You’re Fired! Some Thoughts on a (Typically) Sensitive Issue

The thought of having to terminate an employee can cause anguish for even the most experienced manager, regardless of the reason for the action.

It becomes less stressful – and more clearly defined when the grounds for dismissal are unmistakable.  An example might be willful destruction of company property, embezzlement, assault and
battery or some verifiable form of harassment. However, when the reason for termination is performance related, that is when the firing manager really needs to have his / her proverbial ducks in order. In less sensitive or litigious times, firing somebody created few, if any consequences for the company or its manager(s).  An employee could be fired on a whim or in contrast, could be “carried” indefinitely.

Following are some thoughts on the latter.

Let’s imagine that it is 1965, and a recent college graduate (with just about any academic specialty) is hired by a leading automotive manufacturer. In those days, General Motors alone commanded more than a 50% market share, with Ford and Chrysler also controlling a sizeable portion. Sure, there were some Volkswagens cruising around and a variety of other foreign brands, presenting more of a curiosity as opposed to a threat.  And, Toyota??

While successful in Japan, Toyota wasn’t on the radar of most car builders – or buyers…  ditto, Honda—who at the time, was building some cute motorcycles. They even had a popular hit record produced about their “Little Honda”. But, serious competition?? Not when mom and dad were purchasing a new Chevy, Mercury, Plymouth or Buick on a regular basis. The U.S. manufacturers were enjoying skyrocketing profit margins. Their designers pondered the “task” of what shape to fashion the tail lights on the next model-year vehicle offerings while engineers were, well – they were having a whole bunch of unregulated fun testing out muscle cars on a famous Detroit strip known as Woodward Avenue.

What did this all mean to the previously mentioned college graduate? He could most likely sign up, show-up and cruise along for an entire career. As for the likelihood of termination: with a stable
market share and the cash rolling in, a mediocre performance, when blended with the top producers could often dodge detection or if exposed, might be ignored. It would require a monumental screw-up on his part to justify termination…otherwise, the attitude was often “why rock the boat?” And, so it was – that is until numerous events (oil embargo, the rise of foreign competition, safety and quality issues) sent the U.S. auto industry reeling – even flirting with extinction. The domestic manufacturers ultimately made an outstanding recovery – and today, they produce top quality, highly competitive products. What about employee termination in the 21st century? While the (auto) industry has become more  efficient and successful, firing under-performing employees continues to present challenges. This is underscored by a host of regulations (non-existing in 1965) on hiring, firing and employee relations.

A long-time friend and successful business person once told me that a good supervisor manages the activity of the person, not the person. This has always stuck with me, because if there are specific metrics established relative to daily duties /requirements coupled with weekly, monthly and annual performance goals, both the manager and employee can focus on these measurables. The good manager can become a great manager when he/she combines fundamentals with employee – specific soft skills.  In this way, if it becomes necessary to terminate an employee, (minus those obvious infractions) there will be documentation along with a history of reviews and strategy sessions to support the decision.

Company executives already know all of this and are also keenly aware of just how difficult it is to  acquire the best talent. Today’s super-stars maintain high expectations – and not just from a financial perspective. The talent-pool is limited, and their services are in high demand.  So, it’s important to maintain and retain the greatest percentage of highly effective people as possible. It all begins – and the tone is established, at the top of a company. Some corporate officials take a very proactive approach – they weed out the low performers…those employees who tend to cruise along on a team or in a department. I like to refer to these staffers as “playing business”.  Other corporate  officials, as in the past, might prefer not to “make waves” on their watch. This isn’t a healthy option for any organization, but it continues to occur.  Corporate Execs: It might be best to set the pace and have your management team join you in making those tough, but worthwhile decisions.  As the saying goes, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” And I’ll add – it’s your business.

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