Maybe You Shouldn’t Fire Your Weakest Link

I’ve been telling you to fire your weakest employees. What I haven’t told you is that I almost never fire mine. Well, that’s not entirely true. As an executive working for a business I didn’t own, I fired employees right and left. It was clear to me that my primary duty was to the business – and when someone working for me couldn’t cut the mustard and could be replaced rather quickly by someone better, I didn’t feel I had any right to waste my company’s time and profits working too long with a problem employee.
As a business owner, I’m more wishy-washy. If I see someone who always shows up to work on time, works diligently throughout the day, maintains a good attitude, and seems willing to do anything that’s asked of him, my tendency is to keep him on the payroll, even if his performance is mediocre. Since I DO believe in pruning weak sprouts, I have hesitated to admit this to you. I thought the apparent inconsistency would confuse you. But I’ve been thinking about this for a while and have decided that you are more than smart enough to understand that in the quotidian disorder of running a business, clean and sensible business strategies sometimes need to be aborted and/or emended.
Of all the qualities I most admire in people – employees, friends, and family members – loyalty is at the top of the list. I’ve spent some time wondering why that is (it probably has something to do with the high-school gang I grew up with), but it’s a virtue I cherish in others and demand of myself. I am happy to say that I am in touch with a dozen childhood friends for whom I’d jump on a plane at the drop of a dime, and I am sure they’d do the same for me. Having this kind of emotional security in your life is invaluable. It’s better than money in the bank. I enjoy the loyalty of business friends too – individuals I’ve helped and coached over the years who appreciate what I’ve done for them and would be happy to reciprocate whenever the opportunity arose.
Just yesterday, in fact, I received the benefit of that – a former protege called me to correct a marketing plan I’d initiated and gave me an idea that will be worth about $259,000 or more. As EP says, “You’ve got to be a stand-up guy.” And it’s this orientation, I think, that makes it hard for me to fire a faithful worker. If he’s a stand-up employee who simply can’t get his job right, I can’t see firing him. What if I were in his place? How would I want to be treated?
Note: I’m not talking here about someone who shows a mediocre amount of loyalty. I’m talking about the exceptional person. So what do I do with such people? I don’t let them stay mediocre. I work hard to make them better. I encourage their managers to be patient and work harder with them. I get them coaches. I encourage them to go to seminars and read books. I insist that they read ETR. (If they won’t do that, I don’t think they are really trying.) And do you know what? About a third of the time, these people get better! That’s good news, but it’s not a good business policy.
Spending a lot of time on a cadre (see “Word to the Wise,” below) of employees of whom only a third have the potential to improve is not a good use of your time. That’s why – if things don’t improve relatively soon – I try to find other, more appropriate work for the person in question. I’m in the process of working with a good guy who, if I were an executive and not a principal of the business, I’d fire. Instead, I’m meeting with him every day and coaching him on the basics. We are doing this more or less in secret – so that his boss, who works for me, doesn’t find out.
The work he’ll turn in will be good work, since I’ll have helped him with it. This will be a form of deception but one that will keep him employed long enough – I hope – for him to step up to where he needs to be. A mutual friend and colleague “discovered” us the other day and reminded me that I had done the same for him 10 years ago. He is now president of a very successful $15 million business and is – by anyone’s standards – one of the sharpest guys in his industry. So let’s call this the exception that proves the rule.
As a rule, getting rid of your weakest people is the fastest and surest way to develop a strong team, accomplish your goals, and create a positive and productive work environment. But every once in a while, someone will come along who is reliable, loyal, and eager but doesn’t possess the skills and knowledge to meet your standards. If you fire that person, you may find a better replacement. However, you may also develop a reputation for being someone who doesn’t repay loyalty with loyalty. If you gain that reputation, you’ll be building relationships on moral quicksand.
[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]