Home > musing, rant > People don’t get fired enough

People don’t get fired enough

November 22, 2013

This might surprise some of you – or not, I’m not sure. But one of the most satisfying things about leaving academia and the tenure system and going into industry is how, at least in the ideal situation, you can get fired for not doing your job.

In fact, one of the reasons I decided to leave academia is that I really thought some of my colleagues weren’t doing right by the undergraduates, and the frustrating thing was that there was essentially no way to force them to start. Tenure has great aspects and not-so-great aspects, and a total lack of leverage is not a great one. I feel for deans sometimes.

Here’s the dirty little secret of lots of industry jobs, though: lots of time people also don’t get fired when they should. And sometimes it’s super awful bullies who yell and scream and act inappropriately but also pull in amazing sales numbers. There are things like that, of course. That’s the example of how they don’t abide by the alleged social contract but they perform on the bottomline. Social contracts are hard to quantify and somewhat squishy. You see people getting away with stuff because they’re rainmakers or higher ups.

But there are also plenty of examples of people just not doing their job, and having super awful attitudes, or even just completely apathetic attitudes, and for whatever reason they don’t get fired. This demoralizes and irritates and distracts everyone around them, because they all resent the free-rider.

Plus, retaining people who should by all accounts get fired makes the veneer of the kool-aid drinking camaraderie even more flimsy and scrutinizable – what’s so great about working here if people can just slack off and not care? Why do I give two shits about this project anyway? How does this project in the larger scheme of things? Maybe that scrutiny is a good thing – I engage in it myself – but you don’t want everyone thinking that all the time.

Here’s the thing, before you think I’m super vicious and mean to want people to get fired. These people I’m talking about are generally high skilled and temporarily depressed. They’re in the wrong job. And once fired, they will find another job, which will hopefully be a better one for them. I’m not saying that nobody will ever end up jobless and homeless, but very few, and moreover there are plenty of jobless and homeless people who would be psyched to do that job really well (putting aside how difficult it is for homeless people to get seriously considered for a job).

And I’m not saying you fire people out of the blue. You definitely need to tell people they’re not performing well (or that they are) and keep them in the feedback loop on whether things are working out. But in my experience people who deserve to get fired totally know it and can’t believe their luck that they’ve not been fired yet.

To conclude, I’m going on record saying I kind of agree with Jack Welch on this issue in a way I never thought I would.

Categories: musing, rant
  1. jdmarino
    November 22, 2013 at 9:21 am

    I, too, prefer a meritocracy. However, what your post omits is the possibility of bad bosses, ones who aren’t fit to judge their employees. Sure, in your scheme *their* bosses will eventually fire them, but not before some innocent employees fall first.

    • November 22, 2013 at 9:22 am

      True! And another thing I forgot to say: people don’t quit enough.

    • November 22, 2013 at 9:25 am

      By the way, I don’t mean to talk about meritocracy, which I think is a politically loaded and bogus concept. I really just mean when people don’t wanna be there nor participate in a meaningful or useful way, they should be asked to leave. A much more general concept than a meritocracy.

      As for bad bosses: if bosses are forced to articulate why people aren’t doing a good job, it also helps build evidence against bad bosses.

      • rob
        November 22, 2013 at 12:37 pm

        A bad boss is not always reason to quit, Cathy. Suppose you work in a context in which your knowledge, skills and talents socially transform non privileged, non entitled people. The jealousy or pathology of a bad boss may result in your being fired, yet quiting would have been an immoral betrayal of those who benefit from and need your work, since that work might not have other avenues of expression outside.

        In every institution some employees can’t be moved, others can be shoved around. When a boss — a new boss, arrogant with new ideas, for example — decides to change the context, who gets shoved? Those who can be shoved — no matter how invaluable — not those who should be, no matter how worthless or worse. Neither allowing every employee to be shoved nor protecting them all is the fix. It’s accountability of the boss that’s essential.

      • sheenyglass
        November 25, 2013 at 2:30 pm

        There is also the question of someone who is under-performing because of poor chemistry with the boss. In other words, what if they are temporarily depressed because of a dysfunctional relationship with a bad boss?

        Who gets fired then? I could see it going either way – a boss who demoralizes employees is definitely failing at management (i.e., not doing their job). But there’s a middle ground where the boss is adequate at certain things, but their style alienates people with a certain disposition – for example a boss who is good at the task side, but bad at the social side of leadership. Some people are great at shrugging off the boss’ abrasiveness, others aren’t.

        In other words, to what extent is the boss required to shape his/her leadership style to the employees and to what extent are the employees required to adjust to the style of the boss? Personally, I’m not sure – its a grey area!

  2. November 22, 2013 at 9:40 am

    If people high skilled and temporarily depressed, maybe letting them know that they won’t be fired would be a boon. The poor performance is probably because they feel like they’re in the wrong job, but don’t have the courage to quit and want the decision made for them. Let them know that the decision is theirs: quit, or stay and learn to be happy.

