no, it’s not ever “impossible” to fire people

Periodically I hear someone complain about a coworker or an employee and say “but it’s impossible to fire anyone here, so we’re stuck.”

It’s not true.

No sane organization truly forbids firing people. At worst, it usually means “we have lots of hoops to jump through in order to fire someone, but it can be done.”

Even in the federal government and even in unionized workplaces — both of which people are fond of saying make it impossible to fire people — you can fire people. There’s paperwork and documentation and it takes a while, but it can be done if the manager is willing to put in the time.

And as a manager, you must be willing to put in the time. Otherwise you’re neglecting one of the most fundamental responsibilities you have, which is to address it when someone isn’t working out.

In fact, one of the worst things a manager can do is to assume they can’t fire people or decide that they don’t want to bothered with whatever bureaucracy it would take to do it. That’s the same as throwing up your hands and saying “I have no control over who’s on my team” — and controlling the makeup of your team is one of the most important tools a manager has at her disposal. It’s crucial; you cannot fully manage without that authority.

So what does “we can’t fire people here” really mean? Usually it means that you have to document the issues, sometimes extensively, and warn the person and give them a chance to improve, and document that you did that. It usually means putting the person on a formal performance improvement plan, with specific metrics that they need to meet within a certain amount of time to keep their job. Some organizations may require that that amount time is many months past what is reasonable, but it’s not infinite. It might also mean showing higher-ups who are reluctant to fire that in this case the person is truly a bad fit for the role.

Basically, it’s the stuff that a good manager should be doing when someone is struggling anyway; it’s just often stretched out longer than it should be.

So when managers say “I can’t fire anyone,” it means “I’m not willing to put in the multiple months it would take to do it.” And since that’s almost always the wrong decision, they’re also saying “I’m not willing to do this hard piece of my job.”

* All of this assumes that you’re in the U.S., as I can’t speak to practices in other countries.

{ 185 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Synonym for Sunrise

    *slow clap*

    I’m a Business Analyst in my day job (I moonlight as BatGirl, shhh don’t tell anyone) and if I ever start my own consulting company I am going to make this a lynchpin of my entire philosophy as an analyst. Underperformers/complainers/sad sacks/Luddites/annoyers/the chronically angry/the chronically lazy/whiners/harassers are like barnacles on a ship’s hull- it doesn’t matter how finely tuned the engine is or how neatly trimmed the sails are, barnacles cause drag that cannot be overcome in any way other than scraping them off. If a company wants to get ahead, they’ve got to trim the sails (make their employees very, very happy) and scrape the barnacles (scrape off the hangers-on).

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    1. Pluviophile

      Word.

      It’s too bad when upper management doesn’t agree. I’m a supervisor who’s got to be more of a manager as my manager not only dislikes taking care of personnel issues, but is in another state across the country. I’m on my own trying to scrape off a barnacle that I supervise, despite providing highly detailed written tracking of problems. In addition, the owners of the company generally refuse to fire people (because they don’t want their unemployment tax rate to increase) unless they’ve either sexually harassed people (for a good long time), broken laws or got caught stealing.

      At the very least, this type of practice makes excellent employees quit.

      Reply
  2. Vin Packer

    Omg, THIS.

    In many places, this falsehood has poisoned public opinion of teachers in particular: the myth that tenure is (or was, in certain states) some magical suit of armor. Some administrators even perpetuate it as a means to redirect parental frustration away from their own mismanagement of schools’ resources.

    But, really, it’s just paperwork, it’s not immediate, and HR has to cooperate. In other words: it’s work.

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    1. Artemesia

      And yet in New York there are teachers being paid for decades to sit in a room doing nothing because although they molested kids in the classroom or did a variety of heinous things the cumbersome arbitration system refuses to uphold principals’ attempts to fire them. A fair number of abusive violent cops have been returned to service by similar arbitration systems tipped to keep bad apples rotting away.

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      1. IT Kat

        Yup, there are.

        Because people aren’t willing to do their jobs, just like AAM’s article outlined.

        There’s nothing but WORK preventing those people from being let go, and people either don’t want to go through the “hassle”, or they didn’t cross all their Ts and dot their Is and don’t want to start over.

        So again… this is just proving AAM’s point.

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        1. Chinook

          “Because people aren’t willing to do their jobs, just like AAM’s article outlined.

          There’s nothing but WORK preventing those people from being let go, and people either don’t want to go through the “hassle”, or they didn’t cross all their Ts and dot their Is and don’t want to start over.”

          This! DH jokes that, due to the cop organization he works for and the royal type warrant his badge represents, he is near impossible to fire. But, every year, there are bad apples that are (quietly) let go because someone did the leg work to make sure they were fired. It may take more work than average to fire him, but that is so that his job is not subject to the whims of politicians he may find in incriminating circumstances and have to arrest.

          Unfortunately, it is often just easier to wait out their contract or quietly shuffle someone off to a place where they can do little to no damage.

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        2. Callie

          Seriously. For many years I was on peer evaluation teams. This meant you had to go into other teachers’ classrooms, observe them teach, write it all up, and sit down with them and talk about it. The principal also had to do this. I don’t know how many teams I was on where the principal either faked theirs or “observed” for like 5 minutes. Then they complained that they didn’t have the documentation to fire someone. It requires getting out of your office and sitting in someone’s classroom for an hour at a time, several times a year. If you can’t do that, then you don’t deserve to be able to fire them.

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      2. Anna

        A lot of those teachers are also just sitting there for not toeing an invisible line. It’s not just the creeps that end up in that purgatory.

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        1. Callie

          Yep. Some teachers won’t do some illegal/unethical thing their principals want, so they get shuffled off for being “difficult”.

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      3. Natalie

        My understanding is that the rubber rooms were used for teachers who were in the process of being fired, in an effort to get them out of an active classroom while the cumbersome hearings process dragged on. Not that this is a huge improvement (the disciplinary process shouldn’t be that slow, for everyone’s sake) but it’s a far cry from “not fired for decades”.

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        1. animaniactoo

          The rubber room’s main purpose is to remove a teacher who MAY be an active danger to kids from the classroom while an investigation happens. While still keeping a teacher who may be innocent on the payroll so that they do not suffer unduly simply for having been accused. The accusation gets you bounced to the rubber room, not the definitive proof of any fireable offense.

          You can also end up here if you’re accused of violating something and your principle just doesn’t like you (my mom’s case).

          Some cases take longer than others to investigate, but there was an egregious length of time for a long time where things were being allowed to drag out ridiculously long times, and there’s been a push over the last decade to speed it up. IIRC my mom’s case took between 3-6 months and then she was cleared to resume active classwork. But she definitely met people there who had been there for 2 years or more. One of those was a “we don’t have enough proof to fire, but we don’t have enough proof to exonerate either and we’re not taking chances”.

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      4. Ineloquent

        Anyone following the LA school district case where a former beloved teacher is accusing the district of basically doing this to force out older teachers? It’s very interesting.

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        1. I'm a Little Teapot

          Not me, but someone I know works at a school (not in Los Angeles) where the principal, a cost-cutting petty tyrant, is firing the older teachers (and anyone she doesn’t like). The idea that teachers can’t ever be fired is bewildering to me.

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          1. Gilly

            My mother is a teacher and she was fired at one time. I think officially they chose not to renew her contract, but she knew and they knew it was a firing even if it wasn’t called that (long story, but she made some unwise personal choices and was a subject of much gossip in our small town).

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      5. Oryx

        But that doesn’t actually mean it’s “impossible” to fire the teachers in the rubber room or the violent cops. It just means that someone a) isn’t willing to do the work to fire them or b) they are worried about potential backlash if they do fire them. That’s not the same thing as there being no way to fire them, which is what calling it impossible would imply.

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        1. Vin Packer

          Right. We can definitely debate how much work is too much work to be able to fire someone, and that sort of thing. But if your starting point is that it’s currently “impossible” to fire someone….that’s not at all true, and therefore not a reasonable place to begin such a discussion.

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      6. get some perspective

        From a management perspective, those teachers (who I do not think are commonly paid “for decades”) are out of the workflow and not dragging down performance (in this case, teaching) in the classroom.

        So getting a teacher out the (class)room door is akin to the manager taking action to get the bad employee away.

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      7. LadyCop

        It’s very out of date to suggest cops are unfireable. Twenty or thirty years out of date. They often make great scape goats for higher ups or public administrators. Also, you can’t legally work as a police officer if you’ve been convicted of many things (including assault) so saying we get away with abusive or violent behavior is laughable.

        Lying is the surest way to get fired as once it’s documented, you can’t be trusted to testify ever again because any decent lawyer would tear you apart. In my state last year, there is a great example of a trooper who was fired because he left his hat on the top of his car and drove away. Rather than tell the truth (the wrong-doing being that he wasn’t wearing it) he simply said it was lost and he didn’t know where. This bit him in the butt when a nice elderly woman found it on the highway and turned it in.

        The exception to this…is -some- cops will have significant personal issues that some may consider conflicts with the job (such as DUIs) and not be fired. Of course, there are all kinds of other places you can work in this country have those kinds of legal and personal issues and not lose your job, but obviously it can become complicated. For the most part, these people do tend to lose their jobs after they’ve been given more than a fair chance to right the ship…but it’s also a tough job emotionally, and it can be near impossible to overcome certain issues while also being a good cop.

