The Need for Compassionate and Courageous Firing

There was a disturbing story in the newspaper today:

The trial dragged on for two years — marked by 46 days of hearings, 18 witnesses on the stand, and a hefty 89-page ruling by the judge. Mob crime of the century? Complex terror case?  Nope. Just trying to get rid of a bad public-school teacher.

The article went on to detail the almost unimaginable lengths that one had to go to terminate a demonstrably incompetent teacher in New York City. Not surprisingly, few administrators even try.

Do we always have the courage (and well-placed compassion) to fire an employee in the best interests of the company?

Fortunately, most of our workplaces aren’t nearly this extreme in protecting poorly performing employees.  Yet and still, I wonder if in trying to guard against lawsuits by forcing managers to “dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ ” before signing off on a termination,  HR professionals are often guilty of damaging the organization and its employees in unintended but real ways.

A Personal Experience

When I’m asked why I got into Human Resources, I relate back to observing my father’s work experiences as a manager in a county agency.  Dad was a good manager and organizer, and he would often be asked to go in and “straighten out” previously poorly performing units — which he usually was able to do in fairly short order.  The only problem was, his charge didn’t extend to being able to terminate chronically under-performing employees.

Over the course of years, I saw what a demoralizing effect this had on him and, I’m sure, the other hard-working employees forced to (at best) take up the slack for the under-performing employee or (at worst) suffer through the employee’s nasty behavior in silence.  And, all of this is to say nothing, of course, about the damage done to clients through the employee’s negligence or disregard.

I vowed then to do my part to “right this wrong,” as it were.  If I couldn’t help my dad’s situation (he is now long-retired), then at least I could protect other employees and organizations (and their customers) from having to suffer needlessly through so many months and years of their worklife — all because someone lacked the courage to do the right thing and make sure these type of employees were fired, eliminating their ability to harm anyone else in this way.

A Modest Proposal (and Encouragement)

A very wise person, knowing my penchant for trying to express things diplomatically, once told me, “Sometimes we just have to use simple, plain words — because these are what fit the situation.  “Lie.” “Steal.” “Cheat.”  They’re harsh words — but they get at the truth.”  So true.  In this way, I think the appropriate “plain words” are these: “Courage” and “Compassion.”

Courage — what we need when the situation calls for letting the employee go at this point in the process, rather than waiting for the fourth or fifth or tenth incident of bad behavior

Compassion — what we have to feel for those subjected to the negative effects of such employees, compelling us to action.

Courage and Compassion

I’m not suggesting, of course, that we do things rashly or improperly.  I am suggesting, though, that we all have chronic under-performers and “bad behavers” in our organizations who go unaddressed for any number of reasons.  Out of compassion for their fellow employees (and our customers), consider this encouragement to take a stand and truly do the right thing for the organization.  Instead of finding reasons for a little more documentation or another round of consideration, show consideration for the whole group and support the manager in what they need to do in terminating the employee.

No one might ever say “thanks” (though I suspect they will).  Either way, you’ll know you did the right thing … you’ll have had the courage to have made a difference in the employees’ lives … perhaps for years or even decades.

Courage.  Keep heart.  And let’s move forward.


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