Bosses - why don't you fire people?

You see this a lot, right? Even nowadays - someone who is clearly underperforming and yet stays on and on.

Have you had experience with this? I am trying to get into someone’s head and see what they’re thinking. This person never fires anyone, no matter how warranted.

So what are some of the reasons you would not fire someone?

I am the supervisor to seven people.

I would love to fire three or four of them. But I’m not allowed.

Sure, we’ve all seen this, but there’s two factors at play:

  1. In most places it’s really, really hard to fire someone, and I mean that in a lot of ways. It’s legally difficult, emotionally difficult, and hard for the organization. You face issues of liability, of employee dissatisfaction and alarm, and of hurting someone personally. It’s just easier to move to the next day and take the relatively small hit of another day with Mr. Bean on the payroll than the comparatively huge bother of having to tell the teary-eyed person they’re fired, walk them out, prepare a severance package, worry about whether he’ll sue, and on and on.

  2. Finding qualified employees is really hard. Despite what people will claim, there just isn’t a huge pile of hungry, capable unemployed people handy whenever you need to hire someone. So while your current employee may be a doofus, he might be better than no one at all. And if you do hire someone it takes awhile and they may turn out to be no good either - a risk especially prevalent if you’re in a rush to fill the position you just emptied.

Oh, there can be so many reasons:
[li]Politics; [/li][li]Not empowered;[/li][li]Have to build a huge case so the company isn’t sued; [/li][li]Employee is son/daughter/niece/nephew/best friend’s kid/best friend to someone in upper management;[/li][li]Employee is a member of a protected class and so the huge case must be airtight;[/li][li]Boss is clueless about the problems;[/li][li]Employee is good at playing on the boss’ sympathy…[/li][/ul]

…and so on.

I own a mid-size IT company along with a business partner. After almost 2 decades, neither one of us is fond of firing people due to a number of factors:

  1. Potential legal consequences, although we have never had an actual problem
  2. Affect on morale - you may get a mid-performer thinking they are next, although firing a bottom-of-the-pile can conversely be a morale booster.
  3. Not wanting to be a jerk. Being fired sucks (not that I have ever been fired myself)

We recently terminated someone, and had to spend weeks untangling his projects and clients. My partner bitched to me that we fired him too early and should have waited. I responded that we fired him too late. He should never have gotten into the mess he was in at all.

You might not be aware of what is happening behind the scenes. This is a common response that I would give to my employees during their one on ones and they would argue, “why is so and so still here??”. So and So is still here because their employment status is not up for discussion with anyone other than HR and So and So.

But here are some other reasons why-

Your employer might have a progressive discipline program- that requires documentation like verbal, written warning, improvement plan, final warning, termination. Of course there are some items that do not warrant time periods like violence and attendance, although even with attendance, that could take more than 90 days.

Regarding attendance- you also shouldn’t be in the loop if the coworker is on FMLA.

Some managers also don’t like the feeling that they have failed and see themselves as saviors of employees and their bad habits. It sucks to manage that way, because your team dynamics suffer.

I have no problem firing people, but honestly, its the documenting, waiting for approval etc etc that really grinds the process to a slow crawl.

I have had one under-performing employee who I did not fire. If I fired her I would have it go against my unemployment compensation insurance charges, so I’m better off if she would quit.

She was a warm body, but she did the bare minimum required of her. But the raises I give are based on performance. She never got a raise in the years she worked for me and she was told why; she just didn’t care. One day her husband received a promotion at work and she decided she could live without her salary, so she quit.

We are still on friendly terms when we run into each other.

Only assholes want to fire people. It’s tough to do, you know they’ll be hurting. I’ve fired people, and except for no-shows where you don’t have to tell them I’ve agonized about it and taken too long each time. This has been across the board, restaurant workers, computer programmers, salespeople, and administrative assistants. I will point out that all of them would be better categorized as non-performers than under-performers. You don’t easily fire someone who is just performing a little sub-par, you have to try to get more out of them or find something else for them to do. In one case I found another job for someone who just wasn’t ever going to be good enough, but the timing was just right on that one.

Oh, for the days of firing someone on the spot.

We had to go through a horrible Performance Improvement Plan for two employees. Basically, they were put on notice that their jobs were in jeopardy and they had 90 days to improve. This did not come as a surprise to either one of them (and nor should it.)

What followed was an incredibly stressful and laborious time of double and triple checking their work, having daily closed door meetings with the under-performing employee, meanwhile the entire department knows there’s something up. The atmosphere is fraught.

Neither one of them made it the 90 days…they both elected to leave (in quite spectacular fashion, both of them.)

Now, we save ourselves the trouble and hire right to begin with. We’ve had this staff for going three years and we work well together.

This is something that gets discussed a lot where I work. For various reasons, underperformance is endemic in our organization. I was surprised to learn, when I was hired, that less than 50% of the people in my position and division are performing up to the set standards. But they won’t be fired. This is true across the whole organization. My husband works in a different department, where they have the same problems.

The reasons are:

  1. The people who are underperforming are mostly not doing terrible work. They are just below the standards set for quality and production. Those standards are pretty high, and most of the underperformers aren’t far off of those standards.

  2. It is costly to train new people. People in my position spend 4 weeks on training alone before they begin to do productive work, and aren’t considered fully trained until they’re on the job 6 months. So it’s cheaper to keep people who are underperforming, but who are not that far off the performance metrics.

  3. There’s no reason to think they could hire anyone better. They hire new people in my position and department all the time. And they always try to pick the best people who apply. And some of them turn out great, and some turn out to be underperformers.