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        1. Aceso Under Glass

          > Also, you can’t legally work as a police officer if you’ve been convicted of many things (including assault) so saying we get away with abusive or violent behavior is laughable

          Which doesn’t help if cops aren’t arrested or convicted for their crimes.

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    1. AcademiaNut

      I would point out that in the second case, he wasn’t fired. The official sanction was to have him waive his tenure protection so that if he was found guilty of sexually harassing any more undergraduates, *then* they could fire him without going through the full, lengthy, process. It was the international firestorm that came out of that decision, and the fact that his behaviour was so very well known among his colleagues, that made staying so unpleasant that he resigned. By that point, he was being publicly disinvited from major conferences in his field.

      The only reason they could do even that is because a couple of the former undergraduates were willing to step forward and start a sexual harassment investigation. I’m not sure if the university higher ups actually wanted to fire him or not, because of the prestige, observing time, and grant money he brought it, although they probably did actually want him to stop harassing undergrads.

      Often, the problem in a hierarchy like this is that the people who want to fire the problem employee, and the people who have the power to do so, are not the same.

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    2. HRChick

      The only thing keeping this from being more prevalent is academic administration’s unwillingness to move forward with the process. I’ve seen some really ugly, awful, irresponsible and illegal actions swept under the rug because they were done by tenured professors. Funnily enough, the administration often sites not wanting to hurt the professor’s reputation by going forward with a review.

      For me, I think tenure has had its day. The face of academics has changed dramatically from its origins, but the treatment of faculty as elite is slow to change.

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  3. Brett

    The real problem with “impossible to fire” people in government is not an unwillingness to do the work to fire them, but the ease with which a termination can be actively blocked somewhere up the chain of command. In other words, too many people do not trust managers with the authority to fully manage.

    For example, in our department a termination is approved by our director, his boss, the department head, and then an independent three person review board. And there are two sets of elected officials and two sets of appointed officials (12 people in all) who can anonymously block the termination. If it gets past all those, the employee can appeal to the merit board too. In theory, each would level would fairly judge the circumstances of the case and approve or disprove. In practice, if the employee (or their family) has tight enough connections to any of the 18 people who sign off, they can get the termination blocked.

    Regardless of the merits of the termination request, external politics can get in the way of the manager. At one point (and there are hints we are going back to this) our merit board simply refused all termination requests unless they were accompanied by a criminal indictment. That set of appointees believed that a manager should always be able to fix a problem employee, and any termination was a failure on the manager’s part, not the employee’s. All of this, though, is why few people last more than 4 years in a management role around here.

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    1. Rusty Shackelford

      Yep, this. No matter how willing the manager is to do the dirty work, if the manager’s manager (or that person’s manager) won’t sign off on it, it’s a moot point. And a lot of the time, that’s what people mean when they say it’s “impossible” to fire someone. They don’t mean “I won’t go to the trouble,” they mean “even if I go to the trouble, it will be stopped by someone above me.”

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      1. NJ Anon

        So much this. A manager tries to do all the right things, documentation, meetings, etc. only to be undermined by the boss. You can only do so much. Unfortunately, a lot of “ifs” in Alison’s response.

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        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          No, no if’s! (Literally, there were no if’s my response.) If your company refuses to manage, that’s about them being horrible managers — it’s not about it actually being impossible to fire.

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          1. Jillociraptor

            I’m not sure that’s a meaningful distinction. If it’s out of your control as a manager whether you can fire someone, and the people who do hold that authority refuse to do it, for all intents and purposes isn’t it impossible to fire someone?

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            1. Ask a Manager Post author

              I can see that point of view — I just think that then the issue is “I work somewhere with terrible management” (which will cover so much more than just firing or not firing), not “it’s impossible to fire people.”

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              1. Jillociraptor

                Fair. I completely agree with the spirit of this post (in fact, I’m working right now on a project to document and legally vet our progressive discipline process so we can disabuse managers of the notion that just because it’s an involved process to fire, it’s not impossible!), but also work in a place where the stated process is often actively railroaded by HR and others with the power to do so, so I’m sympathetic to the statement.

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          2. Anonymous Educator

            It’s not impossible for the organization to fire the employee, but it’s impossible for the employee to be fired because no one in the organization who has the power to fire that employee will do so.

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        2. John

          Managers also need to present a more powerful case about how it is hurting their broader team.

          A mediocre employee who is tolerated sends a negative message that informs the decisions made by the rest of the team. Your top talent won’t want to be part of a team like that, and certainly won’t understand why they’re receiving measly X percent raises (if any) while the company continues to pay someone who is underperforming and, perhaps, undermining.

          A good manager doesn’t give up. They build a strong case and bring their leader into the problem early and continue to present evidence to support their case.

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          1. Ask a Manager Post author

            Yes, very much so. I’ve talked with managers who have insisted they don’t have the option to fire person X. But then it turns out that they haven’t really shown the manager who needs to sign off on the decision a compelling case for doing it. Once they do, they’re suddenly able to move forward with it.

            I’m not saying this is the case every single time. But it’s really, really common.

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      2. Stranger than fiction

        I think the point is, the first manager shouldn’t jus throw their hands up and not try. That just enables those higher ups that might block it, or at least perpetuates the problem.

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    2. Brett

      That first sentence does not sound right….
      I was trying to explain that in government it is often not even that difficult to properly document your case to termination an employee, but that simply politics and connections can get in the way very easily.
      This can happen in the private sector too (everyone has run into someone that is related to or friends with the owner), but local government has the nastiness of unappealable and often anonymous vetoes at the various levels.

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      1. misspiggy

        I always learn so much from AAM – this discussion on anonymous vetoing is fascinating, in a horrific way. It’s hard to think of something more antidemocratic.

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    3. S.I. Newhouse

      My workplace also has a system like this. So while I agree with Alison’s post that it’s technically never *impossible* to fire someone, in some organizations a firing is as *likely* to happen as, say, Lyndon LaRouche being elected president of the US in 2016.

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    4. AnonyMiss

      I came here exactly to say this. I used to work in government employment law where a big part of my job was to navigate the system of firing people. With some department heads, if you had a solid case, the person’s termination was upheld, and even if they went through the appeals process, which indubitably favors the terminated employee, we likely kept that person out. With some department heads, you could fire anyone, but then half of them were given their jobs back on appeal. With some department heads, you could be doing some pretty egregious things, and still get away without being fired (e.g. a sworn officer getting arrested for a DUI causing property damage upwards of $10,000, and keeping his LE job, when the same DUI would disqualify him from being hired in the first place).

      Our procedure was that the assistant department head had to sign off on the initial termination notice, then the department head would conduct a fairness hearing, where the employer can tell their own side, whether on their own or through a representative (union or attorney). Then the department head would decide if the termination stands or if it’s reduced to something lower (actual suspension, demotion, pay reduction in lieu of suspension, etc.). Then the employee could appeal it (with very narrow exemptions for the few at-wills we had), and depending on their union/bargaining unit, either have a 3-member panel hear their case, where the department, the employee, and the county each select one member, or have a full-blown administrative arbitration with an administrative law judge presiding.

      What the county ended up boiling this down to was the crux of our 6-12 month probationary periods, when everyone is at-will. Our general, unwritten rule was “when in doubt, terminate from probation.” If we had the slightest doubt that the employee may be a bad fit or a troublemaker down the line, we fired them well before their probation was up, and usually nearly out of thin air, on their first performance review at 3 months.

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  4. federal anonployee

    +1

    It is absolutely possible to fire, it’s just not possibly to *arbitrarily fire*. At a university I worked at, you could be blamed for something and railroaded out in a month bc you need a scapegoat. I’m *glad* I’m now in a place with worker protections.

    Does it sometimes make a problem? Sure, but its one of conflict avoidance. We had a problem eployee whose supervisor was documenting and doing all the steps… but the boss didn’t want to deal. So we were forced to just wait until problem employee found a new job. That’s on the boss to boss properly.

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  5. Elle

    Thank you for this article. My partner is a newer manager in higher ed and it’s taking him the better part of a year documenting issues and discussing with HR and his bosses but he has finally got the green light to fire one of his reports… Where firing means a few months severance and not fighting his unemployment claim, but it’s still worth it for the morale of his team.

    I’ve listened to a lot of frustration about a broken system and tried to be really supportive and encouraging but quite frankly I’ve always worked in private industry with companies that didn’t hesitate to fire people so I don’t quite understand. If anything I am used to the opposite end of the spectrum, where companies would get rid of people a bit too readily.

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  6. pope suburban

    Oh, if only I could get my boss to read this and take it to heart. He won’t fire anyone, nor will he let either of the two department supervisors do it. Of course, they’re not a whole lot better. One of them, when we had a new employee who was gone more often than present, and unqualified for the post to boot, asked me to make a phone call to try to catch this guy in a lie (He did tell a lot of tall tales, and didn’t respond to reasonable requests like “Ask your doctor to fax us a note”) so that we could fire him. This, from a grown man old enough to be my father. This, to me, the lowest rung on the ladder. I couldn’t believe it, and pointed out that the employee was absent more than present, and that regardless of what may or may not be going on in his personal life, he was not willing or able to do the job, both in terms of attendance or qualification. I may have used the phrase, “cut the shit” in so doing. Another month of hemming and hawing followed, employee absent save for three or four days, and finally the office manager was allowed to draft a letter stating that he was terminated.

