A recent poll was taken of business executives where they were asked to list the most significant challenge they faced in leading their organizations. Overwhelmingly, the No. 1 challenge that more CEOs listed above all other challenges was “waiting too long to make people decisions.” Almost every executive is familiar with the adage, “Hire slow and fire fast,” but in practice it seems that many of us reverse that advice.
There are hundreds of books written on how to find, interview, and hire the right people for your organization. But you can count on one hand the books that focus on the opposite end of the process — on how to terminate an employee fairly and compassionately. Letting people go is hard, emotion-laden work, but it is a critical part of any manager’s or executive’s role. In his book “Managing,” former ITT head Harold Geneen calls firing a test of leadership, both for the company and the executive.
So, why do we often wait too long to make the hard people decisions? There are a number of reasons:
Pride: Firing someone you hired (or at least approved) feels like an admission that you were wrong about hiring them in the first place. The solution is to go ahead and admit that you may have been wrong. Resolve to improve your hiring process, starting with their replacement. Hiring is a human art-form and is fraught with unknowns and leaps of faith, so use your own life as an example to others of continuous improvement and humanness.
Disconnect: Sometimes we are unaware of the true impact of the employee’s poor performance on others or the company. We may be so busy with our own responsibilities that we wait too long to act. Generally the employee’s peers are well aware of the employee’s poor performance and often confirm their assessment after the employee is gone: “Why did you wait so long? We knew six months ago he needed to be fired.”
Solution: Listen to your employees and seek out the opinions of the person’s peers and manager. Develop a culture where people are not afraid to speak to you and no one is punished for being honest. Regularly ask your management team, “Who are our top 10-percent performers, and how can we continue to incentivize them to stay with us for the long haul. And who are our bottom 10 percent performers, and why are we still keeping them around?”
Excessive optimism: Executives tend to have a positive outlook on human potential, causing us to be eternal optimists about employees’ potential to change, or their desire to improve. However, history bears out the reverse. Human change is a very slow process and people are often not as motivated as we might wish them to be. The solution to excessive optimism is the same as No. 2 above.
Legal concerns: Executives know better than most the mine fields associated with firing employees, and thus may delay action in order to legally cross every “T” and dot every “I” before acting. What is the solution to legal paralysis? No matter how careful you are, you can never completely reduce the risk of an ex-employee lawsuit. Because you are dealing with human beings, there never has been, and never will be, a perfect termination. So, follow a well-crafted remedial and termination process, document everything, and then act. Sooner or later, the occasional legal challenge will occur no matter how careful you try to be. Consider it an expected cost of doing business.
Rule by emotions: Terminations are full of emotions for everyone concerned, including the manager. You may feel resentment at having to perform the termination, or anger at the employee, other supervisors, or even at the company. Managers can be driven by compassion for the affected employee or feelings of failure for making the wrong decision in the first place.
The solution? Be aware of your emotions and don’t deny their presence. Self-awareness is half the battle. When you know you need to act, facing your fears will help you not be ruled by them.
Pain: Terminating another person should never be easy. It is painful — for you, for the employee, and sometimes even for those that remain employed. Remind yourself often that the short-term pain is for long-term gain, both for the affected employee as well as for the company. Terminating others should never become easy, but it can be effective in producing positive change — as long as we don’t wait too long.
Kent Wilson is a business practitioner and leadership specialist. After running companies for 30 years, he now serves as an executive coach with Vistage International and the Nonprofit Leadership Exchange in Colorado Springs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.