  4. They kind of need the underperformers, in some ways. There is a lot of turnover in my position. It is low on the totem pole but a great stepping-stone to get into the organization, which is the largest local employer and has the best benefits around. The great hires try to move up as soon as they can. The underperformers are happy to have an easy job with great benefits. They keep the place running while the great hires cycle in and out.

  5. Even in jobs that are more in demand in the organization, people are afraid to fire underperformers. Even if they are a real problem. First, because “be nice” is our local culture, and even the bosses are uncomfortable doing it. Second, because it’s a relatively small city. Everyone is separated from everyone else in the area by two or three degrees at most. A lot of time, you have friends or acquaintances in common. Even if you don’t, you’re afraid of running into them at the grocery store. Or at your kid’s Little League game. Or what they will say about you to the people they go to church with. The sympathy will likely be on the side of the person who was fired, out in the community. So you pretty much have to break the law or swear in anger at a customer to get fired.

Depends on the industry and the role.

Hiring people is really expensive. Usually not financially, but time and energy. A low performer who knows the job, knows the policies and knows the products/services has value. They may not perform up to standard, but at least the work isn’t piling up as much as it will when no one is there and the manager and/or high performers are free to focus on their jobs instead of losing 25% of their bandwidth to training a new hire.

The performance improvement programs (PIP) also take time to implement in situations where liability is a major concern, so the firing itself can take a lot of time and energy too.

That’s almost always the biggest reason why low performers get to hang on to jobs in high-skill and/or white collar industries, the entire process wastes a lot of time and energy. This fact is also way job seekers often get frustrated when trying to get hired, making a bad hire is a major risk. On the outside it seems like it should be simple to “just give someone a chance” but it’s not unfortunately.

In my experience there’s 2 important facts that first-time managers learn.

  1. Coaching and motivating people is a art form and requires special focus on an ongoing basis. Correcting problems early and constructively pays off in spades later on. Simple training and compensation are just the start, ongoing programs are more valuable over time.
  2. Fire people as soon as you can if the coaching isn’t taking. Second and third chances just dig you in deeper and ignoring the problem is worse in the long term.

It’s unfortunate that our culture tends to really stigmatize being fired. Failing shouldn’t be a permanent indictment but it often is, which is part of the reason why managers can often be so sympathetic to well-intentioned employees who fall behind.

In my experience, especially at large companies with a big bureaucracy, it comes down to HR putting in a bunch of rules on how you need to fire someone, and thus you need to spend months (to years):

(1) Documenting the performance failings
(2) Documenting how you’ve attempted to help the employee improve
(3) Shuffle the employee to a different team/group/client to remove possibility of simple personality conflict (some companies)
(4) Provide multiple methods of improvement venues and document it
As a manager, it’s actually a lot of work, and since “being a manager” is only part of your job responsibilities, it can take a long time to do these seemingly simple things.

My former boss (civil service) went through three torturous years of documentation, meetings, PIP process, meetings with union reps/lawyers/higher ups, to fire a truly pathetic coworker.

Now she is in year two of the ongoing lawsuit, the employee will most likely be rehired, given back pay, and assigned to a different unit. When I asked her privately what she thought about the situation she said “I will never even attempt to terminate someone again, I’ve learned my lesson”.

None of my bosses ever had any trouble firing me.

One thing that I don’t think anyone has mentioned - it’s better to have an underperforming employee than no employee. Sure, Joe might be doing only half the work he should be doing, but do you want to force your department to pick up the other half of his work too? Finding a replacement will take time if you can do it especially in government jobs, where it can take months for the paperwork. But in a lot of environments, there’s no guarantee that you will be able to hire someone into the ‘slot’ of the person who was fired. It’s quite common for companies to decide on a blanket hiring freeze, or to require that a replacement be justified like hiring a completely new person. If companies were generally well-run you’d always be able to fire and replace someone who really wasn’t up to standards, but I’ve never seen any large company or organization that worked ‘properly’ in all areas.

This is a really interesting discussion. I’ve spent my whole life in the military, and the civilian world terrifies me more than any deployment. I have this idea of this totally cut-throat world where everyone gets fired at the drop of a hat for any reason or no reason at all… Your kid got sick? Fired. Your salary is too high? Fired. One more week and we have to pay your retirement benefits? Fired.

What type of jobs are we talking about here? Are these like more complex tech and project management jobs? I imagine the lower-tier McJobs are replaceable and have higher turnover.

I’m going to disagree with this. When our underperforming employees left it was like the sun came out from behind a cloud. They were inefficient and difficult to work with, and having them gone made things a lot simpler. Sure, we all had to pitch in, but the atmosphere was better, and we made room to hire a better employee.

Plus, it’s tough on the rest of the staff that does well. They are putting in the hours and doing the work and they see the slackers “getting away” with slipshod work (granted, they don’t know what’s going on behind the lines.) It builds resentment.

In health care, you can have a string of dead people if you have an underperforming employee.

When I was in a position to make this decision, it basically came down to the realization that I’d end up doing all the extra work, and no new hire was likely to be forthcoming. With that the case, I decided that I wasn’t going to stay there long enough for this to be my problem.

At the few huge-mega-corps I’ve worked at, firing is very uncommon but the companies will take every advantage of period org restructuring to lay off. There are also known “deadwood” divisions where those that can’t be fired will tend to be transferred to. Usually a talk like “Dave, our Very Important Project division is trimming its budget and we don’t have room for you, but we have a great opportunity for you in our Monitor The Never Changing Status Light division.”