    We still employ someone who has stolen hundreds of dollars from the company (I proved it), cheated on his professional certification exam (He told me this himself, I told his manager, nothing happened), routinely botches simple jobs after two years in the position, nearly burned down a client’s house being careless, showed me a picture of a penis (Probably his own, ugh), routinely lies on his time sheets (Also proven, and corrected where possible by me/his manager, though I know we aren’t catching everything), is frequently absent without giving notice, threatens other employees with physical violence, and makes sexually inappropriate comments about clients. I don’t know why. He needs to be gone. He just now got a two-week unpaid suspension to get his stuff in order, but I have no hope that he’ll be any better once he comes back. He’ll just continue playing them and they’ll continue buying it.

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    1. Myrin

      Oh lordy, that last paragraph is about one person? I totally read it as first as you having an employe who is A, another who is B, a thrid who is C and so on. I don’t know which one I think is worse.

      (Also, you sound like you’re the office hero, tbh.)

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      1. pope suburban

        Yep, all one guy. He’s not even particularly well-connected. He got the job because his manager had been his friend in high school, but even his manager is so far over his behaviors and the extra work he makes for all of us. It’s not like we’d lose a big client or cause a rift with his manager (Who is himself not a great employee; their entire department needs to go, frankly) if we canned him. We just…don’t do that, for whatever reason. The whole company is really dysfunctional and there is a top-down problem with disrespect and chauvinism, and that’s probably part of it. We let all that go, but one time my busted keyboard missed a letter in an email on a busy day, and my boss responded to that with criticism within thirty seconds. I’ve been trying to get out, but have had no luck.

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        1. LCL

          Things probably will get better because once someone with conduct issues is getting long term unpaid time off, they almost never improve. They will come back for a few days, then get mad about being told what to do, and walk out.

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          1. pope suburban

            I fervently hope so. My concern is that this is going to go the way of every other time I’ve pointed out a bad infraction: they’ll maybe have a talk about him, he’ll be on good manners for a few days, then he’ll find a new way to screw up, and the cycle will repeat. Granted, they’ve never suspended anyone before, so maybe the shop supervisor and I (and the clients who have called in to complain or to express concerns) have finally worn the boss down? I try not to be cynical, but after two years here, boy howdy, is that hard.

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        2. Stranger than fiction

          Wow. And I can’t even imagine the morale there with the message this sends. It’s like why even try at your job if coworkers get away with this crap.

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          1. pope suburban

            Well, about that…there’s certainly a race to the bottom in the service department and the shop (I work in specialty construction), but the inside staff? We’re watched like hawks and criticized for anything, even if it’s not an error, or something clearly beyond our control. My best example of this is the time my boss scolded me because clients were leaving a side door open– a side door that is literally the whole building away from me so that I cannot see it, and that does not have any kind of security cameras feeding to a monitor on my desk. He lectured me like a naughty child for not having x-ray vision. And did not see anything wrong with this.

            Relating to my comment about about chauvinism and disrespect, the shop and service staff are exclusively male. The inside staff, exclusively female. What might that suggest to the not-so-discerning observer? But it’s all this gray-area, shitty-but-not-criminal stuff so I can’t really make a case. We all know what it is, but can’t do anything about it. Morale inside is in the toilet, and has been for two years. I don’t know about the shop and service people, but they seem pretty happy and they get away with murder, so…

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            1. neverjaunty

              I was just about to ask if there was a gender split in the jobs.

              Strongly urge you to talk to an attorney.

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            2. Observer

              Start documenting your head off, then go to the Department of Labor. Systemic discrimination of this sort is something they are very interested in.

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            3. F.

              Pope Suburban, I also work in a construction-related field, and there is clearly a difference in the way office staff are treated versus lab and field staff. In our case, I believe this is because the lab and field staff are for the most part directly billable to clients. We office staff are pure overhead. The female on our field staff is treated exactly like the males. The office positions happen to be held by females, but when we had a male junior accountant, he was treated like the rest of the office staff. It may be more how the positions are viewed as to value to the company as opposed to the gender of the employee. YMMV, of course.

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              1. pope suburban

                Our bidding doesn’t quite work that way. We factor labor costs into bidding, but that is a pretty blanket figure that covers designers and contract admin folks as well as the man-hours to build and install the pieces. Which doesn’t really serve us all that well financially, but that is not something the boss is willing to hear from anyone, so I’ve let it go.

                I guess I also see this as a pretty academic distinction. If my boss feels that our positions are overhead or unnecessary, he is free to cut hours or eliminate them until he feels everything is in line. That’s his prerogative. But treating us all like we’re useless and incompetent is not only rude, but it doesn’t resolve his (perceived) problem re utility and billing. Though in his particular case, he’s expressed a lot of attitudes that are right out of Mad Men, so that tilts the balance on my suspicions. Mostly it’s just that the boss and his favorites are not, in the balance, terribly likable people due to a terminal lack of self-awareness, and that gets old after a while. And I become cranky, and have a little therapeutic whine in the comments section of an excellent blog. :)

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              2. neverjaunty

                It may also be that those positions “happen to be” held by one gender or the other because the company – unconsciously or consciously – selects that way.

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                1. pope suburban

                  There’s also that. It’s something I’ve been struggling with in my own professional life, I think in large part due to the recession. My first “real” job out of college was clerking for a big law firm, and the other two clerks were guys; that firm had a lot of problems but they were actually quite fair about gender issues. But after I lost that, I had to take any work I could get…which tended to be fairly dead-end, low-skill clerical positions. Feeling buttonholed into “pink collar” jobs where people condescend to me or think I am not driven/capable is frustrating and scary; I can’t do this forever, nor can I retire on the low pay and scant benefits these positions offer. I think there is a strong element of selection bias in this company, given the pattern of behavior I see in my boss.

                2. F.

                  When our company was searching for an administrative assistant, I received NO qualified resumes from males out of over 250 resumes received. Had I received one from a qualified male, I certainly would have interviewed him. I think sometimes we females tend to self-select ourselves into “pink collar” type of jobs, unfortunately.

                3. pope suburban

                  Can’t nest any further, but there is no way I would willingly be doing this work if anyone else would get back to me about other jobs. I discovered while clerking that I hate desk jobs, and I try not to apply for them. The problem for me, and I think a lot of other people, is getting warehoused into this stuff because of the need to have a job, any job, that pays the bills. Temp agencies sent me to nothing but low-skill clerical stuff based on my one adult job, and I had to take these positions because it was that or starve (Retail never got back to me, and neither did the jobs I wanted), and now I’m stuck here wanting to chew my own leg off to get out of this trap– and it doesn’t seem like any employer is inclined to free me. It’s scary, honestly.

  7. animaniactoo

    Sometimes, there is “this person is Biggity-Bigwig’s Best Friend’s Son” and therefore the best a manager can do is get them booted to be somebody else’s problem. But not fired.

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    1. Chinook

      “Sometimes, there is “this person is Biggity-Bigwig’s Best Friend’s Son” and therefore the best a manager can do is get them booted to be somebody else’s problem. But not fired.”

      In cases like this and others explained, it is a matter of semantics. It is not that they can’t be fired, because there is a mechanism in place, but that someone won’t let them be fired or doesn’t want to suffer the consequences of the firing. The irony is that every action and inaction has consequences – not firing often leads to losing good people and retaining only the poor ones.

      Reply
      1. animaniactoo

        Agreed on the consequences, but when the mechanism will never be used for that person, they are functionally unfireable, no matter how you define the semantics of it.

        Reply
        1. Laura Renee

          If he went on a killing spree, I bet he’d become fireable. Again, it’s really about poor managers unwilling to do their jobs and run an effective team.

          Reply
          1. Stephanie

            Sadly, a coworker and I joked about that.

            Me: “I don’t get what it takes for an hourly to get fired here–stabbing someone?”
            Coworker: “The second stabbing. The first is a formal write-up.”

            Reply
          2. animaniactoo

            Okay, now that I’m not at work (and therefore this won’t be captured there), that was how one unfireable *did* actually get fired. He was a long-term employee, the brother of another long-term, much-loved, much-respected employee who was integral to the company. However, when he used his time in the prototype area to build a gun out of a bunch of parts there, that was enough to do it! Considering it’s a family owned business which makes infant and kids furniture, not weapons.

            Note: It’s not poor managers. The people who are unfireable are basically designated so by the company owners. About 80% of the time, that kind of loyalty to the employees is a good thing, and the other 20 it outright sucks.

            Reply
            1. Laura Renee

              Yikes! I’m glad no one actually died, though.

              And it’s the company owners who are acting as poor managers, then. It’s great to have that loyalty to those who are worth it, but they should recognize there are exceptions, and before someone actually assembles a gun out of company materials.

              Reply
            2. F.

              The owner of the company where I work is one of those with total blind loyalty. Our lab manager has been with the company for nearly 20 years, and is the longest tenured employee. The lab is a mis-managed, disorganized, filthy mess, and the lab manager makes up test results or orders everyone else to do all the work and then spends the entire afternoon with his feet up on the desk doing crossword and Sudoku puzzles. The owner does not work in this building, but is made aware of the conditions regularly. He. Will. Not. Fire. the lab manager.