  3. November 22, 2013 at 10:04 am

    One of the biggest secrets in the corporate training business is (was) that companies spend way too much investing in their bottom 10% of producers and not enough on the rest.

  4. November 22, 2013 at 11:45 am

    Kind of echoing jdmarino’s point here, but do you really think that if the workplace culture swung towards widespread firing, it would be the bullies and people with lousy attitudes who got it in the neck? Isn’t it more likely that they’d be the ones doing the firing?

    • November 22, 2013 at 6:53 pm

      Well of course it could be them. You would wanna find another job if so. But if the assumption was to give consistent feedback etc then

  5. November 23, 2013 at 8:14 am

    I’m not sure exactly what tenure guarantees at the university level, but at the public school level here in NYC it’s certainly not the “job for life” that’s often portrayed in the media. Administrators have the power to discipline (and bring termination proceedings) against teachers, it just requires a substantial amount of work. And it involves some of what you mention: feedback, opportunities to improve, documentation of progress (or lack thereof). Ironically, most complaints about how hard it is to fire incompetent teachers are really complaints about how administrators aren’t capable of doing their jobs.

    And my corporate experience suggests that the power to easily fire people has much more theoretical appeal than practical appeal.

    • November 23, 2013 at 8:17 am

      There’s a huge distance between someone who is doing something documentably horrible to their students versus people just not doing enough. Maybe my standards are too high!

  6. November 23, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    Bullies, even if they are rainmakers, should be fired. Agreed. Agreeing with yank-and-rank? A whole other ball game. In his WSJ article, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303789604579198281053673534 , Jack Welch puts forth a false analogy between being graded in school and ranked on the job. The key point of breakdown is that in school, the primary goal is to teach you and help you get better, i.e. learn. The primary goal in business is to prove you earn the business more money. Furthermore, one’s livelihood is at stake, not just whether or not you have to spend a few more hours studying or miss your good-grades stipend from your parents (should you have been so financially privileged to have received such things as a child). Another huge problem with rank-and-yank, besides it being ridiculously punitive and rarely carried out in practice as praised in theory, is that after the first or second round, *all* of your employees are well- if not high-performing individuals. You get to six-sigma on that bell curve, y’all. Then you’re promoting cut-throat competition more than completion of a job where two-or-three-sigma performance would be just fine. Aggressive people are most highly rewarded, and you end up with a group of bullies. Q.E.D.

    • NothingVentured
      November 23, 2013 at 2:53 pm

      Yes, this. I worked at a company that was taken over by GE. It had previously been a nice place to work. After a couple rounds of rank and yank, it had become cut-throat and toxic. Any collegiality was gone and only those with the sharpest elbows survived. I was never so happy to leave an employer behind.

      • shesaidsomething
        November 27, 2013 at 7:59 am

        Toxicity is a very real problem. The bottom-line can only be maintained for so long when “by all means necessary” is the pervading work place mentality. You can go from an environment of intrinsically motivated accomplishment to people screwing up on purpose out of sheer frustration. You know you failed as a company at that point.

  7. Mike Hunter
    November 24, 2013 at 2:03 pm

    Few environments are true meritocracies, corporate or academic, but are more like petri dishes for political influence. And the notion of a job for life is pretty rare too. It’s probably a matter of time before academic tenure is replaced with “at will,” which is the current corporate jargon for you’re one step from a banana peel at all times. That said and even with “at will,” it’s still pretty difficult to fire anyone…it takes time, even months of careful planning and collusion on the part of HR with the firing manager to ensure that all appropriate legalities are observed and that the hapless person in question is left with little, or no, room to sue. In the case of so-called “protected classes” — minorities, women, older employees, etc. — they can sometimes be nearly impossible to fire — like until you catch them, not just drunk, but actively drinking on the job kind of thing.

    Regardless, corporate cultures vary wildly in their rate of employee churn — planned or not. So, digital agencies in NYC can have undesired term rates up to 40% per year among their mostly 20-something workforce, while “up or out” environments like McKinsey’s capitalize on consultant churn as a source for fresh thinking and energy, building it into their talent system. In fact, most consultancies tell newly hired associates to look around the room, because in 4 years or so 80% of them will be gone, whether by choice or CTL. Meanwhile completely, 180 degree opposite behavior is to be found in some other industries. Consider health care insurance: these are entities that are generally run by business-clueless actuaries and act as museums — set pieces trapped in time — in terms of their employee relations. It’s a known fact that even today you can find a stunningly high proportion of people who have not only been in that industry for life, but who have been with their particular company for life…people who are two inches wide and twenty miles deep in experience. Not surprisingly, health care is among the least high-performing and cost-intensive industries in the country…it’s just one reason among many contributing to its 18% share of the GDP.

    So while I sympathize with the sentiments in the post, it just ain’t that easy.

  8. shesaidsomething
    November 27, 2013 at 7:55 am

    It’s all such a mixed bag. Many have rightfully pointed out that management should be considered in this scenario. I believe that management is responsible for the team. This has, of course, negative consequences when the manager is inept (e.g. cheating scandals in public schools to meet regulations). It is a quagmire.

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