than human capital. It’s OK to be prudent but often, time is not your friend (i.e., options tend to expire).
As a side note…
A senior executive in a global staffing company once told me, “I’ve never known of a situation where the employee was fired too soon.” And then there’s what my Dad would say, “you’ll feel better when it quits hurting.”