Couple of weeks back, these columns carried my piece that was titled “Hiring is difficult”. Much of the feedback was in agreement with the thought; however, one reader brought to attention about ‘firing’ a colleague……. So the piece is titled “Firing is more difficult”. I shall elaborate.
Firing a colleague is the most difficult challenge for any supervisor. This act makes heavy demands on the managerial skills. A little slip can be costly. I must admit that there is a class of managers, who can do it, with pleasure and smile. But is it a ‘humanised’ approach to deal with sensitive ‘human resources ’ issue, like firing? My response; no! An emphatic no! This requires sensitive handling.
At the time of hiring, “corporate romance” is usually in the air. The employers make volcanic expressions that we hire people till death do us apart; and the employee (prospective) makes over-the board commitments of loyalty. It is only during the currency of the job, that the distance between the two extremes begins to narrow. Most employees fall for ‘lifetime employment, like the ‘Japanese way’. It is another matter that while doing allegiance to the concept, the employee may just make that life a “trifle short!” Lifetime employment is misread to mean that it is available regardless of performance. No. it never happens this way. A Middle Eastern employer told a friend of mine in a proper board meeting and that too, in Urdu, “A buffalo that doesn’t give milk, we send it to the slaughter house”. He had like a gentleman, promptly resigned. And left, too!
Firing or lay-offs are sometimes done to keep the organisation afloat. Lee Iacocca called a meeting of the entire senior management of “Chrysler”, which was to be shut down the next day and said, “Gentlemen, we have a choice. We can let Chrysler shutdown; or we can all agree to cut our salary and perks by fifty percent, across the organisation and come back tomorrow, to work at "our" company.”
They all took the cut and Chrysler rebounded, and is still in business. Not many business leaders have Iacocca’s imagination.
Across the Atlantic in particular, firing is done with ease under the respectable guise of “right-sizing” or “downsizing” – this is done, at times with some terminal pay out or mostly it is, “that’s the way to the door”. No empathy. And even more alarming, no regrets, either.
Firing or losing a job for reasons of less than expected performance, can be justified, especially when more than one warning has been conveyed to the non-performing colleague. If performance doesn’t take an up-tick even after the grace time, the firing manager may not have tons of burdens on his/her chest. Firing an employee for non-professional reasons is abhorrent; like, the boss doesn’t like the face; doesn’t like the bold colour ties he wears, or hates the chequered jackets that he wears or may be can have strong views on purple shirts! Such actions are reprehensible.
As a supervisor, I had no qualms or regrets in taking quick and swift decisions to fire when it related to the unpardonable acts of either lack of integrity or harassment of any sorts. Always showed zero tolerance to issues relating to any form or format of indiscretion shown towards gender-based aspects.
Once fired for, other than unpardonable reasons, the employee must be treated with dignity. There is never a need to display displeasure across the organisation – don’t ever make it appear, ‘good riddance of bad rubbish’. Such misplaced jubilations harm the organisational culture.
For reasons of ‘insubordination’, I would never recommend firing, because these can emanate, as per a given situation; tempers fly and die down, with equal speed. However, after a deeper examination of such incidents, if the result is discovery of an unalterable attitude, then the decision should be swift. Culture, can’t be compromised.
Firing is justified if there is deliberate violation of policies and regulatory framework. Any explanation to do so cannot stand on its feet for adopting a lenient view. As an example, firing of Nick Leeson of Barring Securities must have been the easiest decision because he surely had brazenly crossed all possible limits of values, code of conduct and of course regulations.
What about morality breaches? The resolution of moral lapses is always very challenging. Each manager reacts to it according to his/her own personal orientation and belief system. If the lapses are self-inflicting wounds and put to danger and damage, only the concerned person; the supervisor may adopt the route to coach and counsel, instead of the severest action of “let go”. If the moral lapses continue, then the ultimate action is desirable.
Loyalty? What about that? While firing, should it matter or not? Should it be thrown out of the window? While as CEO or manager, you may have lectured day in and day out of why staff must demonstrate unflinching loyalty to the institution. So, when it comes to measuring loyalty versus firing, what should be done?” A paradox! A dilemma!
As a CEO, I always handled cases of “un-intended negligence with unlimited patience” – always believed in giving a second chance, that continues to be my first principle of management. I also put into consideration, the age factor of the colleagues, when deciding course of action. A severe punishment to a young colleague of dismissal can put him on to a path of future criminal behaviour; by the same token, if the person is in the age group of 40-45 years, I have always taken a lenient view, because harsh punishment will render him jobless in the market. And at this age bracket, all colleagues have only growing responsibilities, obligations, duty of care towards the family, etc. The leniency was never for those committing frauds or even financial indiscretion.
While taking the severe steps of ‘firing’, the decision makers own training, value system, inherited norms of behaviour and all such subjective factors come into play. Those who constitute disciplinary action committees (DACs) must meet basic criteria of a sound sense of justice and fair play. My personal experience with some DACs has not been good – since no decision they wish to take, the ultimate decision of “death sentence” is pronounced; so that it would then be the CEO to either ratify or rescind the order. A case of classic upward delegation!
During the course of my entire career, I was called upon to “fire” colleague(s) only twice. In the first such referral I refused to comply. The logic given to me was repugnant, unbelievable and petty. It directly conflicted with internalised belief system; to do such an act there has to be credible and irrefutable evidence of either integrity or morality lapse or there has to be enough evidence / data to prove that the individual is harming the institution.
No evidence met the test. So why fire? For refusal, a price was extracted from me! The second time, I complied, willy-nilly, because even the grace period was liberally extended, but no visible improvement came around in their performance. Still it left a heavy burden on the conscience!
In asking anybody to leave, don’t dig at the esteem and dignity of the colleague. How do you say it? "You are fired" or, “Hey! Good to have worked with you, here is your settlement cheque”; or do you make it less painful for him and for yourself. In breaking bad news, the supervisor cannot sound very sympathetic; however, empathy shouldn’t be set aside either. Sometimes in sympathy, the manager while conveying the news, makes it sound, it is not “his” decision but of the CEO, where in any case, all buck stops! It is best to get straight to the point, no beating around the bush; no need to discuss the thrilling cricket match the day before or the lovely ending of a movie, seen recently – just cut to the bone and say it. I admit, I found it very tough to cut through to the bone! Firing is certainly more difficult than hiring.
Should dismissals be announced internally? Yes. With keen sense towards, sentiments, dismissals should be internally announced, to serve as a lesson to those who are weak in resolve and have not been tested on the scale of integrity and morality. Dismissals send a strong and clear message of the organisational resolve not to compromise on values and principles.
The writer is a freelance columnist