Isn’t it Better to Fire Someone Than to Make Them Want to Quit?

Your question:

I am a 35 year old tech specialist who works at a firm in Cleveland. I’ve been with this company for 3 years. We have three main service lines: Management consulting, technology, and out-sourcing. The scope and objectives of my projects vary greatly, but in general I work on finance strategy assignments. Our work environment is overall good. This is in part due to the average tenure of any employee being 5 years, which translates to a zone of comfort in the office.

That’s not to say any workplace or other consulting company wouldn’t fire employees in cases of policy violations. But, on one occasion it was clear that my superior wasn’t keen on one of my coworkers. I’m not sure what (or why) there was tension between them; however, my boss didn’t fire him. Instead she found work that diminished his market value as a professional and granted him no increments/bonuses. Ultimately she smothered his passion for the job until finally he quit.

From a professional standpoint I know there’s no easy way to fire someone, but to discourage your employee in his work efforts and to be responsible for their departure is as bad if not worse than just firing them. Do you agree or am I being overzealous with my assumption?

Response:

Dr. Gorden may wish to comment on this as well, but I’ll share my thoughts and you can add them to his, if he sends a message after mine.

The situation you describe sounds unfortunate for several reasons, all of them equally important. 1.) There was an on-going, perhaps permanent, negative affect on the life of the employee. 2.) the manager lost a chance to coach and improve the work of someone for whom she was responsible or to stop the situation earlier by asking for his dismissal. 3.) The organization lost the full use of an employee who was hired to fulfill a specific job description. 4.) Probably other employees, in addition to you, were distracted and disturbed by the perceived unfairness.

You may not be aware of some aspects of the situation that would provide clarity about it. For example, the manager may have counseled with the employee or may have tried to coach him, but without success. Or, perhaps his work product was acceptable, but his interactions with the manager were problematic for some reason and she lost interest in helping him. This could especially happen if others, such as yourself, were much more easy to work with for her and thus became the ones she supported and encouraged.

The reality in most organizations is that it is sometimes difficult to get approval to fire someone, even though they aren’t acceptable. In some organizations, multiple Performance Improvement Plans, counseling sessions, retraining and more Performance Improvement Plans are required. The process can drag on for months and months. If the manager leaves, the new manager has to start the process all over.

As a result, after making cursory efforts, many managers hope the employee will make it easy for everyone and quit on their own. In situations like that, a manager may essentially fire someone in his or her mind. The manager is aware the employee is occupying a desk, but the employee has no influence and isn’t considered a valuable resource. In some cases the manager purposely makes an employee’s life so miserable, they quit. Or, if they stay, their enthusiasm and value diminishes every day. And, as I said at the beginning, it’s a tragedy for everyone.

Sometimes the manager doesn’t really want to fire the employee, they just don’t think they deserve special opportunities or salary bonuses. In most organizations, withholding a “perk” given to others, is accompanied by a meeting explaining why—and what needs to be done by the employee to merit it the next time it’s available. I hope that happened with the employee in your workplace.

Whatever led to the estrangement between your manager and the employee, the employee still had options and could still have taken responsibility for his own success and motivation. Dr. Gorden sometimes encourages employees to “vote with your feet” and leave a job that is managed by someone who is abusive or to leave when work is so unfulfilling as to be demoralizing.

The employee could have documented aspects of the situation and gone to HR to discuss it and ask for assistance. Or, he could found out more about why his manager was unsupportive and done what he could to repair the relationship. At least he could have tried—then moved on, if it became apparent things would never improve. I realize all of those options are easier said than done. But, any of them would have been better than for the employee to feel that his mental and emotional energy was drained away at work, without hope of improvement.

I should also point out that perhaps the employee was not as unhappy as you might think. He may have not had the strength and passion for the job that you think he had, so one or two set-backs were all it took for him to stop trying. Or, he may have wanted to do more fulfilling work, but not enough to do what it took to make it happen.

The bottom line is that there were probably many dynamics about your specific example that are unknowable. However, I do agree with you that if someone is not the right fit as an employee, if they are so unacceptable as to not be able to do the full work of their job description, or if some aspect of their performance or behavior has not improved after they have been given opportunities to improve it, it is better for everyone if they are let go, as soon as possible. When I train about counseling, correcting or dismissing, I often remind managers and supervisors, “The earlier, the easier”.

In those cases, as time-consuming as it nearly always is (and as unpleasant), managers must carefully document their efforts and work with HR to follow organizational requirements for dismissal. They may need to do far more than seems reasonable, but it may be the only way to have a team in which all employees are valuable and valued. Many companies nowadays have exit packages for just those situations, to make it more likely the employee will leave without anger or a feeling of unfairness.

You sound like someone who would take control of your own career if a situation such as you describe started to develop. The fact that you were concerned about it for others, also indicates you are empathetic and caring. I am sure that has been noticed by your own managers and peers. I feel confident that your inner strength and your compassion will be rewarded in your career and in your life.

Best wishes to you!
Tina Lewis Rowe
Ask the Workplace Doctors