              The owner made his nephew the lab manager at a start-up location four hours away. The nephew’s girlfriend is the office manager there. They are both totally unqualified for their positions and don’t even show up a lot of the time and still are paid. The owner will not allow them to be fired, either.

              So, yes, if we want to argue semantics, the *can* be fired. But it will never happen in this rabbit hole.

              Reply
      2. Lia

        Case in point: my former employer. One bad employee lead to six people leaving (well, one — his boss — got fired because she wasted so much time defending him that she failed to meet her own goals). Every one of us landed much better jobs and the former employer is struggling to get back to where they were prior to the jerk’s hire.

        Jerk landed yet another job through nepotism after it became clear, at last, to management that he was responsible for the exodus, but is in the process of annoying everyone there so he may well be on his way out, too.

        Reply
  8. BRR

    If put in a situation where somebody says you cannot fire someone, I like the technique of turning it around and asking it as a question. Something like “Wakeen is not performing at the level we need in this position. We’ve tried A, B, and C and he is continuing to perform below expectations. What needs to be done in order to let him go.” I’ve used the same thing on many companies when I’m trying to solve a problem. It can be smoother if you let somebody else define some of the rules.

    It may take some extra effort but it’s for the better in the long run.

    Reply
    1. animaniactoo

      Literally, in my company, we have a couple of unfireables. Not a lot of them, but a few. For them, the answer would be “We don’t want to do that, see if you can try X”. 20 times in a row.

      Reply
      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        “I’ve tried that four times in the past and the results were ___.”

        “I can do that, but it will take significant time to supervise that process, which means that I won’t be able to do ___ (fill in important priorities).

        “Can you tell me what you would consider warranting firing Fergus? My take is that he simply doesn’t have the skills to do the work we need done, and at this point is impeding other people’s ability to get their jobs done. I’ve worked with him extensively, coached and given feedback, and tried to improve his skills over the course of X months. It hasn’t worked, and I believe it’s time to let him find a role where he can excel and for us to bring in someone who can do the work we need done.”

        If none of that works, you need to decide if you want to continue working somewhere that abdicates one of their most serious responsibilities.

        Reply
        1. animaniactoo

          There are many benefits to working for my company – if I was stuck with one of the unfireables, I might not want to continue. But in general, their preferred method of dealing with an unfireable is to get them to fire themselves if possible. Not active harassment, but allowing life to become unpleasant enough that they choose to find somewhere else to go. That method doesn’t work with everybody, however… In the meantime, somebody else will be brought in to “assist” Fergus’ manager (aka do most of the work that Fergus is supposed to do). With an occasional departmental reorganization to shift Fergus over to somebody new (and a job that he may not like as well so he’ll go start looking for a new one).

          Reply
        2. Miles

          “If none of that works, you need to decide if you want to continue working somewhere that abdicates one of their most serious responsibilities.”

          How do you know the next job won’t have a similar situation? It’s not exactly something you can screen for from the outside.

          Reply
  9. Susan the BA

    Completely agree that firing employees who aren’t working out is one of the critical responsibilities of a manager. That’s why it’s so disappointing when someone above the manager won’t give them that power. What’s even the point of calling that person a manager if they don’t get to manage their team??

    Previous job example: department manager says ‘Fergus has been here for over a year and still is not successfully completing work related to A (50% of his responsibilities) so we haven’t even been able to start training him on B (the other 50%) (which means Susan is doing this in addition to her real job). I am going to start the performance improvement process and terminate him if he doesn’t improve.’ Manager’s boss says: ‘But Fergus has a wife and small child to support. It would be unfair if he lost his job.’ Fergus stays.

    I should have quit that job a long time before I did.

    Reply
  10. Isabelle

    We currently can’t fire anyone because their position would be permanently eliminated due the recruitment freeze we’ve had for 5+ years.

    That means we’re stuck with some employees who have attitude or performance issues but management won’t fire them. No PIPs, just some half-hearted attempts by management to address the issues and never any genuine improvements.

    This kill the morale of the remaining staff, which means good workers leave and are not replaced, leading to a higher workload and more frustration for the good employees that are left. My hope for 2016 is to find a better employer but I heard many other workplaces operate like this.

    Reply
    1. Decimus

      The thing is even this is often a failure to manage. Because (often) even in a hiring freeze you can get an exception to hire for an essential vacated position. So if the department requires 10 people to operate properly and you are down to 8, the manager needs to go to the higher-ups and make the case that 20% of the work isn’t being done. And upper management may decide that’s acceptable to them, or they may blame the employees, but that again is a failure to manage (at an upper level).

      Reply
    2. Thomas W

      Not to nitpick, but I think this still qualifies as “won’t fire anyone” rather than “can’t fire anyone”. If someone’s contribution is a net negative, it might be better to fire them and redistribute their workload to others, even if you can’t hire anyone new. And the hiring freeze itself is still a choice that the company is hiding behind — it doesn’t formally prevent people from being fired. (If I understood you correctly)

      Good luck finding a better job!

      Reply
    3. Terra

      Sometimes the not firing is what helps keep the recruitment freeze in place. It’s easy not to hire anyone (or not allow anyone to be hired) if you are at full staff and the work is (mostly) getting done. It’s a risk but usually firing who needs to be fired (especially if it’s more than one person) either results in an exception allowing them to hire someone or a domino effect that eventually helps lift the hiring freeze because all of a sudden the work isn’t getting done at all.

      Reply
    4. Creag an Tuire

      Which just illustrates why in the event of a “hiring freeze”, no employee is better than a bad employee — because you can’t prevent the good ones from leaving.

      Reply
      1. newreader

        I agree that in many situations no employee is better than a bad employee. I once supervised an employee who was making egregious mistakes that resulted in non-compliance with federal regulations. Even though we were already short staffed, it was easier to just do her work myself than to have to spend the time checking everything she did for errors while also working through the due diligence of a PIP and documentation to let her go.

        Reply
    5. Stranger than fiction

      I don’t understand how a hiring freeze would include replacing someone, I mean isn’t that already budgeted in?

      Reply
      1. Isabelle

        Our situation is further complicated by multiple layoffs. This means we’re really can’t hire or replace anyone. When someone leaves, their duties are distributed between a number of people within the team, sometimes in different teams, sometimes in different countries. The only positions that are restaffed when people quit are operators in our factories because they need enough qualified staff to run 24/7.

        The layoffs target senior managers and above (basically employees with large salaries) and almost never the poor performing employees who rarely make it to that seniority level.

        Reply
    6. Kelly

      I work for a public university that is dealing with a large budget cut. Positions are being left vacant for months until a replacement is hired and that is for the handful of open positions. One position has been vacant for 7 months and another for 6 months.

      I’m in a smaller area with 3 other permanent staff. One colleague took a reduced appointment to deal with childcare issues post divorce. It’s a headache because more gets dumped on me. He is hourly but acts as if he’s salaried, including falsifying his timesheets, taking longer breaks than is standard, and routinely not getting a core part of his job done in a timely manner. The timesheet issue is grounds for immediate termination if someone reports to to the state, but it would be rather obvious who made the call because of the small staff. I’m sure one reason he hasn’t been put on a PIP at the minimum is that my supervisor loathes doing any disciplinary paperwork. The other reason is that she may not get approval to hire a replacement with the budget cuts. From her POV, it’s acceptable to have one substandard employee and a warm body in the position than to lose it if she fires him. As the person who gets stuck dealing with his absences and general indifference, my perspective is that his position will be replaced and maybe I could get a coworker who wants to do their job.

      Reply
  11. stillLAH

    Yes yes yes! My husband works for a state university and he complained for the first three years of his job about how terrible the department secretary was (as in, no other department would accept her as a transfer) and why wouldn’t anyone fire her…until one day she was finally fired! Turns out it had been in the works for a while, but all the state government red tape meant that no one knew until it happened. So if you’re another staff member wondering if and when someone is going to be finally fired, maybe it’s already in the works.

    Reply
    1. Lia

      Yes. I work for a public university and the firing process is onerous, but it Can Be Done. I am personally aware of a tenured faculty member being fired (committing a felony assault against a student will do that — faculty member got canned within 10 days and it only took that long because apparently the governor had to sign off on it — they did bar the faculty member from campus in the interim), and numerous poor-performers getting the axe. It isn’t easy (the notice period is 3 months in the first 6 months, six months in the first year, and after that, a year’s notice) but it does happen.

      They have, also, in some cases paid out the notice period to get the staff member out the door immediately. I know of one where the person in question made epic screwup after epic screwup, and was actually on notice with ~9 months to go, until finally he ticked off the chair of the board of trustees. That got him a paycheck of 9 months’ work and immediately shown the door.

      Lying on one’s resume or about certifications, degrees, etc will get you immediately canned without notice periods applying. I have seen that happen as well. Some positions require X Degree and if you don’t have it, and you lied about having it, if they find out, you will be gone.

      Reply
  12. Katie the Fed

    One of my pet peeves. The only thing worse is “We can’t fire him because he’s old/black/minority/whatever.” It’s really, really offensive and harms the other members of that protected class who actually ARE doing their jobs.

    Rawwrrrr. This one hits home right because I had my workload increased when my boss took away a fellow manager’s responsibilities and gave them to other people, because that manager wasn’t doing his job. I asked my boss why he was giving me more work instead of dealing with the non performer and he told me that the guy was close to retirement and therefore nothing could be done.

