When is it time to fire someone?

Singapore Business Review
Published: 25 Jun 14
By Ronald Lee, Managing Director, PrimeStaff Management Services

 
“After four and a half intense and wonderful years as CEO of Groupon, I’ve decided that I’d like to spend more time with my family. Just kidding – I was fired today.” This was the note that former Groupon CEO Andrew Mason wrote to all employees when he was sacked after the company reported yet another quarterly loss in 2013.

The decision to terminate someone’s employment is never easy. Employers usually try their best to avoid having to give workers the boot – not only out of compassion and concern for their rice bowls but also because it’s usually not good for the morale of the remaining employees (unless it’s a toxic employee, but more of that later).

So when is it ever okay or even advisable to fire someone?

1. If they’re not performing

Poor performance is often the top reason for letting employees go. You hire someone to perform a job, meet agreed-upon KPIs, and ultimately be a contribution to the company. So if an employee is turning in persistently low performance or results that are below expectations, productivity suffers and this has a negative impact on your bottomline.

Back to Groupon; after Mason was booted out, the company recorded two positive quarters and a spike in stock price under the leadership of its new CEO Eric Lefkofsky.

But such drastic action may not always be necessary. It may be possible to turn the situation around and get underperforming employees from zero to hero. Sometimes, your underperformer may simply lack motivation.

So assess the situation and get to the root of the problem. If the person used to deliver strong results in the past, find out what might have changed. Is he going through domestic problems or personal issues? Or has the job become too routine and if so, would a more challenging portfolio do the trick? Perhaps he is simply burnt out and in need of a vacation or sabbatical.

Understanding what problems your employee may be facing or what makes him tick will help you prescribe the right antidote to get him motivated again.

As for your general workforce, there are many simple ways you can keep motivation levels up throughout your rank and file – before disengagement sets in.

Top of the list is recognising and rewarding employees for a job well done. According to the Spring 2014 Workforce Mood Tracker survey conducted by Globoforce earlier this year, 73 percent of 703 respondents said that recognition had a positive impact on their happiness at work.

Recognising and rewarding good work – or good effort – isn’t a herculean task. Small gestures – like publicly thanking them, celebrating a ‘win’ with a meal together, or giving them a gift card that caters to the individual’s interest – can really help to boost your employee’s motivation levels.

 
2. When you’re dealing with a toxic employee

This one is a real conundrum: the employee who delivers excellent results but makes co-workers go home crying.

Okay, that’s a little extreme. But you know the type we’re talking about: that person who has made himself “invaluable” to the company or has a close alliance with a powerful person within the organisation and is using that position to bully or manipulate others.

Or the one who loves to create drama by using gossip, rumour, and innuendo to stir discord amongst co-workers. Then there’s the renegade who just doesn’t follow the rules despite training and repeated attempts to correct the reckless behaviour that may pose safety risks or cause you to lose customers.

Such harmful behaviour will not only damage team morale and camaraderie but also dent the performance and productivity of other good employees. These uncooperative and disrespectful individuals are culpable for creating an unpleasant working environment and failure to deal with such toxicity in the workplace will eventually drive away your top performers who will seek a better environment elsewhere.

Worse still, the manager will lose credibility if everyone can witness the negative effects of the toxic employee yet nothing is done about it. Co-workers may grow to resent and blame the management for their prolonged suffering and they will lose faith and trust in their leaders. With low employee morale, the quality of work will certainly suffer, along with productivity. So never underestimate the cost of a toxic employee.

What can you do to salvage the situation?

For starters, a detox is in order. The disruptive behaviour should be addressed as soon as it is recognised. Find out why the person is behaving this way so that you can come up with an appropriate solution. The behaviour could stem from a personal or domestic issue that is troubling him or he may be ‘acting out’ because of suppressed grievances against the management.

You will need to intervene and let the toxic individual know that his behaviour is unacceptable. State clearly the company’s expectations on employees’ code of conduct and the consequences of such continued behaviour.

The toxic employee should then be counselled and given a ‘second chance’ – sufficient time and opportunity to change the negative behaviour. As the employer or supervisor, you should try your best to help and guide the toxic employee to rehabilitate and regulate his behavior. But if you have done everything you can and the person is still infecting your workplace with such toxicity, then it may be time to let the toxic employee go.

 
3. When they’re hurting your company/brand image

Remember Anton Casey, the infamous Brit who came under fire for his online comments denigrating Singapore train commuters? At the height of the uproar, Casey was sacked from his wealth management job, with his then employer issuing a statement saying that Casey’s comments went against “our core corporate and family values that are based on trust, mutual understanding and are respectful of diversity… The online comments made by Mr Casey do not represent the culture that we have built over many years.”

Clearly, the public furore had exploded so violently that the company felt it necessary to disassociate itself from Casey rather than risk more damage to its image.

In another high profile case more recently, Singaporean blogger Roy Ngerng was fired from his job at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) following his controversial blogpost about CPF funds and the defamation suit from Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that ensued.

TTSH explained in a statement that Ngerng had been using working hours and the hospital computers to “pursue personal and non job-related interests” presumably to build his defence case in the suit. Apparently, they did send him a formal letter of warning, but after non-compliance, they decided to show him the door.

Attending to personal affairs during office hours is not uncommon especially in the age of social media. But once it gets excessive, productivity falls and employers simply can’t afford to pay someone to make use of office resources to do everything but work.

While most bosses will do their very best to refrain from having to fire an employee, these cases show that employers sometimes have little choice when the individual in question puts the company’s reputation and bottomline at risk. There is no hard and fast rule, so leaders should use their discretion and assess each situation on a case-by-case basis – before pulling the trigger.

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