You're Fired!

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Think through your termination process; set mutual expectations with new employees about what you want from them - and what they want from you.

September 01, 2004

 

Contact Scott Sedam

via e-mail at scott@TRUEN.com

 

The show "The Apprentice" took the country by storm last TV season, and Donald Trump now has lent a certain panache to what were previously considered the most dreaded words in business - "You're fired!" - although I suspect Martha Stewart and Kenneth Lay might cast a vote for "You're served!" And now it's time for true confessions because I admit that despite my normal aversion to television programming, I came under the spell of the young Turks battling it out for the big job with the Donald. My wife, kids and I had detailed discussions about who was fired, who should have been, who shouldn't have been and why. When traveling, I often discussed it with my 16-year-old daughter on the phone, and I always read the morning-after reviews in USA Today by respected pundits such as Stephen Covey and Rosabeth Moss Kanter.

We rarely reached consensus on anyone except, of course, the dreaded Omarosa. Her sad attempts at attributing her unpopularity to racism convinced exactly three people in America that she suffered from anything other than DPS - defective personality syndrome. But as artificial as this reality show was, it served a very useful purpose. Not only in my own family but on airplanes, restaurants and among my clients, I saw it spark a dialogue about exactly what constitutes grounds for firing people.

Take Kwame, for example, one of the finalists on The Apprentice. Good-looking, smooth-talking, well-educated, obviously smart and very likeable. But in my book Kwame was history the night he led a 10-year-old to believe he was a pro basketball player and took the poor kid's $10 for signing his ball! That's deceit, plain and simple and unacceptable if he did it to an adult - but to a fourth-grader? After that, why was Donald surprised in the final show when Kwame failed to fire Omarosa for blatantly lying to him? If Kwame accepts dishonesty in himself, he is likely to accept it in others - and I don't want him in my shop. Do you?

So speaking of you, try this exercise. Write down the last 10 or 15 people fired in your firm. Then come up with a classification system and sort out the reasons. Lay it out as best you can exactly why people get fired and you have to be brutally honest. What are the specific reasons? Incompetence? Insubordination? Absence? Dishonesty? Skill deficit? Lousy Attitude? Just a bad fit? And don't be afraid to write down categories like "I don't know," "no good reason," "no training, "bad decision by supervisor," "scapegoat" or "bunch of political b.s." if that is the truth.

Now bring the management team together and go through those dispatched. Insist that they be honest in assessing whether or not this person could have contributed to the company. When viewed individually, each firing is pretty easy to write off. You will find, however, that when viewed as a group, there are often some unsettling patterns that emerge. Under the microscope, some of our good reasons fail to stand up to scrutiny.

I recall a vice president of construction who fired six or eight superintendents and project managers during a two-year period. Always the same reason - not a team player. Guess what? That was true, for a couple of them. But many began to see that some of those he canned were excellent. Their problem was that they had the guts to speak up about important issues that were hurting the operation. The vice president's definition of being a team player meant someone who agreed with him fully - even when he did really dumb things. The result was a tremendous amount of talent, knowledge and experience that was not just eliminated from the company, it was shipped to the competition! The costs were incalculable.

Last year at NAHB in Las Vegas, I joined an interesting gathering of friends and associates - all "alumni" of a builder each of us had worked for - in most cases years ago. Out of 35 individuals found via e-mail, 27 of them showed up. It was a great reunion, with plenty of back-slapping and telling of tales, some of which may have been true. The company we all left has done extremely well, yet every single person had found success in their careers outside.

At one point, my old boss, Jim, and I sat back and surveyed the participants of the gathering. Jim made an interesting observation. "You know, Scott, more than half of these guys were fired!" I knew the stories of about three-quarters of those there and could recall all of the presumed "good reasons" that many were let go. It's true that at times, the issue is just "bad fit." Jim Collins, in "Good to Great," put it simply by describing how you have to get the right people on the bus, then get them into the right seats. Sometimes, an otherwise capable person just can't find that seat, and it's your job to help them realize that. Tough duty.

In most cases, however, those fired were believed to be in some way not good enough. And I have seen this phenomenon over and over again, in countless companies, big and small. A guy fired from company A, who then excels in Company B. A successful guy from Company C who is hired away by Company D and dies a quick, ugly death. The guy didn't change in most cases - so what's the variable? You tell me. There is no doubt whatsoever that a number of the people at our gathering could have grown to have become tremendously successful at the old firm, if someone had just mentored them better or stood up for them when it counted. Their present employers are grateful.

The nature of work has changed dramatically during the past 10 to 15 years. The sense of loyalty has diminished considerably among employers and employees alike. Want to prove that to yourself? Go retrieve a copy of your employee handbook. For at least half of you, in the first paragraph you will find evidence that the lawyers have run amuck. It reads something like this, "We are an at-will employer." I know, I know, it's just a legal term stating that either employee or employer can terminate the relationship at any time without explanation or cause. But I have never read one written as a two-way document. Invariably they read as an onerous, threatening message of beware from their gracious new employer, admonishing the new associate not to screw up. What a way to kick off a relationship.

Can it be done another way? Not according to many attorneys, but that's simply not so. Continue the exercise you started with the management team. Challenge them to make a complete list of all truly legitimate reasons to fire someone. Next, make a similar list of all the good reasons an employee has for firing you. Now boil the list down to less than 10 clearly stated examples for both circumstances. Then get really radical. For the next few new hires, spend some "quality time" with each discussing why people get hired, why they get fired and why they leave their companies. Ask them for their thoughts and ideas. Come to an understanding of what the mutual expectations are for a productive, long-term relationship between company and associate. Just to make sure you understand, let me make it very clear. You are going to dispense with the "at will" language and give new hires a written list of six to eight good reasons to fire someone - and a similar list of good reasons they might have to fire you. You are going to discuss them and make sure they get it - and you get it. And you are going to agree that each of you have the responsibility to do what it takes to avoid those career-killers.

It may sound negative, but it will register in the employee's head as something quite positive. "Other than economic hardship, this firm will not let me go without a legitimate reason! Understanding those reasons, I can prevent them from happening." Do that and I predict that something amazing will happen.

We could all benefit by really thinking through our firing process. "You're fired!" are devastating words to hear, and we share the responsibility to never say them capriciously or without cause. This would no doubt be a very interesting exercise for the Trump organization, although his reasons for firing people might include criticizing his hair, professing admiration for Ivana or bringing up his money-losing hotel and casino operations once too often. I think I could help him, though. I'd first ask him to consider whether or not a guy who cheats kids is really CEO material. If you have any connections, please refer Donald to my Web site.

Scott Sedam talks to CEOs and presidents of GIANT homebuilders on his HZradio show, Corner Office. This month, he talks with History Maker Homes CEO Bryan Mitchell and president Nelson Mitchell. www.HousingZone.com/hzradio

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