    Reply
    1. Stephanie

      One of my pet peeves. The only thing worse is “We can’t fire him because he’s old/black/minority/whatever.” It’s really, really offensive and harms the other members of that protected class who actually ARE doing their jobs.

      This and I think those people are underestimating how hard it is to win a discrimination lawsuit like that. And if you guys were documenting everything properly, it wouldn’t be much of a case (if there even was one). The employee would have to prove they were fired because of the protected class, which would be difficult when the employer could say “Yeah, she was on a PIP and was frequently late or absent from work.”

      Reply
      1. Turanga Leela

        Super hard to win, but not hard to file, and companies are scared of the cost of defending the suit as much as the cost of losing it. (Not disagreeing with your point or Katie’s, though.)

        Reply
          1. neverjaunty

            But still, it’s silly to be afraid of it. They file, your lawyers explain that you have thoroughly documented the legit reasons they were fired, and that the company will aggressively seek costs. If it really is a nuisance lawsuit, that’s the point at which the bottom-feeders go away, because they know they won’t get hush money.

            Reply
      2. I'm a Little Teapot

        *applauds both Katie and Stephanie’s points*

        I imagine this misconception causes a fair bit of discrimination in *hiring* – “Oh noes, we can’t hire someone of a ‘Protected Class’ because if they turn out awful we’ll never be able to fire them!”

        Reply
    2. thunderbird

      Oh, I had blocked it out, but this happend at CrazyBatShitJob. BigBoss was around maybe a half day a week and totally clueless to life anyway, and Managers were adult versions of bratty children who enjoyed gossip and online shopping. We had a team member who was a really bad fit but more importantly not doing well in their entry-level position, made mistakes, caused a lot of grief, and needed a lot of coddling. There were numerous instances of problems that led to useless group meetings. Fast forward to a major blow up that lands in the lap of HR at HQ. Nothing seems to change, and then the problems continue for a few months until second major blow up, which I was involved in this time and I had to go to HQ HR. It was then that I learned that problem coworker told HR they felt they were being singled out for their religious beliefs and HR refused to touch it from there on. Oy. Never ran so far and so fast from a job and am much healthier now too.

      Reply
    3. neverjaunty

      Although, as has been pointed out before on AAM, everybody is a member of a ‘protected class’ under US law (the exceptions being over-40s and disabled persons).

      But yes, SUPER pet peeve. When somebody moans that they can’t fire Fergus because he’s close to retirement, what they mean is “I haven’t bothered to document Fergus’ shenanigans enough to show that there were perfectly good reasons to fire him.”

      Reply
          1. F.

            Then I must have misunderstood the point. I thought that neverjaunty was saying that being over 40 or disabled did not entitle one to protection under the law like gender, race, etc. do.

            Reply
    4. Anon Accountant

      Yes that’s exactly why we have our awful secretary. She’s bullies staff. Has caused several clients to leave us for competitors, and tells partial truths that cause problems. They’re waiting her out until retirement because they fear she’d sue them for firing her. Their reasoning is she’s a woman over 60 and she had cancer last year. They’re afraid she’ll sue them for wrongful termination although her behavior would be the cause.

      So we are stuck with her until she retires.

      Reply
    5. Rubyrose

      I had someone once (Fergus) who was around 57. I got the proof that he was spending considerable time putting together a monthly newsletter for a state level political party. The proof was painful. I had the network folks put software on the employee’s computer that took a snapshot of his screen every 3 minutes. These got sent to me in individual emails, which I had to open one by one. And we were undergoing a system conversion, so time was precious.

      So I present the proof to my manager. His first reaction? “But Fergus is over 40 and we can’t do anything about him because of that. He won’t be able to find another job.” My response: “well, it’s a good thing that I’m over 40, so that argument doesn’t hold water.” My manager was not over 40 and it became obvious by the look on his face that he did not realize that I was.

      It took a while, but I prevailed. Fergus could not get his performance up, even by not writing a newsletter. He was gone.

      Reply
    6. Nobody

      I’ve been watching season 5 of The Good Wife, and there were two different episodes with examples of this misconception! There was one where one of the partners at the law firm called a bunch of associates into the conference room to fire them because he was told they were part of a scheme that would hurt the firm. Another partner saw all of these associates — a black guy, an Asian woman, a guy in a wheelchair, a Hispanic guy — and said, “What are you doing? You can’t fire them. They’re all protected classes!”

      There was another one where a client was suing for wrongful termination. The original argument was that he was fired for whistleblowing, but the opposing lawyer tore their argument apart, and for a moment, it was clear they would lose. But wait a minute! It turned out that the white guy who was fired is actually 1/16th Cherokee, so (even though the employer had no idea about the employee’s ancestry and fired him for reasons completely unrelated to race) they pulled a gotcha on the employer and won. I was really surprised they got it so completely wrong because I would think that a show about a law firm would consult with actual lawyers to make sure their cases were reasonably realistic.

      Reply
  13. fposte

    Since we’re mostly on year-long contracts here, firing really is a pain–you basically get issued a final-year contract, so you work there another year after being fired (though usually people find something else during that time). And one of my former bosses made it clear from the get-go that she was absolutely willing to do it anyway; one of her first actions was to enact the process for a co-worker I’d had trouble with. While some of that was about making a statement, I was grateful that that’s where the statement got made.

    Reply
      1. fposte

        I think it’s so standard for the university that it’s easier to go with the flow and make that the template. It’s never perceived as “OMG I’m a contract worker and might not be renewed.” Historically, I suspect it may also have been influenced by civil service and union patterns, so that the notion is job protection, at least in the short term. We don’t sign anything annually (maybe we used to in the paper days? I can’t recall); we just get an annual e-document stating the year’s terms and title.

        Reply
  14. Effective Immediately

    I hear this a lot from the staff level, especially in union environments. In my experience, there are a few factors at play: a) management misunderstanding the process they need to follow in order to terminate; b) employees assuming they have more protection as a group than they actually do (this goes double for unions) and c) assuming that if they can’t see the disciplinary process, it isn’t happening.

    A and C are probably a common combination in most places that leads to the “we can’t possibly ever fire people here!” thing. I’ve never really understood it, especially from managers; I’ve heard managers (peers) say that exact thing to staff, and all I could think is that you might as well hang a sign around your neck that says, “Ineffective Figurehead” and “I Hate Morale”.

    There is also sometimes a fear of terminating employees because managers won’t (or feel they can’t) work short-staffed, or have allowed certain arcane knowledge to be held by only a few people. And I think that’s part of the rub, also: it’s not just the heavy lifting of strenuous documentation and follow-up, you have to create entire systems that allow you to control your staffing. You have to have an HR department that gives you some latitude to make those decisions (and if they don’t, you have to push that boulder uphill as well); you have to delegate in such a way that no one person holds all of the information on any given subject; you have to have–to quote the itinerant philosopher Big Boi–a back up plan for your back up plan, a plan to back up your back up plan, in order to minimize the impact on your business/department/team. Those are structural things that have to be in place long before a termination happens, and sadly, I think a lot of people do not think about those things until the situation is so dire, that they’re looking at doing all of that at once–I can see where it would be easier to just throw up your hands and declare it impossible if you don’t have healthy processes that will facilitate making staffing changes already in place.

    Reply
  15. Stephanie

    Ugggggggh, just had this conversation at work last night with another supervisor. We’re in a heavily unionized workplace and once the employees hit a certain number of days worked, they’re covered by the union and it’s more difficult (but not impossible!) to fire them.

    One employee in particular even came up in our meetings like “Wait, how did Wakeen hit 65 days worked? [The tenure date is 70 work days.] We need to get rid of him.”

    And yet…somehow he made it past day 70. The coworker and I were just face palming like “How did they manage to not fire the one employee they talked about regularly firing?” I mean, I think all the supervisors could come up with documentation to support termination from the past week alone.

    My best guess is that the higher ups don’t feel like dealing with all the paperwork and think that any employee doing any amount of work is better than no employees (since we’re a super people-heavy operation).

    Reply
    1. S.I. Newhouse

      “…any employee doing any amount of work is better than no employees…”

      Bingo. You nailed it. In many bureaucratic organizations (not just union environments), there’s often a fear that if someone is let go, the employee would never be replaced since they’d lose the money delegated to that “line” in the budget.

      Reply
      1. Stephanie

        I think, too, we have a view that having a bunch of staffing will fix things. To some extent, I get it. You’re not going to be able to run things if you don’t have adequate staffing. I’m at a warehouse and I think the higher ups just figure if we have lots of people processing all the things, that helps.

        But in this particular employee’s case, the box moving down the conveyor is usually more productive that he is.

        Reply
  16. Mena

    I have worked for a company for 5 years, 4 months. We have about 1200 employees.

    In this timeframe, no one (no one) has been fired. I did hear that one person was fired in the spring of 2010 and this happened after months of very visible non-performance and a tendancy to rage and scream when confronted.

    I’m not convinced that this is just about hoops; this is about culture and an unwillingness to confront and manage. There is NO senior support. Most recently, I wanted to let a new hire go during a probationary – my boss decided this person should now work for her instead. Good luck with that one. Now people are wondering if there is friendship that is biasing this person’s employment (non-performance is that obvious).

