Killing You Softly

We are all here at the seminar for the same reason, and it is not a pleasant one. We sneak looks at each other: who will eat lunch with the loafered executioner, the haunted middle manager, the figure of fun? After we have taken our seats, in seven straight rows, the seminar leader bounds to the front of the room and welcomes us to "How To Legally Fire Employees with Attitude Problems" with a reassuring smile. "Guess what?" asks Bill. "It's 8:45 on a Friday morning, and you're not at work!" That's when we know we are in Dilbert country, among our own. Several people laugh out loud."In the words of Popeye, ÔA man can stands only what a man can stands and then he can't stands no more,Õ" Bill says humorously. "Now, I want you to bring to your mind's eye the person who brought you here today. Open your workbook and write down three words that describe that person. Did you write down arrogant? Confrontational? Cynical? Lazy? Are they the type of person that nothing's ever done for them, it's always done to them? Do they have what I call Ôfire-hydrant syndrome,' where they're always the fire hydrant, and you're always the dog?"In seven straight lines we squeeze our eyes shut, and smiles slowly slide across our faces. Bill has a plummy Michigan accent and a talent for intimately shortening the names of seminar members -- before the end of the day, Charlene is "Char," Gary is "Gar," and Daniel is "D." He knows how to get this crowd worked up. Before we leave this place -- he promises us -- the ugly task of termination will go down a little easier."How many people here like good, strong policies?" he asks. This is a rhetorical question. "Look, I'm a big sports fan. I don't care if it's a round thing, or a little black hard thing on the ice, I follow it. The nice thing about sports is, I don't care if it's at the FleetCenter or Fenway Park, I can understand it. There are rules," Bill says.He continues: "It's like being a traffic cop. If I catch you doing 65, well, maybe I'll let it slide. But if you're doing 72, my hands are tied. I gotta give you a ticket. That's the law."And then, in tones of Delphic intelligence, Bill delivers $145 worth of advice. "It's called self-termination," he says. "Folks, you follow this process, you may never have to fire another employee. Their actions will terminate themselves."We take notes furiously. Thus we will brace ourselves to impose what the psychologist Elisabeth KŸbler-Ross classifies as the fifth most traumatic event to occur to a human being, after the death of a child, the death of a spouse, the death of parent, and divorce. Our aim: to terminate with efficiency, magnanimity -- and maybe even a little style. We arrived as middle management, with the nagging doubts and night sweats and secret fears of all middle management. We will leave the firers of men."When I used to live in New York, you'd see it every Friday afternoon, some guy in the subway, holding a potted plant and pictures of his family, with a glazed look on his face," says William Brown, a professor of management at Babson College. "It could be you. You can get it at any time for any reason."Prepare, reader: you, too, could be fired. Last year, out of a workforce of about 137 million, 4.1 million people (about three percent) got the ax for "business reasons" such as downsizing, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of people who are fired for cause is more elusive; it is an untraceable, statistic-less workforce phenomenon. But in general, the social contract between worker and firm in America has been fraying for 30 years; since the early '80s, the average worker's tenure at a company has fallen from 14 years to seven years.Our labor laws give tacit blessing to the culture of firing. In much of Europe, termination comes with three months' severance pay. And in Japan, so strong is the stigma against firing that millions of so-called "windowside employees" are paid to do nothing long after they have ceased to produce -- they get their name from the picturesque spots in the office where they sit and shuffle papers. White-collar executives have been known to take positions on loading docks as an alternative to leaving the company -- which some workers refer to, tellingly, as uchi, or home.Americans, by contrast, have always seen the value of a good, bracing termination. Not only is firing not stigmatized in management circles, it's sometimes seen as exactly the thing to boost morale. In Japan, the nail that sticks up gets pounded down; here, one bad apple spoils the whole barrel.It's a brutal doctrine; it almost requires managers to fire, just to prove they have the guts. The 1980s management guru Martin Smith, in his book Contrarian Management, wrote: "There is nothing as demoralizing as, say, a team of five people working together, busting their humps to get the job done while one slacks off. I guarantee, the four hard workers will be looking to you, their supervisor, to see if you've got what it takes to get the slacker in line. If you let them down, you will lose the respect of the group. And no