When I landed in DC, my first boss was an ‘interesting’ character. I use the adjective advisedly, in much the same way as ‘incredible’ or ‘unbelievable’. Shortly after I started working, she brought me a lovely Villeroy & Boch box for my desk. She told me it was a welcome gift. Given the environment in which I was working (HR Manager in a national law firm), I was struck by the thoughtful and gracious nature of the gesture. She was the least spontaneous person I had ever met. In fact, she was my introduction to the world of challenging bosses – she was demanding, arbitrary, judgmental, obstinate and more than a little self-righteous.
A week later, she came into my office and told me to terminate G’s employment. There was nothing in this woman’s file to suggest that she was skating on the edge of the employment abyss. She was capable, experienced and had the tendency to arrive between five and fifteen minutes late a couple of days a week. G was also quite confident and never really provided the administrator (my boss) with the deference she expected from everyone. Of course, that really was the crux of the issue. I wasn’t prepared to have such a dialogue with an employee who had never been spoken with about her lateness (or anything else for that matter). So I offered to work with G, with the proviso that if I didn’t get anywhere within a proscribed and sustained period of time, I would do the deed. The administrator relented – but not before reiterating that she didn’t like G at all and the likelihood of my success was somewhere between slim and none.
To abbreviate the story – G worked out her lateness issues and was more respectful of the administrator’s position in the office hierarchy. I walked into my office one morning and found a $500.00 check in that beautiful china box, along with a note – “if you had gotten rid of her, it would have been $1,000.00”. Pretty stunning (please see adjectives ‘interesting’, ‘incredible’ and ‘unbelievable’ above). A single mom with two small boys; I needed the job even though I couldn’t stand the person to whom I reported. Yet I wasn’t going to cave on these directives which occurred with far more frequency than I care to recount. Suffice it to say I was there for two years ‘working with’ a ridiculous number of employees and receiving $500.00 checks instead of $1,000.00, before I was happily recruited away.
It really didn’t matter whether there was documentation to support these decisions. It didn’t matter that she was exposing the firm to charges of unfair employment and/or discriminatory practices. Her argument was that employment was at will, and at any given point in time she could decide that an employee wasn’t meeting her standard of likability or talent. In the most simplistic sense, as an employer she was right. If an employer is making decisions to hire or fire and those decisions have nothing to do with an individual’s protected class, both employer and employee are free to end their relationship at any time. However, just as a realtor’s mantra is ‘location, location, location’, HR people repeat ‘documentation, documentation, documentation’. Arbitrary decisions more often than not upend peoples’ lives, adversely impact professional reputations and cost money (as they should, in my view).
I don’t like severing professional ties – or any ties for that matter. I’m way too neurotic in my need to help make things better (as if I alone can do that). Happily, I have never met a successful HR professional who enjoys the process either. I maintain that if the time comes when such situations elicit no reaction – or worse yet, delight – it’s time to consider your other talents and re-career. It is difficult, painful and disheartening to initiate these dialogues and I would imagine it sucks to be on the receiving end even more.
In an ideal world, every employee is stellar, productive, consistently enthusiastic, highly skilled and committed to team play. All the time. Oh – they’re also loyal, have the utmost integrity and remain motivated from the first day forward. Did I also mention that every supervisor is killer smart, engaged, dedicated to their people, visionary…Ok, wake up now – the dream part of this blog is over. Performance does not occur on one upward trajectory; performance waxes and wanes. That’s a predictable and honest course of professional – and personal – life. If a supervisor is offering consistent, regular feedback then an employee knows where s/he is on the performance spectrum (on a separate but related note – if conversations like this become the norm, the evaluation process wouldn’t be viewed with such derision).
After thirty years in this profession, I have arrived at a conclusion I can live with. If I can say that I have done everything I can do to help an individual improve his/her performance, if I have mentored, advised and documented (and may I add that I can’t use the acronym P.I.P for I always think of Gladys Knight), if I have clearly articulated the expectations and consequences involved if they are not met – and there is no positive result, then I am not terminating the employment relationship – the employee is making that choice. I realize that this is a little bit of a shift from the way we typically approach this topic. Please recognize that I’m not suggesting that the employer is divested of responsibility, rather I am leveling the playing field so that these discussions leave no victims or passive recipients of terrible, life-altering information.
I can hear your rumblings in cyber space. Certainly, there are mandated economically driven RIFs where there are truly victims and I have been the harbinger of those awful messages more times than I would like to recall. That’s a topic for another day, I hope. And yes, there are really lousy bosses and ineffective supervisors and employees let go for reasons that elude them and employees who aren’t let go for reasons that elude everybody else. Perhaps that too is a future subject. For now though, let’s go back to where we began – you couldn’t pay me to terminate the employment of someone without trying to improve the problem. You couldn’t pay me to engage in this exercise if I didn’t have the employee’s buy-in to do the necessary work. When it fails, the individual is making a decision and a choice and when it succeeds? To paraphrase MasterCard – it’s priceless.