Why It’s Critical to Be Even Better at Firing Than Hiring

During a tour of Google headquarters in 2014, our host described the impressive amount of time and effort the entire company put into hiring the best talent. However, he went on to proudly state that Google was even better at firing people.

Why would the world’s #2 Most Admired Company want to be better at firing than hiring?

Let’s look at a real life situation to understand.

Based on the concerns of an organization’s Board of Directors, a colleague and I conducted a leadership talent assessment. The Board was concerned about the complaints they had heard about ineffective and lackluster leaders.

The results of the assessment were not pretty. The overall capability of the leadership talent was low and there were several non-performing leaders in critical roles. The Board asked the president to deal with the “dead wood” which he did, though reluctantly, since the organization did not have a history of terminating due to performance (or terminating at all). After the President legally and compassionately addressed the low performers, he called us in to meet with him. We wondered what was up. When we walked into the normally staid President’s office, he effusively thanked us and shook our hands. He stated that the terminations were one of the toughest things he’d ever done in his career but one of the best. He told us that a number of employees had made a special effort to come by to thank him. The employees also described some of the poor behavior of those who were terminated. Beyond being ineffective or abusive, it turned out that some of the behavior was also unethical. Many employees said of the terminations, “It’s about time!”

The moral of the story: There is a huge payoff to identifying and quickly addressing non-performers or those that detract from an organization’s culture.

Unfortunately, this case study is not unique. I encounter many companies that are reluctant to address non-performers. Instead, they pass them around to different departments in the hope that the deadwood will do less damage. Or they continue to reduce their duties and performance expectations. These practices are sometimes defended by leaders expressing that the company is a “family” and that “we take care of our family”. Often times, it reflects a lack of managerial courage. HR can also be a contributor due to an over-emphasis on due diligence and documentation to avoid litigation, even though the risk of that occurring is often low.

The impact of marginally performing leaders is significantly underestimated. Nobody wants to work with them, nobody wants them on their team, they reduce engagement, they drive turnover and they hamper productivity. In addition, they are not good identifiers and developers of talent. They are the “poison apples” that block change and contribute to an unhealthy culture. In most cases, these are not bad people with negative motives. They sometimes reluctantly moved into a leadership role because it was the only way they can make more money, not because they are excited about leading others.

I often find that longer service employees fall into the marginal performance category because the company has not invested in their development or required to keep them up to date. By this time in their career, however, it is quite difficult to enhance skills that should have been developed much earlier in their tenure. Resurrection is much harder than birth.

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