    Reply
    1. Mena

      I’ll add that it IS impossible because my management is unsupportive.

      So, Alison’s suggestions are all very reasonable but only effective if you have supportive management.

      Reply
  17. Thomas W

    People say we can’t fire people at my company all the time. The excuse given is that we’re expanding really fast (read: too fast) and are desperate for warm bodies to fill seats, combined with the fact that our work is project based. Therefore managers say this: “We can’t fire her, we need her to finish the project! We’ll just not re-hire her next project”. Then the next project comes, and we’re desperate for warm bodies to fill seats, and the cycle repeats.

    Just as Alison said, it’s not that we can’t. We just don’t.

    (it is Canada, and there are a few worker protections that don’t exist in the US, such as not being able to fire people who refuse to work overtime, which I HATE)

    Reply
  18. Heaven's Thunder Hammer

    A friend of mine commented on her workplace in Canada at… a grocery store of some kind that now has changed names and hands in the last 10 years. Anyways – due to union agreements and management practices, there was a problem employee, who management fired as soon as they possibly could. This “soon as possible” was 2 years. My friend couldn’t believe it, because so long as you actually tried to improve on the problems you had, you were never fired.

    Reply
    1. Schnapps

      Well, in that case, it’s probably in the collective agreement that they get X amount of time to improve. It could have been that throughout the two years, she had periods of improvement and periods where she didn’t improve. Or whatever the language in the agreement is since it varies from union local to union local.

      Reply
  19. Anon Guy

    You forgot to mention one of the most serious downsides of NOT jumping the hoops to fire poor performers–it drags down the morale of the good performers. This leads to good performers leaving, and poor performers staying meaning that, over time, you’ve got a team of NOTHING but poor performers.

    About 15 years ago, I worked for a State Agency that required a lot of paperwork to fire anyone. My manager outright said we just had to “learn to work around” certain people. One guy came in, ate breakfast, went for a walk, went shopping, etc. He made the same money as the rest of us. Our “manager” made up for his lack of work by assigning us to two person “teams”, i.e. pairing a good performer with a non-performer.

    After getting stuck with this guy a couple times, I realized it just wasn’t worth the headache so I went elsewhere.

    I do want to stress that NOT all government jobs are like this. I’m currently working for a public university where almost everyone pulls their weight and there are consequences for those who don’t.

    You are on target with saying poor performers MUST be dealt with, but you should also mention their toxic effect, not just on their managers, but on other team members!

    Reply
    1. Lillian McGee

      You just took me back to elementary school where the teachers would put the wont-to-misbehave kids next to the well behaved. A lot of my energy was spent trying to ignore the the other kid’s shenanigans and keep out of trouble myself. I’m not sure if my schoolwork suffered but I am still resentful!

      Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I’ve always found laying someone off to be far harder than firing. When you’re firing someone, they’ve generally been warned there’s a problem and given an opportunity to improve, whereas a layoff often isn’t connected to anything they’ve had even the slightest control over.

      Reply
      1. Miss M

        I was just wondering based on a place where I worked at where someone who was a trouble maker – with physical proof and at least two witnesses – and brought to management’s attention at least twice was laid off. Just troubles me seven years later when I think about it.

        Reply
      2. Bibliovore

        We can’t just layoff an unproductive worker (union) The employee depending on seniority has “bumping” rights. Their job disappears, they can take the job of the last hired person of their class even if that person is doing an excellent job and the unproductive employee does not have the required skill set.

        Reply
    2. Brett

      If a workplace has rigid termination requirements, then a layoff can be even more ugly than firing someone. Often layoffs in those types of workplaces are mandated to be last in, first out, regardless of the performance of the employees. The organization I currently works in mandates last in first out regardless of position! So if all your teapot handle analysts have lower senior than your teapot technicians, you have to lay off all of your analysts (even if they are your top performers) before you can lay off a single technician.

      Reply
      1. Hlyssande

        My older brother survived one of those last in, first out layoffs at his old job because someone up above vouched heavily for him. He got really lucky and proceeded to thrive in his new project manager role there with them.

        I can see why the last in, first out thing is used as a policy in general, but I also think that performance should be heavily evaluated. What if you scored an amazing superstar hire a year before and they’re blowing your low performers out of the water? What then?

        Reply
        1. Doriana Gray

          What if you scored an amazing superstar hire a year before and they’re blowing your low performers out of the water? What then?

          If you’re smart, you suddenly change the policy so you can keep the superstar. This happened at a law firm I used to work at that did, and still does, perform quarterly layoffs. I came in on a long-term temp-to-hire basis and four weeks after my initial hiring, I was let go along with 90% of the other temps (most of which were in my department). Four weeks after that, I was the only person from my department brought back because I picked up the job easily, and when they did their next round of layoffs (I was still a temp), I kept my job while people who had been there for years and weren’t temps were let go. My supervisor told me they were never going to let me go again since I had a 100% employee rating for reporting accuracy and efficiency and was the only one in my department with that high of a mark.

          Long story short: if management wants to keep you around, they’ll find a way to do it. And if they really don’t? They’ll figure that out, too.

          Reply
        2. doreen

          If it’s a unionized environment ( which probably covers most places where it’s “impossible” to fire someone), chances are that the contract mandates that layoff be done by seniority. Unions are very big on seniority, to the point where every union I have belonged to has multiple “tie-breakers” to determine who is more senior when multiple people are hired on the same day. In my experience, it it usually not regardless of position but people are entitled to “bump” less senior people in a lower but related or previously held title – so that if 5 Teapot Analyst 2 positions are being eliminated, those 5 people may be able to take the positions of 5 Teapot Analyst 1’s. They may in turn be able to bump Teapot Technician 2’s who can likewise bump Teapot Technician 1’s. And if one of those Teapot Technician 1’s was originally hired as a Clerk, he or she may be able to bump the least senior clerk. It doesn’t matter what management wants to do now- it only matters what Management agreed to in the contract umpteen years ago.

          Reply
      2. OriginalYup

        I find that a lot of the rigid termination requirements have the opposite effect of what’s originally intended. In my experience, an organization becomes very afraid of handling firings badly or unfairly so they decide that there needs to be explicit rules about it’s done. Then they create an elaborate system of first-through-fifteenth verbal warnings and second notification written warnings that must be signed in the presence of a notary public who is also a dues paying union member etc etc. Ultimately, instead of a fair and objective system of employment due process, they end up with a Gordian knot of unworkable nonsense that means poor performers stay forever and all the good people are like “Eff this, I’m out.” And then the whole thing repeats on itself because since you *can’t* actually just fire someone, managers end up doing these contortionist strategies (layoffs + voluntary attrition + pay freezes + hopeful chanting) in order to work the system, which then creates a new set of rules to avoid doing *that* set of things “wrong.”

        Sometimes I’d love to just sweep in with a red tape machete and implement a Nordstroms-like policy of “Use your best judgement. Go manage.” and set everything back to zero.

        Reply
    3. Argh!

      A layoff is termination of a position, not a person. If the person is assigned to a job that has to be done, eliminating that job is even worse than letting the poor performer stick around. If they are fired for performance issues a new person can come on board and do the job.

      Reply
  20. mskyle

    I feel like the biggest obstacle to firing people is most often cultural. If there’s a culture of not firing anyone for anything less than gross misconduct, firing someone for lesser reasons can appear to be cruel – like you’re accusing them of gross misconduct! I don’t know how you turn that around. But there is a small subset of workers who will exploit that and slack off and be terrible because they know they won’t be fired for it.

    When I used to work in a university setting, there were a bunch of factors: fear of not getting the job re-filled/re-approved (although I would argue that GOOD people end up leaving when crappy workers end up staying, and their positions are just as much at risk in a hiring freeze situation), the academic-year cycle – who will teach Class X in September if Professor Y is let go in July?, and the aforementioned cultural issue.

    Reply
  21. Dr. Johnny Fever

    I’m a cockeyed optimist. I believe people perform to expectation. I try to set clear expectations for assignments then get out of the way, stepping in only to break down barriers. I expect the person to be able to d the job based on their performance and skill, and if the assignment is a stretch assignment, I tell them what I see in them that convinces me they will succeed.

    I hear other PMs complain that employees won’t even book timesheets on time. No one addresses it, but again, set the expectation and it happens. My team knows that submitting a timesheet by Friday noon for my 5pm approval is a small task, I expect it to be on time if not early, and we’ll talk on Monday if it’s not done. So far, no talks needed.

    Reply
    1. F.

      Would you please come talk to the employees at my company about turning timesheets in on time? We have one person who is regularly three to five weeks behind, and he is not the only one. It seems to be a passive-aggressive way of screwing the company. Multiple verbal and written warnings are just a waste of time. Oh yeah, that is because the owner won’t actually fire anyone them (they’re too important), raises are non-existent, the employee is salaried, and there are no consequences for bad behavior. However, we can’t bill the client to get the money to pay the employee and keep up the owner’s lavish lifestyle without the timesheet. (banging head against wall)

      Reply
      1. Sketchee

        That doesn’t seem like the employees are the one who needs to be talked to, imho. The owner is creating this issue.

        Reply
  22. Dasha

    I’d be interested to hear stories about how someone was in a group with someone who “couldn’t” be fired and what effect did it have on the morale of the other workers?

