Maintaining that "Nice Guy" Image

Article by:
Bob Pritchett, EO Seattle
Bob Pritchett
EO Seattle

Bob is the President and CEO of Logos Bible Software, an electronic publisher of academic and Bible reference workssold worldwide. Bob is an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award winner and the author of Fire Someone Today, And Other Surprising Tactics for Making Your Business a Success.

John wasn’t making it in the sales department. I tried placing him in a few different positions, but none were a good fit. John was a great guy, and I couldn’t bear the thought of firing him, so I went ahead and placed him in a shipping management position that had opened up. After all, he couldn’t do that bad of a job, right?

Wrong. Costs began to rise. John needed more staff than the previous manager had needed. Personality conflicts emerged. It got to the point where I was regularly leading meetings that focused on issues the department had never faced before. John had to go, but I dreaded firing him.

I worried about what he would do, where he would find work in our small town and how he would support his family. In my mind, I took on his responsibilities as my own. I put off the event for as long as I could until it was clear that the costs and conflicts were endangering the entire company. I had to take action. I fired John. Soon after, the shipping began to run smoothly again, personality conflicts diminished and costs were reduced.

We were back on track, and all it cost me was a small burden of guilt and failure. I thought I could carry that weight, until one evening when my mother told me she had run into John’s wife at a local grocery store. I cringed.

“John’s wife told me how glad she was that you let him go,” she said. “It forced him to think about what he really wanted to do, and he has decided to go back to school and prepare for the ministry.”

What a relief! I had not ruined John’s life after all. And what a waste of time and energy, I later realized. In my foolish desire to take responsibility for John, I had kept him from his true calling. For nearly a year, I was keeping him in the wrong place and preventing him from following his dreams.

What I learned from this experience, and in the years that followed, is that once I discover that someone doesn’t fit in a position, I need to act quickly and fire them immediately. If training, mentoring and performance reviews haven’t addressed the problem, any further delay is a waste of time. What’s more, keeping a wrong employee around is demoralizing to me, the employee and the employee’s co-workers. I still don’t enjoy firing people. I want to be kind and generous. I worry on behalf of the employee: What about their mortgage? What if they can’t find another job? And then I start to worry about my wasted investment in hiring and training, or my inability to quickly fill the position.

I want to protect my investment, my presumptuous feeling of parental responsibility, my time and energy, and even my reputation as a “nice guy.” But when I don’t fire someone I should, my inaction is malicious. I’m not being a nice guy. Instead, I’m hurting our organization and wasting the staff’s time by keeping him or her in a job with no future. My motivations are most likely selfish. At the very best, I am just being stupid.

Compassion is caring about others. Retaining the employee who should be fired is all about caring for me. Today I try to follow the adage, “Slow to hire, fast to fire.” And when it is time to fire someone, I keep things simple and straightforward. For every employee with a “fire me” problem, there is a job out there in which they can excel and be happy. Sometimes you just need to set them free to find that job.

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