Employees — sometimes in large numbers — are laid off from organizations for a variety of reasons beyond the quality of their performance. Company mergers often result in large-scale employee reductions to achieve economies and eliminate duplication. Government organizations — federal and state — often engage in what they call a reductions in force (RIFs) based on budget constraints. And many manufacturing companies will lay off portions of their workforce, when lack of consumer demand creates production overcapacity and inventory backups.
Delivering the bad news in the above instances is never a pleasant task for a manager but the individual deliverer is not — in most cases — solely responsible for the lay off decision. While they may have personally had a say in deciding who goes and who stays, their hand was generally forced by their organization’s executives and the circumstances requiring the lay offs.
By contrast, when a manager makes a personal decision to remove an employee from their job — often meaning fired from an organization — delivering that decision to the individual cannot be ascribed to any necessity imposed upon them. They must own that decision and deliver it directly. I have known few managers who enjoyed doing this, many who have unfortunately avoided doing this, and many who have felt guilty about doing it even when justified. Worse yet, wide-spread failure of managers within an organization to address substandard employee performance, is a guaranteed recipe for serious organizational underperformance as well.
In these circumstances, it helps to maintain some perspective on who should bear what responsibility for a firing and to ensure that the process leading up to that final decision has been open, consistent with established procedures, and fair.
For me, everything begins with the elements of a work contract: we get paid to do a specific job, as defined by the organization that hires us. Consequently, the organization and its managerial representatives have the authority to define that job and establish the measurable and observable criteria that will constitute a fully satisfactory level of performance. As the employee who expects a salary, we have the obligation to meet those fully, satisfactory requirements or forfeit that remuneration right.
Sadly, these both-party requirements often get lost in practice. Organizations often poorly define various jobs, or leave ambiguous or arbitrary what defines a satisfactory level of performance. Employees often come to see their paycheck as an entitlement or individual right, regardless of their level of effort or how well they perform.
Thus, the best managers go to great lengths to ensure that the job and performance requirements of all their subordinates are clearly defined and remain consistent. The best managers phrase their performance feedback in terms of these requirements and provide support for their conclusions with specific behavior-based examples of excellent or substandard efforts.
Feedback sessions regarding substandard performance occur with regularity, are documented when necessary, and are accompanied by a stipulation of consequences if the performance in question is not raised to a satisfactory level.
In simple english, consistently sub-standard performers need to frankly hear from their manager that failure to meet widely accepted standards for satisfactory ratings in their job, will eventually constitute grounds for removal. They must then be given every realistic opportunity — including a reasonable amount of time, access to available training, mentoring, and on the job experience — to meet those standards.
Unless an employee has been seriously miss-assigned to begin with — and such individuals are often easily reassigned to a more suitable position — a great many sub-standard performers, with appropriate effort on their part, will successfully raise the quality of their performance to acceptable levels. A manager’s responsibility is to provide the means and the opportunity necessary for such outcomes. The employee’s responsibility is to accomplish the goal. If what constitutes the desired job requirements and an acceptable performance evolves over time, so must the quality of the employee’s performance evolve.
Sometimes, a manager must confront a subordinate who is fully capable of excellent performance or of executing a legitimate set of requirements, but for whatever reason simply chooses not to comply. In these cases, I have long believed the employee actually chooses to fire his or herself. The manager in question should simply make this conclusion clear to such individuals.
While a manager must bear the responsibility — on behalf of his or her organization — to enforce a justified removal or firing, a consistently sub-standard performer bears ultimate responsibility for failing to meet the necessary conditions for the continued receipt of pay.
Workplace discussions of dismissal issues and responsibility in these situations are emotionally difficult in the best of circumstances. But keeping in mind just what responsibility rests with a manager and what responsibility rests with the subordinate alone, can help fortify a manager’s willingness and ability to successfully and compassionately undertake this most difficult but necessary element of their management job.