    Reply
    1. Stephanie

      Hmm, I haven’t worked in a group like that, but I’ve directly managed one (and I tried to get the horrible people fired as I mentioned above). Morale…hard to say. Big thing I noticed was that people picked up they could be late/leave early/no call with impunity. I got a few more attitudes than I probably would have (because people saw the bad apples say they didn’t want to do a particular task and they would do the same thing). When you’re working a people-heavy operation, people showing up an hour late is a headache. I did notice the people who showed up on time would get flustered when they were expected to do the work of multiple people.

      Reply
    2. OriginalYup

      My old organization wouldn’t fire you outright, they’d just manage you into a smaller and smaller corner until you left voluntarily. It permafrosted morale and made people terrified of falling into bad favor with management, because we’d all seen the slow death march that took place when they were trying to get rid of you. So it was nigh-impossible to talking openly with your manager about weaknesses or how to fix entrenched problems or do things better. It sort of felt like we were all in a workplace version of the film “Revolution Road,” where we’re all politely conversing and playing our public parts as our souls circle the drain.

      Reply
    3. Lillian McGee

      There was one in my workplace that went right over my head until the guy was out the door. This guy was completely burnt out and when he did do work, it was haphazard at best. He blew deadlines completely, he was awful to clients and interns. I knew all this and I also knew that the only reason anything was getting done and that we weren’t being sued into the ground for malpractice was because of me. And I thought all this was 100% completely normal.
      My reasoning at the time was that his job was super high volume with dozens of active cases and very needy clients and completely thankless on top of all of it, so I gave him credit for simply being in that position I suppose. I think that’s how management saw it too. He’d been in the job for years and they probably thought no one else would want it or no one else could handle the volume and general drudgery.
      But then new managers took over and cleaned house. I still don’t know whether they asked him to resign or asked him to shape up but he walked out of that meeting, got some stuff from his office, came over and shook my hand and thanked me, and never came back! I was stunned at the time but now I’m just mad that I had to carry this guy for two whole years of my career.

      Reply
    4. Elizabeth West

      I worked in a place where they had one employee who was awful to everyone. She was good at her job (sales) and nice to customers, but the rest of us were fair game. I heard that they hired a sales guy before I came and she bullied him so much the poor guy quit after three days. It was a family business and she was family, and they had no intention of firing her.

      I ended up leaving that job–my boss and I both agreed it was a bad fit, but Evil Coworker absolutely was one of the reasons.

      Reply
  23. newreader

    One of my worst experiences was working in an office where the manager was the problem employee, but no one above her wanted to deal with the problem. That office had the highest turnover in the company, but the manager is still there. Staff generally either transfer to other departments or leave the company entirely.

    I’ve been in an environment where it was considered impossible to get fired, but managed to be persistent and fire two employees that justifiably needed to be let go. It wasn’t easy and it took time to overcome the barriers in place, but it was finally done.

    Reply
    1. Doriana Gray

      One of my worst experiences was working in an office where the manager was the problem employee, but no one above her wanted to deal with the problem. That office had the highest turnover in the company, but the manager is still there. Staff generally either transfer to other departments or leave the company entirely.

      This is my current division. It’s mind boggling that my boss’s boss still hasn’t done anything about her when she can’t keep people on her team. It costs two to three times an employees salary to replace them when they leave – at some point, the dip in profit margins has to be dealt with, right? She’s costing them money.

      Reply
    2. SystemsLady

      I had this problem – my old manager thought employees who might be needed at the snap of a finger should always have their schedules completely full, had a tendency to forget to tell people things like “I put you on the night shift and not Bob”, hated some of his employees and made it known, and generally was bad at managing schedules and keeping track of requirements.

      We were only saved by a midlife crisis-type thing the manager in question had, causing him to realize the job wasn’t for him, resign, and return to his old job.

      Of course, now another department I thankfully have zero interaction with (aside from knowing some people in it) has a terrible manager. Of the “thinks performance reviews are an opportunity to nitpick random isolated events that bothered him for whatever reason, recorded in a notebook, for hours on end” variety. It’s like a curse here.

      If it weren’t for the new manager of our department by some miracle being beyond the pale awesome (along with knowing from working in it that the average manager in the industry I’m in is…nowhere near that good), I’d definitely be counting down the days.

      Bad managers generally don’t randomly decide to leave and don’t get replaced by ridiculously good managers when they do, by the way. I was seriously job searching at the time, and people in a similar situation should be as well.

      Reply
    3. shep

      I had a manager I liked on a personal level very much, but as an actual MANAGER, she was a mess. And as her assistant, I was constantly cleaning up after her. Of course, she’s still at this workplace several years later. Totally commiserate with you!

      Reply
  24. Anonymous Poster

    Yes. All can be fired. I’m from the Detroit, and even the mayor was booted and later sent to prison. My SO kept saying “politicians never get caught, they never go to prison, blah blah blah.” Well, it happened. It just took a while.

    Reply
    1. fposte

      Come to Illinois. We send ’em to prison all the time! Where we have to pay for their keep, so I’m not sure it’s a victory.

      Reply
  25. Kiryn

    There’s always something that will get someone fired.

    I used to work in a place where nobody ever got fired because they hired everyone on 6-month contracts from spring to fall, and it was easier to just let their contracts expire and not rehire them again than to go to the trouble of firing them. We had people who didn’t do any work at all, who would come to work in their pajamas every day, who were actually so bad at their job that they introduced new problems that the rest of us had to fix.

    But a few years after I moved on from that job, I was catching up with some former coworkers who told me a story of a guy who would sit at his desk with a pocket knife and carve his name into his desk or whittle his plastic stylus into a shiv. They tell me that they finally got rid of him when he tried to light his own shoelaces on fire at his desk (in a room full of automatic sprinklers and expensive electronic devices).

    Reply
  26. Former Union Rep

    A long time ago (about 18 or so years ago), while in a different career working at a community college in a classified (non-academic) position, I was Grievance Chair for our local union representing classified employees. One of my biggest frustrations as Grievance Chair was when an employee clearly deserved the discipline awarded by management (including termination), but management didn’t properly follow the steps of progressive discipline outlined in our union contract.

    As a college employee, I didn’t want to work with people who didn’t show up to work, who had major performance problems, who were rude and/or verbally abusive to others, etc. But as a union official, it was my job to defend the contract. So if management didn’t follow progressive discipline process outlined in the contract (I think it was verbal warning, written warning, suspension, termination) and instead just suddenly fired an employee, it was my job to file a grievance and attempt to get that employee his/her job back (no matter what I thought personally about the employee’s behavior). If I refused to file a grievance, the (former) employee could potentially have grounds to sue me (and the local) for failure to represent.

    On the other hand, if that same manager with the same problem employee had followed the progressive discipline process (which gave the employee multiple opportunities to improve), but eventually got to the termination stage because the employee was unwilling or unable to improve, then I as a union official could (and would) let the termination stand without filing a grievance (and would be legally justified in doing so).

    Reply
    1. neverjaunty

      Yes, this.

      Back in the Beforetime I was a law clerk in-house for a large union. Because there was an extremely clear progressive discipline system, it absolutely was possible to fire bad employees. And certainly the union would defend the person through the ‘flinging paperwork’ stage, but if it reached the point of having to actually have a hearing – and if it was clear that the firing was appropriate – the union would let the termination stand.

      Now, almost always, those people would sue both the employer and the union, because the kind of employee who steals from his workplace is not the kind of guy with enough self-awareness to say “yeah, I totally deserved it”. But nobody was scared of those lawsuits, or kept on bad employees because OMG THEY MIGHT SUE.

      Reply
      1. VX34

        A friend of mine works in a company with a union, and told me the story of a guy who damaged company property and attempted to cover it up and was let go without much hassle.

        My friend recounted it by management telling the guy “Yeah, you didn’t do what you were supposed to do, the Union can’t help you” and that was that.

        Unions are good in general, but they aren’t, and shouldn’t, be a catch-all firewall for bad behavior at work.

        Reply
        1. Anon for Today

          To clarify, the contract did allow for skipping some of the progressive discipline steps in certain cases of egregious behavior. These were truly judgment calls, but mgmt had to be able to justify why a case was that egregious to warrant such action. An employee’s performance not up to standard? Nope. An employee physically assaulting someone at work? Yes.

          Reply
  27. VX34

    In a perfect world, employees who need to be let go would always see it coming – IE, nobody is ever surprised by losing their job due to their performance, and management would always put in the legwork for those people who have proven it obvious that they aren’t performing.

    However, an at-will status, and companies being able to fire anyone “for any reason, at any time, with or without cause” is freaking terrible, because it allows too many companies to look at someone and decide “Eh, whatever, we don’t need ’em, not our problem” and you never get any warning that you need to improve or fix anything before you’re out the door.

    This may or may not have happened to me, possibly more than once.

    One of the arguments in favor of “at-will” status is that it allows employees to leave without notice if they want. That’s fine, but the professional standard is to give at least a two week’s notice, if not longer, if you’re the one quitting your job. An old boss of mine argued back that the employer doesn’t have to do the same thing if they’re firing someone, so why should the employees?

    Yeah. Even though I’m happy where I am at now, but I still have very strong feelings about employer-employee relations in the US.

    Reply
    1. neverjaunty

      Well. There are people who “don’t see it coming” because they choose not to, or because their behavior was so egregious that there’s no reason to give them second and third chances. That said, yes, in a better world, employers would use PIPs where appropriate instead of just firing people without warning.

