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August 31, 2009

Why Haven't You Fired Him Yet?

Blog cartoon 9-2-09

[Cartoon courtesy of Grantland Cartoons]

True, life in the work world during a recession can feel like an interactive production of  "10 Little Indians," but sometimes the problem isn't the lay-offs but why the right people weren't swept out. 

I know how merciless that sounds, but if you're honest with yourself you'll admit there are at least several co-workers or office-mates you wouldn't mind saying "goodbye" to.  One of the saddest lay-off stories I witnessed firsthand was that of a woman who had been with her business unit for 12 years, loved her work, and was loved by her customers and co-workers. Yet she was "let go."  Her business was due to be re-organized, folded into another of the company's operating units, but the work she did was still needed. We never knew for sure why she was laid-off, but she hinted to me a disagreement with her manager about the direction of her business. She hadn't refused to go along with upcoming plans. I sensed it was more of a style issue. Her manager didn't like her professional style. She was maybe a little too "creative" for the boss.

A boss can get rid of you for any reason at all, including not appreciating the way you do business, but if you're productive and liked by your customers, is that a smart move?  Sometimes in the lay-off process, corporate culture plays more of a role in deciding who stays and who goes than engagement and productivity, and that's foolish. With funds to pay workers scarce, the main criteria should be competency and excitement about the brand the worker is responsible for.

Around the same time my friend was let go, another worker, much less competent, but more of a "go along-get along-get brain-dead" guy flourished on the payroll. I say flourished on the payroll  because he didn't seem to flourish anywhere else. He consistently turned in sub-par work to his manager, and was noted by his co-workers to have little interest in his duties beyond receiving his paycheck. He did, however, conform to the all-important "company standards."  He was consistently what I call plain oatmeal—uninspired, afraid of his own shadow in the words he chose, and always mediocre at best. But he was non-threatening. He never mentioned anything that might be troubling, such as why his customers were unhappy about a particular company offering, and never pointed out possible innovations, such as new services that might work better, or exciting ideas to re-make old products that no longer worked at all. Of course the company loved him. He smiled at the right times and schmoozed when he should. He wasn't overly "creative," and that suited the company standards gurus fine (despite touting their "innovation culture").

I wished so much he would be fired (oops, I mean "laid-off"), and it never happened. Why is that?  Is it true your work performance doesn't matter if you're wearing the right suit, show up at the right times, and say the right things (even if those things are meaningless)?  Most trainers argue that competency is essential but so is alignment with the "corporate culture."  Unfortunately, I've found that means competent-enough-to-just-squeak-by as long as the worker has the right style. There would be redeeming value in this approach if it weeded out employees who are unpleasant to work with, but that's often not the case. If a manager, for instance, wears the right clothes and says the "right" things, it seems not to matter if anyone other than the person's boss likes him or her (including the company's customers).

It's understandable that a company's executives want to surround themselves with people who look and sound like themselves. It's a primal instinct dating back to the days of cave executives. But shouldn't we try to overcome our Neanderthal tendencies at some point—at least while at the office?  I've heard that it's unrealistic for us to overcome these ancient tendencies, but I disagree. I guess I'll concede that it's hard not to be like a cave person when dining with one's own family, but when at work, I always assumed everyone would do what I do—pretend to be evolved. Before you get too overwhelmed by what I'm suggesting, don't worry, your executives don't actually have to evolve (and you certainly don't have to work to make them that way; that's not your job), but they have to learn to feign evolution enough to put together a workforce that's more than ironed surfaces and nonsense catch-phrases about "synergies," "consolidation," and "driving revenues."

As an adult educator, how do you teach your company's executives to aspire beyond the tribal in their hiring and firing strategies?  How do you teach them it's OK to keep workers on the payroll who don't look or sound like them, or like the same cultural things they do?  And that it's not OK to keep Fred the Drone Jr. around because he's unoffensive (even nice) and says the things they expect to hear, but never shows much enthusiasm or superior work performance? 

It's a tall order, and it means overcoming habits ingrained since the beginning of time, but one way to take a beginner's crack at it is limiting the corporate "standards" memos unless those standards relate to the end-result of the work your employees are doing. If you're mired in memos about cubicle decor and shoes, there's a problem.

How about asking Fred (when he's finished updating you about the kids) what he's accomplished today?

Can you tell the difference between your star and sub-par performers when it comes time to decide who gets laid-off?  How do you know your company's "standards" are focused on what's most important?


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He is lazy boy. Need to be fired.

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