Contributed Column

Personnel Points

by Dave Mount, Westaff

Firing Employees

Firing employees is one of the most stressful and difficult tasks a manager faces. Jack Welch wrote in Jack, his autobiographical book about his management at GE, that he thought firing was one of the easiest things a manager can do. When there is a problem, Welch writes, that problem is solved with a 20-minute session, and the problem walks out the door never to return.

After I read that book, I thought about Jack Welch’s advice every time I had to fire someone. It helped a little, but not much.

Most of our businesses in Vermont are small companies and, as such, our employees become like family. You would not want to fire your spouse, brother, sister, or child, and after a time, an employee seems like one of those family members. But there comes a time ...

In the case of a salesperson, it is a very easy decision. A sales drop in an otherwise positive economy is a sure sign that a sales rep has lost effectiveness. The best solution for both parties is the termination of the sales rep. Most often, sales reps will land on their feet, frequently in a situation where their talents are better used.

Other staff are more difficult to judge than salespeople. There are few concrete measures of the effectiveness of an accounts payable clerk, for example. Managers have to be aware of attitude and changes in work habits. It also helps to understand what the underlying causes may be. A person’s work may deteriorate due to serious personal reasons that will eventually go away. Oh, I know that we all take the attitude that personal matters should be left at the door, but in reality, none of us really believe that is possible.

There are lots of reasons that we might consider terminating an employee. I will highlight three here, but there are so many more.

Attitude. When we hire new employees, they are gung-ho, but that tends to diminish over time. But to what extent? We want our employees to be ambassadors of our company, and a person with a negative attitude flies in the face of that mantra.

Competence. I cannot believe that a competent person will suddenly or slowly become incompetent, but changes in procedure can make this happen. For example, that accounts payable clerk may be perfectly comfortable coding invoices and issuing checks, but as the marketplace morphs into online payments, the person may become uncomfortable and then be prone to serious errors.

Resistance to change. I have long said that companies need to reinvent themselves, and we are aware that businesses change all the time anyway. Change requires training. I have seen people freeze up when they see change coming. They ask, “What is wrong with the old way?” What they don’t seem to grasp is that management did not make a change for the sake of change or to shake up our employees’ lives. Changes usually fit into a bigger picture that not all employees see or are willing to adopt.

Keeping our employees is always a much better solution than termination, but termination may still be the necessary solution. I have long been known for my own patience and reluctance to fire. I always want to give the benefit of the doubt and go back to the reason I hired the person in the first place.

So when you start to see an employee is slipping, try the following:

• Counsel the employee. See what the problem is.

• Consider additional training.

• See if there is an alternative position for the employee.

• If the problem is personal, develop a joint plan to deal with the problem with a minimum amount of stress and disruption to all concerned.

• Once you decide to fire someone, do it without delay!

Dave Mount is the founder of Westaff in Burlington.

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