alternatives to firing

I believe in transitioning out employees who aren’t working out, but it doesn’t always have to be by firing.

A few years ago, I had an employee whose work was pretty good (although not stellar) but who frequently got frustrated and resentful over several demands of the job, snapped at people, and constantly needed to be talked down from freak-outs.

We had conversation after conversation about his attitude, and nothing changed, so I finally decided to try a different approach — one that I now think was far more realistic at its core. I told him that I knew he was frustrated by these particular things but that they simply weren’t going to change, that they were inherent parts of the job, and that I didn’t want us to be constantly battling over them … and that rather than trying to force himself into a job that obviously was making him frustrated and stressed, I wanted to see him figure out if he could really be happy in the position, knowing that the things he was complaining about weren’t going to change. I asked him to take a couple of days and think about whether he wanted the job in its current form (as opposed to the job he kept trying to change it into), and that if he decided it just wasn’t for him, there was no shame in that and we’d do everything we could to help him in the transition out.

A couple of days later, he told me that he had thought about it and realized he should move on. We had a really smooth transition over the next month, he trained his replacement, I helped him brainstorm about jobs he’d be happy in, and on his last day he told me that he was shocked that such a potentially awful conversation had actually been pleasant. Since he’s been gone, he’s stayed in touch, periodically sending me helpful leads and information.

He lives on in my mind as an example of how exasperating situations can work out with all parties happy. The key was taking away any hint of adversariness and genuinely talking honestly with each other.

Marcus Buckingham talks a bit about this in his book First Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently. He points out that bad hires often aren’t bad employees because they’re stupid, obstinate, or insubordinate but rather because they are “miscast.” Making this mental switch can change the entire way you deal with struggling performers, making the entire process much more pleasant for all involved.

{ 4 comments… read them below }

  1. Wally Bock

    Nice post about something we think about too seldom: whether poor performance or behavior is linked to poor fit. Very often managers write this off as a “bad attitude.”

    The problem is that “attitude” is something like “pornography” in Potter Stewart’s classic comment, we know it when we see it, but we can’t define it in advance. I suggest that folks in my programs ask the question: “What does he or she do that makes me think they have a bad attitude?”

    That question helps you get to the behavior or performance that you need to deal with. It helps you identify poor job fit as well. Sometimes you can fix that with a transfer. Sometimes you can’t. But regardless, what you describe is the best way to go.

  2. HR Wench

    Three cheers for this post!

    I have had a lot of “maybe this job/company/industry isn’t for you” talks with employees over the years. I find that once I break the ice on the topic employees either
    1. appear visibly relieved (someone has given them permission to quit!)
    or
    2. cry (thank goodness I can quit! I’m so happy I’m crying!).

    This is why I have Kleenex in my office at all times.

    Adding on to Wally’s comment – I don’t use the word “attitude” as I find it puts people on the defensive (“how do you know what my attitude is about anything? do you live inside my head?”). I phrase things in terms of “behavior” and “actions”. I stay away from “yes you do / no I don’t” conversations this way.

  3. Working Girl

    What an amazing post! How heartening, how wonderful it is to see such compassion and wisdom on the “other side.” (Other side from Working Girl, that is.)

    Just goes to show that honesty is truly the best policy.

    Hey, Mom was right!

  4. snuck

    I’ve had a similar experience with an employee. In a single year he’d taken 45 sick days (20 related to a broken hand and were ‘acceptable’, the others were what is euphemisally called ‘mental health days’) and was heading very quickly down the formal exit path. (This was a large corporate, in a call centre environment – with about 150 staff in this particular call centre. Policies and protocols were clear company wide – company in excess of 20,000 staff.)

    I sat him down, discussed his attendence record, explained that this wasn’t acceptable, and asked him why he needed so much time off – he was fit, healthy and young, without kids etc – why out of all of our team was he needing a day off practically every week? What could we do to help? And he explained he just couldn’t stand it, it was too much etc, he needed a day off every so often to clear his head. He was interested in becoming a supervisor, and I explained that this wasn’t going to happen with an attendence record like that. We talked some more about what he thought he was capable of, and we eventually came to an agreement that he’d try an 90% FTE workload (thus not putting sudden work on his team mates – because this was an outbound case load centre, not an inbound call centre) and that he would get one rostered day off a fortnight, for a 10% drop in pay. He was really offended at first at the idea of the pay cut, but when I pointed out that not only would we not be paying his sick leave in future, we would be examining whether to keep him on – and gave him a few days with the employee information website to work out what he wanted – this was the deal he struck with us.

    He stopped calling in sick. We stopped having to cover his workload on random days. He started being relaxed and happier at work, and actually engaging and showing other/new staff things and graduated from my “gumby/problem team” (yes, I was there as a seconded tech specialist to empart engineering knowledge, and they put me in charge of the team full of all sorts of ‘problems’ that they’d helpfully gathered together) into the mainstream workforce. A year later he went back to 100%FTE and acted as a technical support to a team.

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