I Can’t Fire Him. I’m Scared! - TurnAround Executive Coaching


I had a job search in 1988 and finally got an interview for an executive position at a college. I would be 2nd in command to a leader who planned a five year window for retirement. I was flown to Washington and then Philadelphia for interviews. The interviewers stressed that I would have considerable power. What’s not to like about power?

The interviewers admitted that there was one challenge – their current president was scared of one person who reported to him. The staff member was abrasive, had no support of other staff, and criticized his supervisor and peers without hesitation. They were reluctant to say what they wanted, but an unwritten part of the job description was to handle Jorge.

I understood that new direction was needed. I hated to take a new job and fire a well known staff so I suggested in the 2nd interview that they fire the offender and I could come in with a clean mandate to make things better. They were doubtful because ‘Jorge even knows how to deal with the boiler when it breaks.’ They agreed to think about it. I was sure that I had the job. I started looking for housing.

On my birthday, April 20, I got the call I had been waiting for! …… But the call was to tell me that they had chosen another candidate for the job. There is a copper taste in my mouth even as I write this today.

After much reflection, I realized —  I was scared to fire. The real job that I was offered was to fire Jorge and I turned it down! 

It doesn’t matter how many strategic plans you write. You will fail if you have staff who can’t work the plan or who want the plan to fail. You will fail if you don’t do what it takes to get the right people. How many of your direct reports would you enthusiastically rehire? This post is about what to do with the B and C performing staff.

Sometimes, staff changes are slow because of civil service, unions, elections – things outside the manager’s control. The mayor employs many critics that s/he cannot fire in the Police Department and other union and civil service protected positions.

Scared to fire? For most of us, the big reason that we can’t change things is that we are scared of the people who work for us! “In 2009, U.S. companies spent $3.6 billion on “outplacement services” (figuring out whom to fire and how to do it)” (Rogers, Jenny. “Getting the Ax From George Clooney.” Slate Magazine (2010): n. pag. Web.)

Scared to fire? Staff transitions are difficult. And it’s always tragic to create chaos with someone’s livelihood and career.

If you have staff that can’t or won’t work your plan, you need to analyze job descriptions, and start regular appraisals. Appraisals are a wonderful way to get staff reflecting on whether you can offer the job that they want. Effective appraisals often lead the wrong staff to resign. What’s better than helping an earnest staff member to realize for themselves that you can’t offer the job that they want to do?

Regardless of staff reaction, forge ahead to get the right people. It’s the only way. Start with compassionate candor in appraisals. If that doesn’t work, the fallback is to insist on the standards for the job you have – not the job that fits the staff member. Your coach will help.

Make a plan today for the next step!

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