      Reply
    2. Argh!

      Reminding someone who is poor performer that they are “at will” has no impact whatever, in my sad but thankfully limited experience in that kind of environment. They are either delusional about their value to the organization or just don’t care. You’d think that knowing you could be fired at any moment would make people work harder, but it doesn’t work like that at all in reality.

      Reply
  28. Fed anon

    I’m in federal government, where we all understand that while you *can* fire people, it’s often so burdensome that nobody bothers. Or, no one can get it done in our standard two-year rotation, so it never gets done at all. My understanding is that one of the (first? Main?) steps in the process is to put the employee on an improvement plan. What do you do about those employees who can perform up to par while on a PIP but otherwise just don’t put in the effort? I think this happens a lot – a well intentioned manager puts an employee on a PIP, the employee scrapes by and then slowly begins to slack off again; another PIP followed by slow decline; and then the manager moves on to their next assignment, so the new manager (if also well-intentioned) has to start all over. How do you short-circuit this?

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      First, you write the PIP to spell out high performance standards, so meeting it requires more than scraping by. But you also write into the PIP that the person needs to sustain that level of performance over time, not just for the duration of the PIP.

      Reply
      1. Rat Racer

        I think that this is one of the hardest parts of management: spelling out exactly what success looks like in concrete ways that can be measured objectively.

        Reply
  29. Dee

    I work outside the US and most of my word is done in government organisations (as a contractor). It’s generally accepted no one can be fired in government here too – there are much stricter labor laws here. But still under the law it can be done just as you said BUT nobody does it. I’m starting to think it’s because people don’t like confrontation! The generally accepted way to get rid of someone is to ‘re-structure’ a team. So the way they fire people is by restructuring! Which causes alot of anguish for everyone, not just the peeps who it’s really all about…

    Reply
    1. Charityb

      Pretty much. I mean, we get letters here all the time that go along the lines of, “My employee always comes in 3 hours late for her shift and I’m not sure how to talk to her about it,” or “My coworker has overpowering body odor and all of us are scared to say anything”. If it’s that tough to talk about something that’s relatively low-stakes for all parties involved, I can’t imagine how much harder it would be to actually fire someone. Even when there isn’t an elaborate policy in place, confronting people is really hard — especially people we don’t really know that well, in a work context — and goes against all of our socialization.

      Reply
  30. John

    I appreciate your opinions, and I’m not trying to sound like a jerk, but you’ve clearly never worked in the Federal government. It doesn’t just take months of documentation, in cases it can take years. And even then, so much effort has to be spent on “counseling” bad employees, and the standard for acceptable performance is so low, that starting this process is more or less equivalent to taking on an additional part-time job. So yeah, it’s “possible,” in the sense that it’s also “possible” that I’ll win the lottery. However, given the choice between starting that documentation train and just putting someone in a corner until they retire, nobody ever — EVER — chooses to fire someone.

    I’ve worked in the Federal government for over 7 years now. My dearest wish is that we could fire a quarter of the place. Never, ever happens, no matter how bad anyone screws up.

    Reply
    1. Former Retail Manager

      YES! Current Federal employee here! Everything you said is true. You really have to witness it firsthand to appreciate how crazy it can be and how two people making the exact same salary can perform wildly differently in terms of output and quality of work.

      Reply
    2. Xay

      It may depend on the agency, because I have definitely seen people fired or forced out. It just takes a lot of time and documentation, but it does happen.

      Reply
    3. BRR

      I think that’s really the point of the post, that it can be complicated (extremely complicated) but it’s possible. Katie the Fed outlined it once and dear god I would consider spending that amount of effort coaching somebody.

      Reply
    4. AW

      nobody ever — EVER — chooses to fire someone

      Yes, exactly, they’re CHOOSING not to fire people. That’s not the same thing as it being impossible to fire someone.

      Reply
  31. Former Retail Manager

    I feel like dealing with “unfireables” is challenging for managers in those types of environments. I am currently a US govt employee in an “unfireable” position. While the issue is sometimes lazy managers that don’t want to do the work, the bigger issue is much higher above. Many “unfireable” positions also seem to be public service/quasi public service jobs such as state employees, fed employees, teachers, etc. All of these types of positions are heavily budget dependent. In our current budget environment which includes a drastically reduced budget and hiring freeze, the directive from above is to NOT fire anyone and for managers to “make it work no matter what.” Even ignoring the budgetary issue, the higher you go up the management chain the much more political it becomes. To ignore that would be naïve. So you now have managers who may want to fire someone, may have the documentation to do it, but either their boss won’t sign off because they have marching orders not to do so or they don’t want to be the employee who is pressing for a firing when the “powers that be” have clearly directed the boss not to do it and doing so may impact their own evaluation. After years and years of this, which is how long the current budgetary issues have persisted, many managers just accept that a firing isn’t an option and thus the vicious cycle begins. We are creatures of habit and it’s unlikely that a manager who has been beaten into submission is going to abruptly begin firing when the budget improves. To do so would be contradictory to the precedent they’ve established regarding performance over the prior 5+ years.

    For what it’s worth, I totally agree with Alison. It’s just a complicated situation for managers who are put in that position by their own bosses. Not a position I’d want to be in.

    Reply
  32. Bibliovore

    Yes. It is possible. but… Public University, union employees. I had an employee who I inherited. The PIP was a year and 1/2 of progressive discipline with a banker’s box of files of written documentation from consistently coming to work 20 minutes to 2 hours late, not completing tasks in an accurate and timely manner, ignoring instructions, mismanagement of funds, poor customer service to internal and external clients, lying and not turning in time sheets. During this period of time, I had documented my time spent “counseling” as well as in multiple levels of union grievance meetings with accusations that ranged from unreasonable expectations, lack of due process, and discrimination against the employee’s disablity. (no I never knew what the disability was and was advised by HR not to ask) All of this with the support of my administration. I was spending at least 10 hours a week on the PIP process above my workweek. In the end it was the financial mismanagement that set the last nail but there was still a 3 week process of investigations and grievances to get to that termination day. HR said that the year and 1/2 was one the shortest processes for this type of issue.

    After it was all over, other managers were dying to know “how I did it” and although they too had “under-performers” to date no one has been willing to “go the distance.”

    Reply
  33. Pointy Haired Boss

    People are fired too often — it’s a sign of wasteful and disposable thinking. Is there a hole in your shoe? You could re-sole it, but why not just throw it out? It’s not the latest style anyway! Are your dishes dirty? You could just wash them, but bowls are so cheap at the dollar store…

    Former star employee starting to dim after one too many late nights at the office away from the family? Hey, we’re a young company, why not “rejuvenate the staff” with a few young and hungry college grads?

    Reliable employee acting crazy after realizing that their “just a job” job that they did so well for many years is in fact now their permanent career? Well, no need to keep them away from their dream — we could us e it as an opportunity to outsource the position!

    Guy who trained half the staff now struggling to understand smartphones? Well, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, can you?

    Firing is almost always the easy way out — after all, if you take the challenge of working with your problem employee and fail, people might question your skills. Working with problem employees is emotionally difficult, and makes it hard to say “it’s just business”. It looks bad on the budget books — it’s hard to justify spending the time and money on someone whose biggest accomplishments may be long behind them, even if those accomplishments erected the building everyone is currently standing in.

    I think people know this on some level. The paranoia over disgruntled employees striking back in some workplaces is so strong you can sense it like some sort of fear cloud hanging over the company. I suppose when you’re feeling guilty, everyone looks like The Punisher.

    Working with employees leads to healthy companies. When you buy-in to your employees, they buy-in to your company.

    Reply
    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Firing in the types of situations you described, sure. But more often than not, managers don’t fire when they actually need to — when someone doesn’t have the skills or will to do the job and they’re not performing at a high level, not once or twice but over time. You can’t always work with someone to get them to where they need; sometimes someone simply isn’t right for the job. That’s not the easy way out; it’s actually the hard way, but it’s part of a manager’s job.

      Reply
  34. Vicki

    Worse(?) are companies / departments who keep people on through a layoff (when it would have been very very simple to remove them) because they don’t want to “pay that person to leave”.

    Reply
  35. Tricksie

    I work for a university and had an employee who was unable to maintain professional communications and relationships. She would decide to stop talking to people in our unit–literally walk by them without saying hi or answering questions– then suddenly decide that person was her best friend and she wasn’t going to talk to someone else. She had worked here for 7 years before I was her supervisor–all her previous bosses threw their hands up and did nothing about her.

    I worked with her to no avail, then gave a verbal warning (reported to HR), then gave her a written warning with HR in the room. The next month, she was PROMOTED on campus to my equivalent position in a different unit on campus. We report to the same boss. He knew ALL about these issues, but basically chalked it up to women cat-fighting in the office.

    Now I have to work with her on many projects and…wait for it…she won’t speak to me. She will even refuse to answer some direct questions (when not around our boss), will never say hi to me, and will never make eye contact. In short, she has now directed all those same behaviors directly at me. And my boss is totally oblivious. I’ve started logging all her instances of extreme rudeness and at some point I might take it to HR.

    It is incredibly frustrating to my whole team that she was promoted, instead of fired! My entire unit cannot stand being around her, because of her years of mistreatment.

    Reply

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