Why firing someone isn't an option

“A peacefulness follows any decision, even the wrong one” - Rita Mae Brown

When I read about this article Great managers don’t lay off employees about Sinek’s talk on leadership a few months ago, I had some reservations. My gut feeling was that he was right about not firing people, but I didn’t buy in the argument that organizations are like a family, and that you don’t fire people on the ground that they are like the children of the family and therefore can’t be fired.

Let people decide and live with their decision

Few months down the line, I now understand why as a boss, you shouldn’t fire people. It’s all a matter of trust: you trust people and their judgment. It is their decision to leave the organization. They want and you want them to feel being themselves and be owner of their life and make sense out of it. That’s the culture you want for your organization: a culture where people make decisions and learn to live with them. Only this culture can empower individuals in organization and allow them to work using their full potential.

Therefore, the one skill you need to check when hiring is that you are hiring an adult and not a child. You don’t want people who expect to be taken care of like children. You don’t want people who are likely to blame you for decisions that is theirs to take. And when you hire a fresh graduate who may lack the experience and maturity, then make sure that this is the first thing they learn when they join: they can and should make decisions. Show them how, where and stick to it.

Say no to fear and terror

Firing (or knowing that you can be fired) is like using threat and fear to make a child obey you. It works, but that’s not how you want your child to develop. When you raise your kid, what you want to teach them is to take care of themselves and make informed decisions. For children, you may do things “for their own good”, but this doesn’t work with adults, because that’s exactly the difference between adults and kids: adults should know their own good.

So what do you do instead? Give them the means to make an informed decision. You can give options, you can influence, you can explain your point of view. And they agree or disagree. Eventually, their decision is still theirs, and you can’t steal it because you’re the boss. This is very close to the “advice process” for decision making described by Frederic Laloux in Reinventing Organizations.

In fact it’s the same process for someone to decide whether they should join an organization. No one can force them into joining, and they’ll have to live with their decision. There’s no-one to blame if they turn out unhappy in the company.

But how far are we from “manipulating” people in letting them believe that they can decide? It’s hard to tell because the difference only resides in the intent of the person trying to influence. I believe the only visible effects is when influence fails: manipulation will turn into hard feelings, real autonomy will let go of the decision taken. That’s why organizations should be able to let go of employees without trauma or a sense of betrayal.

Trust means safety

So what do you do when you have a poor performer or someone whose behaviour is creating problems in your organization? You tried everything: frequent feedback, one-to-one discussions, warnings, but the person doesn’t change, and is becoming toxic to your organization. What if they don’t even fear to lose their job? Isn’t it dangerous for your organization?

If you reach that stage, then I would seriously reconsider the culture in your organization, and challenge why performance is poor and why discussion fail. I would bet on a lack of sense of safety within the organization that cover up more in-depth problems, problems many are aware of, but dare not to discuss openly.

In organizations where it is safe to be “ourselves” then this would not happen. Nobody feels good about being a poor performer. If you say to someone that they’re not performing well, either they agree and you both can work on finding solutions, either they don’t and you can both focus on understanding and fixing what performance means. In all cases if you offer options or let people find their own solution, then things would have been fixed very early on.

How about firing someone for professional misconduct? Anything that is forbidden should be known in advance, so that people can make informed decisions: no steal, no violence, etc. Breaking this kind of rules can get you fired. However if you want your organization to be creative, then limit these rules to the organization’s core values.

Beware of false options

For the person who you really think is a bad fit for your organization, can you always offer true options? How is it different from letting the person get bored or use some kind of harassment to make that person feel miserable and quit? The important thing is to keep both parties engaged and committed to find something better for both.

One suggestion would be to go to the extent of helping that person find another job. That would give them real options. This is time consuming, but that’s the price to pay for a culture of “trust among adults being themselves” in the organization. The organization has also to live with the decision of hiring that person in the first place.