manager can work without the respect of the group. Ever."But a decade of downsizing has sensitized management to the human casualties of firing, because legal challenges hit them where it hurts. As a result, the management profession has made great leaps forward in the art and science of firing -- or, better, "termination," or, even better, "career redirection." It's not that firms have stopped firing their employees; it's just that they're firing them very, very carefully.Once, firing was the act of a red-faced boss with a jabbing index finger and steam in his ears. Now, as a result of proliferating legal concerns, it's a super-hygienic human-resources ritual that aims, above all, to circumvent emotion.Certainly, on the manager's side, the heat of passion has abated by the time firing takes place. According to Brown, when employees are fired now, their documents have already been circulating the office for a week or so, accumulating signatures. So by the time you get fired, you will have been a walking corpse for an indeterminate period.If you are fired properly, it will occur on a Friday at the end of the work day (so as to contain the ripple effect among other employees) or else late in the day at the beginning of the week (because studies have shown that violence is less likely to occur then). You will be ushered into a "self-contained firing unit" such as a human-resources office. Tissues and water may be available if you are considered emotional.The firing itself is a thoroughly scripted event. Trainers strongly discourage managers from saying anything during this meeting that isn't actually written down on a piece of paper. The formula goes this way:1) The "As You Know" statement, referring to the last disciplinary meeting 2) The "At That Time" statement, reviewing truth and consequences 3) The "Since Then" statement, communicating failure to perform 4) The "Therefore" statement 5) The Announcement, informing the employee of termination 6) The Benefit Follow-up, regarding benefits 7) The Termination Memo, requesting a signature.The announcement itself should take 20 seconds. From the time you are sitting at your desk working until the time you have left the building should take no more than 10 minutes. The goal, of course, is denial: total avoidance of the pain, the shame, and the anger that naturally result. The fired employee will reasonably want to slug someone; this should be prevented by preventing these emotions from developing at the office. "It's more dignified," says DeAnne Rosenberg, a management consultant in Lexington. "It happens so fast that even if you're totally destroyed by it, you're not going to have the chance to scream or cry or beg."In many companies, you will be asked to leave the building without discussing the event with your co-workers. In the seminar, Bill explains why."This might seem cold-blooded to most, but how many of you have had this experience?" Bill asks. "The long-time popular [guy] goes back, and, for the rest of the day, people stop by while he or she is cleaning out his or her desk and play `Auld Lang Syne.'Ê"Instead, your colleagues will be informed, preferably during a meeting in which no one sits down, that "[Employee] and [boss] have decided that it would be in the best interests of [employee] and [company] if [employee] left [company]."The American firing philosophy is based on the idea that firing is imperative to productivity. The "slacker" is a drag on the other team members, who are "busting their humps" to "get the job done." So the competent manager will "have what it takes" to turn out the inefficient team member, thereby returning the team to full working order. That's what makes firing logical. Right?Wrong. Because it is such a painful ostracism, firing tends to be reserved for those team members who are disliked, outplacement experts say. Team equilibrium generally counts more than personal performance."People leave because of personality conflicts," says James Challenger, executive vice-president of Challenger, Gray and Christmas, which has been working in outplacement services for 30 years. "Now, most people couch it in terms of performance, but almost anyone who comes in to see us can point to a moment when the relationship between them and their boss went sour."The amiable weak link, by contrast, is less likely to get fired. "You're not going to do that to someone you like," he says. "Most companies would rather have someone working for them that is a weak performer but gets along well with everyone than someone who is a strong performer and drives everyone crazy."Sometimes, this abrasive quality has a direct effect on performance -- for instance, in customer relations -- but other times, employees simply disrupt group cohesion by being themselves. This brings into play not only personality, but background and hygiene. Rosenberg once had a client who was considering firing a Pakistani employee who bothered his colleagues because he smelled like spices.But you won't hear Bill saying that. Instead, the firing documentation must record three instances of the same