Feature | Jul/Aug 2017

You Had Me at “You’re Fired”

Learning and managing the struggles associated with termination.

I attended a Disney® leadership event several years ago where the facilitator shared Disney’s organizational method for managing a variety of employee and culture dynamics. He indicated that Walt actually birthed the evolution of modern on-boarding and when necessary, termination. He was slow to hire and quick to ____.

You thought the word was “fire” didn’t you? I did too. But the “F” word is seldom used in Disney’s termination process. Instead, the Disney representative described that firing someone includes, “inviting them to look for their happiness elsewhere!”

Work choices aside, consider the message understood. But the burning question I wrestled with in my early years of executive coaching was how to ensure the employee designated for termination was really the problem. What if he/she was a victim of bullying or other interpersonal dysfunction? That kind of injustice not only seems cruel, but kicks the door open to possible litigation if reasons for a termination are only loosely constructed. So I was motivated to learn more about it, and I share the lesson here with you.

Consider this scenario: A Human Resource staff member of a large teaching hospital—we’ll call her Anna—identifies a mid-level Compliance manager who, for a variety of reasons, is not performing and fulfilling departmental expectations. Anna reached out to me for some insight and added, “This isn’t a bad person, but definitely a troubled employee. We missed the mark in hiring her.”

I listened carefully as Anna outlined a laundry list of the employee’s transgressions. Anna is following protocol to ensure that legalities, policy, and other hospital logistics are identified before proceeding with official termination procedures. However, she is struggling with a decision to grant another (third) chance to this employee after a number of coaching and performance conversations between them. The decision is fully hers to make, of course, but I shared some thoughts to help remove the blur. It often begins with a nagging suspicion that lingers. Several factors contribute to this:

  • An individual fails morally or ethically
  • A financial downturn forces broad re-evaluation of personnel
  • A position outgrows an employee
  • A job description changes
  • An individual doesn’t fit the culture of an organization
  • An individual demonstrates a poor work ethic/performance
  • These questions come from management guru Peter Drucker. In his book Good to Great, Drucker elaborates on these tiebreaker propositions and offers justification for decision making in this complex circumstance:

    1. Is this person hurting morale?

    Qualifier: Does he/she give energy or deplete it? Are people inspired in the presence of his/her company? Does he/she have an authentic collaborative spirit? You’ll try to make it go away. You’ll look for reasons to believe. Often someone else on the team will confirm it.

    2. Do you find yourself (or others) having to work around this person?

    Qualifier: Do you say or think, “Just give the task to me and I’ll do it because he/she won’t do it right, or on time, etc.” Do you have any “work around” people in your business? You aren’t the only one who knows this! How does this impact your leadership with others? Sure, it’s easier to hire around people than to remove them but in doing so, you promote poor performance standards.

    3. If given the chance, would you hire this person again?

    Qualifier: It is natural to rethink decisions. Maybe you were pressured to make a quick hire. Recall another quote from Walt Disney; “Hire the best, not the best available.”1 It’s easier to hire people than fire them. Great people equal great results. Average people equal average results. Poor people equal poor results. You get the idea.

    4. If this person quit, would you be secretly relieved?

    Qualifier: If the problem employee left on his/her own, would you get out the hats and noisemakers? Would your job be easier and would the team breathe a sigh of relief?

    In his book 9 1/2 Things You Would Do Differently if Disney Ran Your Hospital, author Fred Lee reminds us that the front line is the bottom line, so investing in a people-centric culture is critical.2 I am going to add a fifth consideration:

    5. Don’t feel bad/Don’t lower organizational standards.

    I am not suggesting that you get joy out of firing someone, but keeping him/her in a role that he/she is just not suited for actually delays the individual’s opportunity to move on and find a better future. Keeping him/her in a role where he/she is doomed to fail is an injustice.

    Also, the true definition of leadership reminds us that leadership can be messy and even scary, but a leader is called to manage the workforce to success. In part, you can’t retain the one in risk of sacrificing the many. You must sacrifice the one to maintain the culture and “civilization.” I once heard a conference speaker,3 express. “It must be one for all, never all for one.” Drucker reinforces this, “Letting the wrong people hang around is unfair to all the right people, as they inevitably find themselves compensating for other’s ineffectiveness.”

    You can’t shy away from these hard calls. One client of a national snack food organization recently remarked that “releasing” people remains his biggest leadership challenge. I noted that a benchmark of his leadership in these circumstances is not having to remove people but more importantly his willingness to do so. I suggested that his concern about what others think about his leadership effectiveness will only worsen with indecision and hesitancy. Keeping poor performers is unfair to all the great performers who pick up the slack.

    I had the privilege to attend the “Oprah” show in her last season. During commercials Oprah chatted casually with the audience and said, “When you know better, you do better.” Doing what’s best for the business is not always easy for the leader. The financial bottom line is eventually impacted by those who require termination or reassignment. In short, it costs you sooner or later, so don’t delay the inevitable. I connect that advice to making more confident termination decisions. It’s profoundly simple, yet simply profound.

    Learning and development is Lisa Waite’s passion; successfully transforming participants and organizational culture is her gift. Culture documents like mission and vision are realized through proven strategies that support success, civility, accountability, and innovation to compete. Sample clients include Anheuser Busch, Goodyear, FedEx, GOJO, Heinz, Jo-Ann Stores, Professional Football Hall of Fame, Shearer’s Foods, Sterilite Corporation, The Timken Company, US Department of Housing & Urban Development, US Air Force, University Hospitals. Lisa holds an MA in Organizational Communication from the University of Akron, and Master Certifier status in Advanced Organizational Communication from Barry-Wehmiller University. She is the author of more than a dozen nationally recognized professional development experiences and keynote speaker to a variety of business and industry.

    1. Connelen, T. (1997). Inside the Magic Kingdom: Disney’s Seven Keys to Success. Peak Performance Press. New York, NY.

    2. Lee, F. (2004). If Disney Ran Your Hospital, 9 1/2 Things You Would Do Differently. Second River Healthcare Publishers. Bozeman, MO.

    3. Duncan, R. (2014). Organizational Communication and Leadership. Conference Presentation at the National Communication Association. Chicago, Il.

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