performance-related transgression, both before and after a formal warning. "Remember, we do not fire for attitude. We do not fire for personal characteristics. We fire for legitimate business reasons," he says, although the brochure still reads "Attitude Problems." This is one of the half-truths that allow offices to keep working.Any manager will tell you that the process of firing an employee is truly agonizing; they will talk about this at length, with expressions of great distress. At the seminar, one mild-looking engineer tells me that every termination weighs him down like a lead weight. They didn't teach this in engineering school, he says plaintively."It's hard to even put into words how difficult it is. Have you ever had an adult cry in front of you?" he says, with a haunted look. "When you're brushing your teeth at night, you see them in the mirror."Yes, the lot of the soft-hearted manager is a hard one. The need to fire keeps managers up all night, it kills the appetite, it can even -- one consultant tells me gravely-- cause life-threatening illness. Joyce Gioia, a North Carolina management consultant and co-author of the upcoming management guide Lean and Meaningful, tells the following alarming story."Let me share with you a story. It's an awful story, but I think it sheds some light on this. I had a dentist in Scarsdale, and this dentist had a secretary who was not a nice person and on top of that she was incompetent. He said, ÔYou have no idea the stress this causes me. I've tried to fire her three times, but every time, she dissolves in tears and everything continues the way it was.ÕÓ"About three months later, I found out he had cancer," Gioia says. "And when I found this out I called him and said, ÔYou've got to get rid of this woman. It's a matter of life and death.' He said, ÔI can't do it.ÕÓShe pauses dramatically."He died. He said to me, ÔIt's killing me, but I still can't fire her.Õ Then he died," says Gioia. "There's no question that the stress can kill you. Absolutely."The talented firer will close the meeting with the impression that something constructive and wonderful has taken place for both of you -- something like a raise, but different. And if you are in a white-collar profession, it's true that being fired could actually turn out to be a good career move. Because the people who get fired aren't the worst employees; they're usually just annoying to someone.Outplacement specialists routinely report that between 85 and 90 percent of the fired executives that use their services move on to positions that are as good as or better than the positions they left. Here's why: offices breed dishonesty. Rather than sitting down problem employees and telling them why they aren't being promoted, managers routinely pass unfavored employees from one department to the next."There's this perverse dance in performance evaluations," says Brown, of Babson College. "The person doesn't want to hear the bad news, and the boss doesn't want to deliver it. And so things go along as usual, and then one Friday afternoon at 4:30, the person finds themselves in the personnel director's office."So -- after the numbness has worn off -- the firing is a moment of unalloyed honesty: the employee is painfully brought face to face with the fact that he has been shut out, even if he didn't notice it as it happened. The firing process "calls on people to learn something about themselves," Rosenberg says.She adds, cheerfully, that workers are too afraid of change to leave bad jobs anyway. The jolt can be energizing. Although the Japanese reserve firing for arsonists and sociopaths, American workers' job satisfaction is higher, Brown says. Sometimes people just need to start afresh."Think about marriage," says Rosenberg. "People will stay in an uncomfortable situation. Why? Well, the devil you know is better than the devil you don't know. Inertia. It's the fear of the unknown that keeps people in lousy jobs."Or this is what we are thinking, anyway, as we collect our frameable certificates ("BE IT KNOWN, the undersigned has successfully completed the intensive business course HOW TO LEGALLY FIRE EMPLOYEES WITH ATTITUDE PROBLEMS.") We pocket our complimentary mints and go home with new feelings of peace."Managers need a happy ending," muses Rosenberg, "even if there isn't a happy ending at the moment."And that is what we have gotten. The visions of our problem employees still bob before our eyes, but the guilt is somehow less of a problem. Bill himself, smiling his broad Michigan smile at the door, saves his last benediction for the soon-to-be-fired. He offers this by way of a happy ending:"This person [who you are about to fire] has earned the right to go off and make someone else's life miserable. And the best way of making that happen is not by firing, but by allowing them to fire themselves. And that is exactly where we have gotten since 8:45," he says. "That situation is history. People may view you as standoffish. They may put the onus on you."With this, he releases us: "Never apologize."


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